Pieces of confetti clung to Yale forward Kenny Agostino's jersey as he stepped off the ice on Saturday night. "Hooooo-ly shit!" he yelled as he headed to the locker room tailed by camera crews and teammates and well within earshot of university president Richard Levin, who had delayed a trip to China to attend the game and now lingered nearby with his wife.
It was an excellent point, really. Yale, the nation's oldest college hockey program, had finally earned its first national championship after more than a century of play with a 4-0 win over top-seeded Quinnipiac at the NCAA Frozen Four in Pittsburgh. The victory capped off a remarkable run through the playoffs that saw the Bulldogs, who were seeded 15th in a field of 16, knock off the top three college hockey teams in the country1 on their way to the trophy.
The Bulldogs won two games in overtime. They rebounded from a disastrous Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament weekend in Atlantic City that nearly kept them out of the postseason. They beat Minnesota and North Dakota on back-to-back days. They earned a shutout win in the title game. And now they were all together in a cramped locker room, clapping and hooting. Someone cranked the stereo, and the national champion Yale Bulldogs' night was kicked off by a little Counting Crows.
"This is something every kid dreams of," Agostino said a few minutes later. A couple of weeks ago the 20-year-old woke up to learn that his NHL rights had been moved from Pittsburgh to Calgary as part of the Jarome Iginla trade; that weekend he scored two goals and added an assist in Yale's two upset wins. "Every one of us — we played hockey, or we were on skates, since we were 2 years old. And to be the champions "
Behind him, cell phones in locker stalls rattled and lit up.
"Now I know why all those Stanley Cup commercials are all about being speechless," said sophomore Anthony Day. "I don't even know how to deal, really — I literally have no idea what to say."
He wasn't the only one who was kind of tongue-tied. During the semifinals Thursday night — shortly after Yale beat UMass-Lowell 3-2 in overtime and Quinnipiac bounced St. Cloud State with a 4-1 win — my own phone buzzed with a message from a college friend. "I feel weird," his text read. I knew exactly what he meant. This was all taking place way too far outside our frames of reference.
Hockey's origin at Yale was sufficiently stately. Two tennis players who traveled to Canada in 1896 for a tournament "were exposed" to the sport (as if it were a disease!) and founded a club upon their return. Being the "oldest college hockey program" has its perks when it comes to minor trivia: Of this year's Frozen Four field, for example, only Yale had played in a national semifinal before — but it was in 1952, when the entire tournament consisted of four teams invited by a committee. The Ivy League conference hadn't even been formed yet.
Often, when things are advertised as being the oldest it's because they're far from being the best. (This goes for everything from falafel joints to fancy hotels.) When my friend and I were students way back around the turn of the century — he on the hockey team and I up in the press box — the Bulldogs program was one with a "storied history" but very little of note to show for it. The media guides, to be honest, were kind of damning with faint praise, devoting multiple pages to the celebrated, legendary 1997-98 squad that had made the NCAA tournament for the first time since that 1952 team and then lost 4-0 to Ohio State in the first round.
The best of the teams I covered was the 2002-03 group that made it into the conference tournament2 and lost in the quarterfinals to Brown. The worst was 2004-05, my senior year, when the Bulldogs went 5-25-2 and were captained by a walk-on who had been in the lineup just 16 times in his first three seasons. (A great guy, though!) I got good at writing grim gamers in the Ingalls Rink manager's office in enough time to get to the Saturday-night dance party at Toad's.
How things have changed. In the last five years, the Bulldogs had made the NCAA tournament four times.3 Now they had made it to the Frozen Four, and now the national championships. It was not to be believed. But the most cuckoo part of it all was who they'd be facing in the finals: Quinnipiac, a local menace just down the road from Yale's campus, a school that since I graduated had been transforming itself with the help of the game. The Quinnipiac I knew wasn't even in the ECAC, and now the school was the conference's regular-season champion and the country's no. 1 seed.
Quinnipiac's decision to beef up its hockey program was a deliberate move made to raise the school's profile and was executed with businesslike precision.4 In 2007, the gleaming, massive, up-on-a-hill TD Bank Sports Center opened at a reported cost of $60 million. Fund-raisers included the founders of Lender's Bagels and Gordie Howe. Some friends and I took the train in from New York to see a game there soon after it opened; it was a slap in the face when Quinnipiac beat the Bulldogs.
This year's Bobcats team featured 11 seniors, an average age of 24, numerous players culled from the underrated British Columbia Hockey League, and Hobey Baker finalist Eric Hartzell in net. They had gone on a 21-game unbeaten streak earlier this season. Seeing Yale reach this stage and then learning it would face Quinnipiac was a little bit like going home to accept a community award and finding out that a volatile childhood neighbor had grown beautiful and married super-rich.
Three weeks ago, Yale had played Quinnipiac in the consolation round at the ECAC tournament. Neither squad was happy to be in that game, which the Bobcats won, 3-0. And now these two teams — so close to one another they share a local beat writer — were the final two. So, yeah. It felt weird.
Around the time that Quinnipiac was building its new arena, the Yale trustees were making major decisions related to their program, too. Coach Tim Taylor had been running Yale hockey for nearly 30 years, enough time to have amassed a reputation as one of the sport's most respected college (and international) coaches — but also enough time for the regime to have grown stale. In 2006, Yale hired Keith Allain, a 1980 graduate who had played goalie under Taylor before working on the coaching and scouting staffs of the Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators, and St. Louis Blues.
It was Taylor — who, now terminally ill with cancer, watched the game from his home in Connecticut — who had convinced Allain that he could make it as a coach and that it would be, as Allain says, "a noble profession."
"He was an educated guy, he went to Harvard, he has a degree in English," Allain said of his mentor. "He could have done anything in the world, but he was a hockey coach. And the way he carried himself — his professionalism, his demeanor, he was a teacher, he was a leader, all those things — meant nobility to me."
Allain came in with the understanding that the university would commit to a $23 million renovation to Ingalls Rink, a famously swooping structure designed by Eero Saarinen and nicknamed the Yale Whale. Roland Betts, a former Texas Rangers owner with Dubya and the guy behind Chelsea Piers and, oh yeah, a longtime Yale hockey booster, was among those influential in the project, which added 13,000 square feet of usable space to the existing structure. Under Allain, the pace of the program — from its practices to its win frequency — changed almost immediately.
"[Allain is] obviously a tremendous hockey coach, one of the best I've had in the game," Agostino said.
"He really preaches sustained excellence," added Jesse Root, whose goal nine seconds into overtime had lifted Yale over Minnesota in the first round of the tournament.
"He's such a stud," said Day. "I mean, he's the best coach I've ever had. He's such a stud!"
Allain (who does possess the craggy authority of a provoked Liam Neeson) is cool and aloof during games, crossing his arms and appearing unknowable even during timeouts. But during Yale's semifinal against UMass-Lowell, when captain Andrew Miller bypassed the defense in overtime and buried the puck five-hole to put the Bulldogs in the championship game,5 cameras caught Allain losing his composure — and displaying some serious vertical.
This wasn't even the Yale lineup that most thought would make it to the national championship. Two years ago, a senior-laden class cruised into the tournament with the no. 1 ranking, fueled by a 28-7-1 season and an ECAC title. But they lost in the regional round 5-3 to Minnesota-Duluth, the second year in a row the Bulldogs were defeated by the eventual champion.6
This year's team, on the other hand, needed a Notre Dame win over Michigan in the finals of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament just to make it into the postseason. But, very much like last season's L.A. Kings or those two New York Giants Super Bowl winners, the Yale Bulldogs peaked precisely at the right time. It's enough to make you think of the Herb Brooks quote, "I'm not looking for the best players, I'm looking for the right players." (Yale's run also served as an inspiration to at least one other ECAC team. "2014: Why Not Us?" asked the Dartmouth men's hockey Twitter account.)
"We have some great players on our team," Miller said, "and a lot of the guys that don't get noticed, they're our heroes."
The Bulldogs went into the national championship game having lost all three matchups with Quinnipiac this season by a combined score of 13-3. They would need contributions from just about everyone to have a shot at the game. And after nearly 40 scoreless minutes with Quinnipiac it was junior Clinton Bourbonais — a biomedical engineering major who hopes to specialize in the production of bionic prosthetic devices that work with the nervous system — who scored just his fourth of the season to give the Bulldogs the crucial first strike. In the third period, it was a freshman, Charles Orzetti, who put in his own rebound for a 2-0 lead and then jumped into the professional-grade glass so hard he dislodged it. Miller scored the third goal on a breakaway five-hole shot that was reminiscent of his game-winner Thursday, and then he set up hometown boy Root for a championship-sealing empty-netter. (That last helper put Miller atop the all-time Yale assists leader board.)
As the clock ticked down, goalie Jeff Malcolm, whose 36-save shutout on his 24th birthday had included some point-blank game-saving stops on some of the country's finest offensive players, began to remove his helmet. ("It's the national tournament," he later explained. "If you can't get up for that, you don't really have a heartbeat.") The crowd counted down. Sticks and gloves went flying, and the dogpile of hugs began. On the bench, the coaching staff was huddled in its own embrace. Back on campus, nerds continued to do nerd things, and all was right with the world.
"It's gonna take a long time to let this sink in," said Root. "We just kept our heads down, kept going, kept going, and now we can finally look up and look around."
When they do start looking up and around, you wonder how much they'll really be able to see. Will they realize, for example, just what their run has meant to the people who have been involved in Yale hockey for so many years?
There are the longtime season-ticket holders, which include some older folks who have been putting on their blue cable-knit sweaters and scarves on Friday and Saturday nights for decades. There are the former players, many of whom flew or drove into Pittsburgh to watch the team. (A few arrived with strollers for the newest Yale fans.) One 2000 graduate changed the time of his tropical-destination wedding so that he and his Yale hockey groomsmen could catch some of the game on TV. For the effort, they were given a shout-out on ESPN. All of them, thinking back on their own experiences, could hardly believe the Bulldogs had gotten to this stage.
There are the employees who have been around since well before this new golden era, and who will remain even after all of the guys on this current team graduate. Think of how many game notes sports information director Steve Conn has compiled, or of all the ice and bananas that trainer Rich Kaplan has handed out through the years. Both were at the postgame celebration at the Marriott hotel next to the arena, looking delirious and happy. And though it made me feel silly, I felt that way myself. Sure, my own involvement with Yale hockey had been comparatively peripheral: a few years spent covering the team, nothing more. And yet I felt like I'd been long invested, that I'd bought in low and was now being made richer by the highs.
The players, who had gotten off the team bus to a huge ovation, were now standing around the hotel lobby bar, most of them wearing gray suits and nearly all of them with their celebratory NCAA-issue hats tilted at haphazardly precise angles. "Hey, mom!" one national champion called out, smiling. "Ready to buy some drinks?" Allain hung to one side, drink in hand, his normally stern face a picture of contentment. This was not exactly a typical weekend for the Bulldogs: For example, they wouldn't be trudging out to one of Allain's Sunday practices the next day. They'd earned at least a day off.
The players on this team have grown up in a program with entirely reset standards. The entirety of their experience has been defined by the NCAA tournament being a baseline goal, not a twice-in-a-century pipe dream. They are like toddlers who have always known iPads; they are simply natives to success. I don't know if they know, or will ever fully realize, just how insane this is.
"I don't know if you can know," said Allain. "I think over the ensuing days and weeks they'll hear from different people from different eras, and maybe that will help them understand."
Take it from me and my era: Congratulations. I feel weird. Oh, and: Hoooo-ly shit.