Ice age

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

Defenseman Jimmy Martin ’11, this year's captain (shown here facing Harvard at Ingalls Rink), helped motivate the team this season and keep them focused during two idle weeks before the playoffs. View full image

If you’re looking to chart the ascent of Yale hockey, a good place to start would be April 15, 2006, when the school hired Keith Allain ’80 as coach. The Bulldogs were coming off a 10–20–3 season in 2005–06, resulting in the rancorous nudging aside of the legendary Tim Taylor, the former Harvard captain who over a 28-year career in New Haven amassed more wins (337) than any hockey coach in Yale history. Allain had starred as a goaltender for Taylor’s teams of the late ’70s, then returned to Yale to begin his coaching career as an assistant to Taylor. He was the goaltending coach for the NHL’s St. Louis Blues when Yale offered him the top job. Uneasily, but with Taylor’s blessing, he took over from his former coach, boss, and mentor.

After an 11–17–3 debut in 2006–07, Allain’s teams have had winning seasons ever since, including a school-record 28 wins this season that surpassed the record of 24 set just two years earlier. And Allain has put his undeniable stamp on his alma mater’s program, which is something of an intriguing blend: a hyper-focused, demanding, “blue-collar coach,” as Taylor described him, whose up-tempo, full-speed-ahead style of play belies his philosophy that this is, after all, a game, and it’s supposed to be, you know, fun. “He understands,” says Brooke, who was a teammate of Allain as a freshman in 1979–80, then had Allain as an assistant coach in 1982–83. “You like to think that hockey is first and foremost in the thoughts of players at this level, Division I, but he gets that there are other things going through the minds of 20-to-24-year-old students.”

The fun is reserved for players and fans, though. With reporters, Allain rarely strays from serious. Following a victory over St. Lawrence at Ingalls Rink that sent Yale to the ECAC semifinals in Atlantic City, Allain was asked to describe just how much he was enjoying himself; frowning, he replied, “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

But then, of course, it did. The Bulldogs went to South Jersey and overwhelmed Colgate and Cornell by a combined score of 10–0, to win the ECAC tournament for only the second time in school history. (The first was in 2009.) “I don’t know how it was with their old coach, but Coach Allain has really got them going,” Colgate senior Francois Brisebois lamented following Yale’s 4–0 victory in the semifinal round. “They are so fast. You look down for a second, and they’re right on top of you, and then they’ve got a forward flying down to the other end.”

When the Bulldog skaters couldn’t smother a Colgate or Cornell attack, goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11 did. The senior from Carvel, Alberta, posted a school-record six shutouts this season. Three of those were in the final three games of the conference tournament, part of a staggering stretch of 240 minutes, 53 seconds of play without surrendering a goal. Most hockey coaches, Allain not surprisingly included, share the opinion that hockey goaltender is the most important single position in sports—more so than quarterback, pitcher, you name it. It’s the reason why this season’s Bulldogs could feel a national championship in their grasp: this year, they had a starting goalie they could count on.

Four different goalies saw at least six games of action in 2009–10, three of them in one important game alone—the NCAA East Regional final, a wild and unsightly 9–7 loss to Boston College in which Rondeau replaced Billy Blase ’10 and allowed five goals on 18 shots before being replaced himself. “Last year was tough; night to night you never really knew who was going to be in there,” says Little, one of nine members of the superlative and close-knit Class of 2011. “But this year Rondeau has come in and been a steady presence in there, and we know he’s going to be there for us.”

Allain, who knows a thing or two about coaching goaltenders, took Rondeau aside after the Boston College game for what the coach called “a long heart-to-heart.”

“We talked about how I believed he was a better goaltender than he believed he was,” Allain says. “I asked him, ‘How badly do you want this? This is what you need to do. Are you willing to do it?’ Clearly he was, because it was all him. He went out and he took care of business. If you saw him now, the way he prepares for practice, the way he prepares for games, he’s a guy who truly deserves to be successful.”

To Rondeau, physical ability wasn’t the issue; the issue was in his mind. “I think we both knew I had the talent to play. I had spurts my first three years where I’d play well for a little bit and then I’d have a bad game,” Rondeau says. “I always knew I could be a good goalie, and I was confident in myself—it was just about taking the necessary mental steps to get there.”

Rondeau spent much of his summer vacation working with a sports psychologist, which he believes helped him more than anything. Together they mapped out a routine for Rondeau to follow before each game and each practice, and they devised techniques to drown out the crowd, the bands, and the hecklers that had been throwing him off his game. And they cultivated a short memory, the ability to forget about a goal almost as soon as it goes in.

His efforts allowed his naturally calm and quiet personality to start working in his favor. He came into this season as a true number-one goaltender, so dependable throughout the year that when Allain was asked about the change in Rondeau on the eve of the NCAA tournament, he shot back, “When are people going to stop talking about our goaltending? He’s been fantastic all year long. Since Day One of the season.”