Yale hockey ain't what it used to be. Though home games are still held in a splendid old whale-shaped building near the heart of campus and the audience still includes gray-haired men in tweed jackets who rise to their feet to celebrate Bulldogs goals, now these old-school types must jostle for standing room when the 3,486-seat Ingalls Rink opens an hour before face-off. Now there are argyle-sweater-clad students—Y's painted on their faces, hair dyed Yale blue—who erupt when the Elis so much as clear the puck on a penalty kill. Oh, and now the Bulldogs are winning. "Amazing," says senior Ray Giroux, Yale's top defenseman. "We knew we were good, but we never expected this. The buzz around campus is unbelievable."
At 20-5 (15-3 in the East Coast Athletic Conference) with four games left, these Bulldogs are having the best season in Yale's 103-year hockey history. They're 12-0 at home, where they've sold out an unprecedented six games, and with a four-point lead in the 12-team ECAC, the Bulldogs could win their conference for the first time. An ECAC preseason coaches poll predicted that Yale, which was 10-19-3 last season, would finish 10th in the conference. Through Sunday, Yale was ranked fifth in the nation.
All of this has happened in part because Tom Beckett took over as athletic director in July 1994 and set about improving the testy relationship between Yale's athletics and admissions departments. By opening up the lines of communication and insisting that the two branches make their needs clear, Beckett ensured that, as university president Richard C. Levin says, "coaches didn't waste time recruiting guys who had no chance of getting in here."
By honing in on players they know will make the grade with admissions, the Bulldogs have been more successful in identifying—and recruiting—the players they want. This has enabled Yale to assemble a deep cast that includes Giroux, a likely All-America; sharpshooting sophomore center Jeff Hamilton, who has a team-leading 21 goals; and outstanding junior goaltender Alex Westlund, whose .920 save percentage is fifth in the nation. Coach Tim Taylor has used 30 players this year and says, "our fourth line plays as many strong shifts as any of our other lines."
In the often jubilant Bulldogs' dressing room, there is a sign that reminds players to THINK LAKE PLACID, the annual site of the ECAC title game. Since 1993, when the message was put on the wall, Yale has not even advanced past the conference quarterfinals. Now, however, Giroux says, " Lake Placid would not be enough."
Levin, for one, has cleared his schedule for the weekend of April 2-4, when the NCAA Final Four will be held in Boston. 'T want to be there in case we go all the way," he says. "You never know. It's been that kind of year."
Michigan State Goalie
He Can Pass The Puck Too
Chad Alban's stats are impressive—as of Sunday he led the nation with a 1.53 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage—but they don't explain why Alban, a Michigan State senior, should be the first goalie since Minnesota's Robb Stauber in 1988 to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top college player. Not counting saves, the peripatetic Alban handles the puck some 30 times a game for the Spartans (26-4-5), who were ranked No. 2 in the nation. He doesn't just stop the disk behind the net on dump-ins—he snaps bang-on passes to defensemen or wingers on the breakout. "I try to take pressure off our defense," he says.
Michigan State coach Ron Mason, who has been around the college game for 32 years, calls Alban "the best stickhandling goalie I've seen," and says that the Spartans' system is structured to take advantage of Alban's skills. Opponents often make adjustments as well, changing the way they dump in the puck.
Forwards typically win the Hobey, and Boston University center Chris Drury and Michigan right wing Bill Muckalt (box, right) are leading candidates who are worthy of the trophy. But only Alban, who hails from Kalamazoo, Mich., plays 60 minutes a game and makes an impact on all areas of the ice. He deserves the award.