By nearly any measure, it has been a remarkable year for the Yale men's hockey team. Following its recent 5-3 victory over Harvard at Ingalls Rink, the skating Bulldogs boasted a record of 19-4, with six games remaining in their regular season.
Not since 1950-51, when the hockey team posted a 15-2-1 mark, has the men's team had a better record, and the current squad, winner of seven straight games, appears to have a lock on being the first Yale hockey team to win more than 20 games in a season.
"It's a magical ride that this team is on," says coach Tim Taylor.
And it's been a surprising ride when you consider that last year's team posted a 10-19-3 mark and was picked by the coaches of the 12-team Eastern College Athletic Conference's (ECAC) Division I hockey league to finish in 10th place this season, the same position as last year.
"We have come of age through a lot of hard work," Taylor says in explaining the turnaround. "We knew after two or three weeks of practice that if we were the 10th-ranked team, it would be a very strong conference." Fourteen of Yale's
15 leading scorers from last season returned to the squad this year, and 10 of this year's 15 leading scorers have least one more year to play at Yale after 1997-98.
Like any top team, Yale has its star players, but Taylor cites the commitment of all the players to the team's philosophy as the key to the team's performance.
"I think our success is due largely to the whole team buying into the roles that are assigned to them and that fit them," Taylor says.
The Bulldogs are defense-minded, and junior goalie Alex Westlund has allowed only two goals a game while turning away 95 percent of opposing skaters' shots.
"We've been very stingy on defense," Taylor says, adding that Westlund has "been the Rock of Gibraltar back there for us."
That does not mean that the relatively small-sized Yale squad, which has speed and quickness among the team's top attributes, plays conservatively.
"We play a very exciting brand of hockey," Taylor said of a team that has a counterattacking, explosive mentality, and has come to lead its league in scoring as well as defense. Sophomore Jeff Hamilton leads the team with 21 goals and 36 points.
Senior defenseman and captain Ray Giroux -- whose brother, Rich, captained the 1994-95 Yale team -- has been a leader at both ends of the ice. Giroux is charged every game with stopping the opposition's top offensive line; yet he leads the team in assists, is second in scoring and quarterbacks Yale's power play, which has a good 21 percent success rate in scoring goals when a penalty against the other team gives Yale an advantage. He is also the leading scorer among the league's defensemen.
"We use him to death," Taylor says. "He's one of the finest defenseman in the country."
Yale is undefeated at home this season in 12 contests, and Taylor credits the "fantastic support rippling through the campus" for making it tough for opponents to play this year at Ingalls Rink. While Yale has outscored its opponents by an impressive 87-46 this year, the margin in home games is an even more lopsided 54-17.
Yale has never won an ECAC championship since joining the league in 1962. Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell and Princeton also compete in the league, and Yale is 7-2 against its Ivy rivals this year, assuring the Bulldogs no worse than a tie for the Ivy crown. If Yale wins the ECAC regular season, or the league's post-season tournament, which will be contested in Lake Placid, New York, it will be assured a coveted berth in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, which determines the national champion. Yale is currently ranked fifth in one national college hockey poll and sixth in another.
"This is one of the finest teams I've had the opportunity to coach here," says Taylor, who has led Yale hockey since 1976-77, and who coached the U.S. men's team in the 1994 Olympics.
In addition to surpassing its Ivy League foes this year, Yale has competed successfully against teams whose schools offer athletic scholarships.
"We obviously have some hurdles to get over that other teams don't," Taylor says of Yale's recruiting efforts, and he credits assistant coaches C.J. Marottolo and Bruce Wolanin with "an awful lot of hard work" in recruiting hockey talent to Yale. The two coaches look everywhere for top players who appreciate and can take advantage of both the academic and hockey opportunities Yale has to offer, Taylor says.
With six straight sellouts at Ingalls Rink, the current edition of the Bulldogs will set an attendance record this year. With tickets a hot commodity, Yale fans can watch the Feb. 28 game against Vermont live on New England Sports Network. Updated information on the hockey team, and all Yale varsity teams, is available on the athletics department home page on the Internet, which is easily found from the University's "front door."
-- By Tom Conroy