Throwback sweaters are all the rage in college hockey circles, where teams harken back to past glories by wearing vintage uniforms from the roots of their program.
But a look at the preseason polls in Eastern College Athletic Conference this year and one might think it’s college hockey’s first throwback conference. The top five teams predicted by coaches, writers and broadcasters to control the league’s standings are, in order, Yale, Cornell, Princeton, Harvard and Dartmouth.
Ivy League Stars
Princeton: Hobey Baker,
In case you missed the significance of that group, all are members of the Ivy League – the legendary group of old-school eastern education institutions known worldwide for academics and exclusivity. Some would argue that the Ivies are the heart of the 12-team conference. Six of the eight Ivy League schools have sponsored Div. I hockey teams for at least the last half-century, and some for considerably longer.
The folks at Yale, for example, note that in 1896 a group of students traveled to Baltimore to face off on the ice against another gathering of collegians from Johns Hopkins, in what is regarded as the first college hockey game in American history. Two years later, the Elis played hockey versus Harvard for the first time – a tradition that’s continued for 112 years.
Long before he coached the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team to a gold medal in Squaw Valley, Calif., Jack Riley and his Dartmouth teammates embarked on a 46-game unbeaten streak and claimed the 1942 national championship.
While Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth can each boast of four recipients of the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given annually to college hockey’s top player, Princeton can lay claim to the one and only Hobart Amory Hare Baker.
After leading the Tigers to a 27-7 record over three seasons, Baker left Old Nassau to fight in World War I, where he was a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps. The biplane he used to fight Germans in the skies above France was painted orange and black, in honor of Baker’s alma mater. Barely a month after the war ended, Baker lost his life in a plane crash at the age of 26.
The arena at Princeton, Baker Rink, bears his name, and a large sign inside implores modern-day Tigers to “Make Hobey Proud!”
While there is a certain amount of pride on the line when any two college hockey teams square off, there’s clearly an increased rivalry at work among the Ivies, who compete on the ice, and often are in the running for many of the same high-aptitude players.
Bill Clearly, who played at Harvard before he starred on the gold medal-winning 1960 U.S. Olympic Team, coached the Crimson to the 1989 NCAA title and served as the school’s athletic director, notes that oftentimes a student athlete will apply for admission to all of the Ivy League schools.
Due to their more stringent admission standards and lack of athletic scholarships, coaches at the Ivies often find themselves competing head-to-head for the same group of sought-after recruits. That has lead to some intense moments on the rink, and many life-long friendships when college is done.
For decades, the Yale-Harvard rivalry on the gridiron has overshadowed other sports, but the hockey meetings between the Elis and Crimson can be equally intense.
“That game always had a special mystique,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, who played goalie for Harvard in the early 1970s. “We played all of our games on campus, except for the Yale game, which they’d move to the Boston Garden.”
Still, most who have seen Ivy hockey from the inside point their sticks west when asked for the league’s most hard-fought hockey. Harvard’s dual reputations for excellence and arrogance, combined with the on-ice dominance of Cornell coach Ned Harkness and his teams of the late 1960s, made for something just short of on-ice warfare in Ithaca, N.Y., and Cambridge, Mass.
“When Harvard came to town, everyone got a little bit more psyched,” said Dick Bertrand, who won a pair of NCAA titles as a player at Cornell, in 1967 and 1970, then coached the Big Red for a dozen seasons.
Cornell’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences is renowned in academic circles. But opponents’ characterization of Cornell as a “farm school” would explain why at one time it wasn’t uncommon for the Big Red’s goalie to find a live chicken tied to his net when he went out for warm-ups before games at Harvard.
Another time, Big Red players were greeted by a huge banner held by Harvard students reading, “Welcome Future Farmers of Canada.” Likewise, the Boston area’s reputation for seafood would explain a fishy habit Cornell students took up when their team would score on the Crimson at home.
“Our students would litter the ice with fish when we scored,” Bertrand recalled fondly. “Leading up to that game, you couldn’t buy a fish anywhere in town. It got to the point where every student was searched on their way into the arena.”
Admirers say it’s rivalries like that, and the character of the different schools, communities and arenas, that has made Ivy League hockey great for more than a century now.
“Thompson Arena at Dartmouth was a great place to play. Then you’d go to Princeton where the arena looks like an old church from the outside, and you’d face the ghost of Hobey Baker,” Bertagna said. “Yale has a great rink, and Meehan Auditorium at Brown was more of a polite place to play, but they also used to play the Frozen Four there.”
Brown’s program has struggled on-ice in recent years, and indeed was picked for the cellar in the ECAC this season. But there is renewed hope in Providence with Brendan Whittet taking over the reins at his alma mater.
Whittet will board the bus with his team this winter, headed to the other Ivies to renew generations-old rivalries, just like he did when he was a player for Brown in the ’90s. Just like Tim Taylor did when he was coaching Yale in the ’80s. Just like Bertagna did when he was playing for Harvard in the ’70s. Just like Bertrand did when he was playing for Cornell in the ’60s. Just like Cleary did as a player for Harvard in the ’50s. Just like Riley did while for Dartmouth in the ’40s.
Somewhere on campus, beyond the ivy-covered walls of centuries-old academic buildings sits an ice sheet, surrounded by passionate fans. That’s where a new chapter in the storied history of Ivy League hockey is just waiting to be written.