Monday, April 01, 2013

A Grand Weekend

I went to Yale. In 165 prior blog posts I've never mentioned that, but it is true. Boola Boola.

I played in the band at Yale. In the winter, we had the Yale Winter Wonder Band (an offshoot of the more celebrated Yale Precision Marching Band); we'd follow the hockey team around. At home games, we'd take the ice between the 2nd and 3rd periods, and play a mini-show before the Zamboni came out. I got a car before junior year, and drove band members and instruments to Dartmouth and Harvard and Brown and Providence, and, most memorably, to Cornell. I'd drive, and the backseat passengers would make signs to put in the windows for people in other cars to see. The signs weren't always G-rated, but only one or two people actually tried to run us off the road.

During my time in the YPMB.
The hat is long gone, along with the hair.
Our hockey team was always good, but, it seemed every year we'd come in 9th place in the 17-team ECAC, and only the top 8 made the playoffs. In 4 years I only saw a single playoff game, a tight 2-1 loss to a Providence team that ended up 3rd nationally that year. Yale paid me a $14 "per diem" for playing in the band that day, the only time I can ever remember being paid to be in a band.

I have followed Yale hockey from afar since I graduated in 1984. In 1998, they qualified for the NCAA tournament, and were sent to play against Ohio State in nearby Ann Arbor. The band came! Instead of the dorky uniforms we used to wear, they wore cool hockey jerseys. But the team lost to Ohio State 4-0, so we didn't even get to hear the fight song after a goal.

Things have changed. Under coach Keith Allain, Yale wins. A lot. For the fourth time in five years, the 2013 Yale team made it to the NCAA tournament, though just barely. After losing consecutive games in the ECAC tournament by a combined 8-0 score, Yale squeaked in to the NCAA tournament as the very last of the 16 teams admitted, and was sent to the West Regional at the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids to face #2 Minnesota. I couldn't expect victory; after all, many people expected Minnesota to win the National Championship. But I could make the 2-hour drive, and the entire family wanted to come. With no local teams in the regional, tickets were easy to get: I snagged front row seats.

On discussion boards at places like uscho.com, the predictions were fairly common: 4-2 Minnesota. 7-3 Minnesota. Minnesota was the grandest team in the lordly Western Collegiate Hockey Association and on its was to another National Championship; Yale wasn't even a finalist in the lightly regarded ECAC. We got to the arena just in time for the National Anthem, and I was pleasantly surprised to note that there were quite a few Yale fans around us. With the team lined up at the blue line, I took a picture with my cell-phone and posted it to facebook: "We start tied." There were no bands, and not very many people in the stands. But it was all good.
Matt Killian takes a shot against Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Yale would score to make it 2-0.

And then, Yale didn't fall behind. I knew Yale could play; it's not quite like some other scholarship sports where the no-scholarship Ivy League schools are assumed to be at a major disadvantage. The day before the game, Yale's star forward Kenny Agostino was even traded, from the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins to the Calgary Flames. Fortunately, he was still playing for Yale, and seven minutes in to the 2nd period he scored to put Yale ahead. Yale added a power play goal and led 2-0 after two periods. I took pictures. My Wisconsin friends sent messages of encouragement, one of them said, "Bless Rodent Killers. Bless them all": a reference to Minnesota's team name, the Golden Gophers. I guess the Wisconsin folks don't like Minnesota in hockey all that much? Who knew?

Come the third period, and Minnesota came back. A power play goal, and then another goal a few minutes later, and it was 2-2. Yale goaltender Jeff Malcolm made several big saves to keep it that way, and the game was going to overtime. I explained to Elianna what "sudden death" meant. I sent my Wisconsin friend a message: "These rodents bite. We need to get rid of them."

Minnesota won the face-off to start overtime. My first thought was, "can't we ever win a face-off?," as it seemed we hadn't won one the entire game. Minnesota played it back, to prepare a rush up-ice. Behind the net, one defenseman to pass to the other defenseman, but... but... did I just see that? Our man -- and that would be Kenny Agostino again -- just stole the puck! And, oh my god we have a man in front of the net and... he... is... all... alone!!!" I was already out of my seat. And just like that, the game was over, just nine seconds in to overtime. Agostino passed across the crease to center Jesse Root, and Root buried it in the open net for the most stunning ending I have ever seen.
And that's when I lost my voice.
A still of the winning moment. That's me with left arm raised.
Goaltender Jeff Malcolm in net against Minnesota
Now that Yale had won, I could allow myself to go to the concession stand and get an overpriced shirt for Yale being in the regional. I got on line, and noticed a man standing there. "Did I cut you off?," I asked. "No, I was just noting a friendly shirt," he said, meaning my vintage 1980 Yale sweatshirt, the one I bought as a college freshman and that is now several sizes too small, but was the only thing I had to wear. He smiled at this, and I bought t-shirts for myself and Elianna. The man was still there, waiting. "Are you Yale?" I asked. "I'm Malcolm's father." The goaltender? "Yes." What could I do? Well, shake his hand and congratulate him, for one thing! I'd have bought him drinks of his choice... if the venue sold alcohol. Mr. Malcolm added, "I've never been to Pittsburgh." I went to the box office to buy tickets to the regional finals. "The best we have is row C in section 122, that's behind the bench." There was no row A or row B there, we'd be front row behind the Yale bench.

On the ride home, I asked Elianna if she saw the goal: "Of course!," she said. "It was a death match!" I had to explain to them -- at their first ever hockey game -- that they would likely never see anything like that ever again. We had stayed for the second game; North Dakota defeated Niagara 2-1 after trailing through 2 periods. I was convinced that, while North Dakota was very good, Yale had a solid chance to beat them. But there would be no "surprise" factor: Yale defeated a heavily favored North Dakota team in the 2010 tournament, and both teams still had players who were part of that earlier game.

So we were back on Saturday. North Dakota scored right away, or so it seemed. But a video review showed that the puck never completely crossed the line, so it was ruled no goal. A few minutes later, North Dakota scored for real. Yale badly outplayed North Dakota in the 2nd period, but was unable to score. After two periods, it was still 1-0. Worse, I noticed that all nine goals scored so far in the three games had been on the north side of the arena; it was as if the ice were slanted. Yale would be going toward the south end in the final period.

Elianna with Boola before the final period.
As far as she is concerned, this moment started the path to victory.
In between periods, I finally bought Elianna the souvenir puck she'd been asking for. A woman on line saw us and said, "I think Yale will come back, they are playing better." Elianna posed for a picture with "Boola" the Yale "I'm not Handsome Dan" mascot, said her hat was a lucky charm (well, it has been, hasn't it?). I said we needed a goal, and Boola shrugged. A good mascot knows not to make promises it cannot keep, and Boola didn't look like much of a skater to me.

Yale continued to attack in the 3rd period (they would eventually outshoot North Dakota by a 39-25 margin), but the score remained 1-0. A kid next to me said, "they have 28 shots and no goals!" With 8 minutes left, Aaron asked, "when should we start to worry?" "NOW," I replied. The team came close in 2010 and 2011, each time losing a regional final to the eventual national champion.

This time, the script changed. With just over 7 and a half minutes left, Josh Balch tied the game on a shot from point blank range. Shortly thereafter, a North Dakota player took a dumb penalty -- the kind that so frustrates loyal fans of any team. I turned to Lori and said, "We can win this game." I had not previously allowed myself to say that out loud, as if it would be some sort of jinx to do so.

Root scored on the power play, and just like that it was 2-1, Yale. Less than 5 minutes remained. North Dakota was desperate to tie it back up, and had some massive opportunities. Nerves frayed? YES. But Jeff Malcolm stopped the shots, and then Yale scored again, this time Stu Wilson knocking a rebound out of mid-air past the helpless North Dakota goaltender. I could even hear a tape of the Yale Band playing Cole Porter's classic fight song, Bulldog, and sing along to it. An Agostino empty-net goal later, and the final score was 4-1. Yale had won the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Next stop: Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four (the first Ivy League school to make it in 10 years, but who's counting?).
I haven't quite digested it. Though I went to graduate school at the University of Southern California, my school is Yale. We tend not to think ourselves in the mode of schools in March Madness; heck, Yale hasn't even had a team in the NCAA basketball tournament since I was an infant.

But Pittsburgh isn't so far from here. I've been there. I've eaten at Primanti's. I'll have to figure out the logistics. And when I'm there, I'll look for the band. They'll be there this time. Maybe I'll find Mr. Malcolm. And if I do, I'll just say... thank you and congratulations. Here's to your first trip to Pittsburgh.

As for Elianna, she wants to go to Yale now. Hopefully she won't outgrow the hat.
West Regional Champions
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