Top dogs

Who knew the 2012–13 team could bring Yale its first national championship in ice hockey? They did.

Alex Goldberger ’08 is an Olympics researcher at NBC.

Last summer, while reading a book about presidential leadership, Yale hockey player Jesse Root ’14 came across the famous maxim from Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Character is destiny.” Root shared it with team captain Andrew Miller ’13, and they decided to adopt it as the men’s hockey team’s motto for the 2012–13 season.

Miller had it printed on Yale’s workout shirts, and the team wore it like armor, a bulwark against anyone who put a limit on what an Ivy League hockey team could accomplish. Head coach Keith Allain ’80, who returned to Yale in 2006 to take over a team that had lost 45 of its previous 65 games, had built a fantastic program, with three NCAA tournament appearances in his first five years. But for all his great teams, few outside the Yale locker room believed he had another winner on his hands this year.

Then came the NCAA tournament. Yale, ranked No. 15 of the 16 teams in the field, rattled off four straight upset wins—including victories over the top three teams in the country—to take its first-ever national championship, the first by an Ivy League school since Harvard in 1989. “This team has had the ability to rise to the occasion,” Allain says. “The task might have seemed daunting, but when you chip away at it one at a time, obviously it took a great deal of effort, but it’s not impossible.”

The improbable run to a national championship surprised and thrilled alumni and students; Yale hockey hadn’t made it to the Frozen Four (the semifinal and final games of the NCAA tournament) since 1952. Unaccustomed to the rituals of postseason play that are commonplace at more sports-inclined colleges, they scrambled to book trips to the games in Pittsburgh or organize watch parties on campus and across the country.

And non-Eli observers were equally surprised to see Yale—a school better known for producing presidents than hockey champions—competing at the highest levels in a sport that doesn’t involve racquets, oars, or dinghys. More than one commenter on Twitter expressed surprise that Yale had a hockey team, despite the fact that the Elis have been playing the game since 1896, when they won the first-ever intercollegiate game. More recently, under Allain, the Bulldogs have emerged as something of a hockey power; the 2010–11 team was ranked No. 1 in the nation for eight weeks during its season, raising hopes for a national championship that year before it lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to eventual champion Minnesota–Duluth.

But this year, during an up-and-down season, Yale was counted out repeatedly, only to come back each time seemingly better than before. When a five-game losing streak in February imperiled the season, Yale responded with a five-game winning streak. After back-to-back shutout losses at the ECAC tournament in March nearly cost them a place in the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs toppled mighty Minnesota and North Dakota to earn a trip to the Frozen Four—setting up the first April games in program history. “That was a huge part of our success,” Root says of the late-season losses. “To fail like that and see that we bounced back—it gave us a huge amount of confidence.”

In Pittsburgh, at the Consol Energy Center that is home to the NHL’s Penguins, Yale played UMass–Lowell in its semifinal game. Despite a relentless Yale attack—the Bulldogs had 47 shots on goal to Lowell’s 18—the game was tied at two after three periods. But in overtime, Miller put his team in the final with a superb backhanded score. Allain called it “the biggest goal in the history of Yale hockey.” That was true, for 48 hours.

In the other semifinal, top-seeded Quinnipiac overwhelmed St. Cloud State, 4–1, touching off bedlam back on the school’s Hamden, Connecticut, campus over the prospect of a national championship game against its New Haven County neighbor.

The matchup didn’t resonate quite the same way from the other direction. When asked the day before the final if the rivalry mattered more to Quinnipiac, winger Antoine Laganiere ’13 said, “That’s pretty much the consensus. I kind of see Yale-Harvard as more of a rivalry.”

Still, the storyline was irresistible, and both Connecticut and national media were determined to brand it. A reporter asked Miller if he preferred the “Backyard Battle” or the “War on Whitney Avenue.” “I guess it would be the Battle of Toad’s,” he said.

Until recently, encounters at Toad’s Place, the music club on York Street, could constitute a Yale student’s entire frame of reference for his counterparts at Quinnipiac. Fifteen years ago, when Yale reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in the modern era, Quinnipiac’s team was still competing in the NCAA’s Division II and playing home games in a dilapidated community rink. But the one-time commuter college has undergone a rapid expansion since the ambitious president John Lahey took office in 1987, building dormitories and adding a law school and a medical school. Athletics have received similar support, and men’s hockey, much like the school’s prominent polling institute, has become an important means of raising Quinnipiac’s public profile. The team moved up to Division I in 1998 and joined Yale in the prestigious Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference in 2005. When the ECAC move was announced, Lahey told the New Haven Register, “There’s nothing like sports to communicate the message.”

Since 2007, Quinnipiac has played home games in the crown jewel of Lahey’s capital improvement plan, a sleek, $52 million building with a double corporate name, High Point Solutions Arena at the TD Bank Sports Center. This season, the team went on a 21-game unbeaten streak and climbed to the top of the national polls. “It feels like my 19 years has been a constant transition,” says Rand Pecknold, the longtime head coach. “Luckily for me, it’s always been upward.”

Yale resisted playing its upstart neighbor until it had been granted the imprimatur of ECAC membership. Quinnipiac wasn’t a popular opponent this season, either—although for very different reasons. With a roster stocked with veterans of the Canadian junior leagues, Quinnipiac had skill, depth, and experience. It also had the best goalie in college hockey, the senior Eric Hartzell. Quinnipiac and Yale met three times before Pittsburgh, and the Bobcats won all three by a combined score of 13–3.

But the Yale team Quinnipiac faced in Pittsburgh scarcely resembled the one it had dismantled earlier in the year. During the first two periods, Yale matched Quinnipiac’s aggressive style with a high-speed attack of its own, keeping the pressure on Hartzell. At the other end, the Bobcats couldn’t find a way past goalie Jeff Malcolm ’13. Midway through the second period, he denied Jordan Samuels-Thomas on a breakaway. “Stopping that breakaway was a huge turning point for us,” Root said after the game. “We saw him make that save and we were like, ‘We can do this. We get one, and—crazier things have happened.’”

Then Yale got one. With 3.5 seconds left in the second period, Clinton Bourbonais ’14 redirected a shot through Hartzell’s legs. For the first time all season, the Bulldogs went into an intermission with a lead against Quinnipiac, and they played with noticeable confidence in the third period. Malcolm (who turned 24 that day) continued to baffle the Bobcats as Yale started to pull away. Three minutes into the period, winger Charles Orzetti ’16 put in his own rebound to double the Yale lead. Six minutes later, Miller, who would finish his career as Yale’s all-time leader in assists, beat Hartzell on a breakaway. Four minutes after that, Root scored on an empty net. The last seven minutes were a party.

After the clock ticked down to zero, the Yale players did what countless national champions before them have done. They rushed the net, flinging their sticks and gloves in the air as they mobbed Malcolm, who had made 36 saves in the shutout win. They donned “2013 NCAA champions” hats as confetti rained down on the ice. They posed for pictures with President Richard Levin ’74PhD and Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy. Then they went to their locker room and blasted the hip-hop anthem “All I Do Is Win.” There was Yale, savoring its first NCAA team tournament championship in any sport since men’s swimming had won in 1953.

Shortly after the team left the ice, Allain interrupted the celebration to bring his six seniors with him to the postgame press conference. The room was packed, but there were no doubters left. “I came back to prove that you could go to the best university in the world and compete in hockey at the highest level,” Allain said. “And this group has proven that.”

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