Before Keith Allain returned to the campus of Yale University to take over as head coach of his alma mater in 2006, the nation’s oldest intercollegiate ice hockey program had never won a national championship.
The Bulldogs had reached one Frozen Four (1952), and had made just two appearances in the NCAA tournament (’52 and 1998).
Not much to show for a program that traces its history back to 1893.
But Allain, who tended goal at Yale from 1976-80 and served as an assistant coach to the legendary Tim Taylor from 1982-85, has successfully altered the culture and mindset there and in the process, transformed the program into a perennial contender.
“I was fortunate in the sense that I walked in with a freshman class that really helped change the hockey program,” said Allain, who won the ECAC Coach of the Year Award [now named after Taylor] in 2009. “They were a group of guys who were competitive, who saw the game the way I saw the game, and they were really responsible for us changing the program. If I hadn’t had that kind of group that I walked in the door with, I think it would have been much more difficult. And then I also had two assistant coaches, in C.J. Marottolo [now the head coach at Sacred Heart] and Kyle Wallack [now associate coach at Vermont], who knew that we were trying to change things up and they got after it pretty good.”
The Bulldogs went from 11 wins in Allain’s first season to 24 in his third, 2008-09, and captured their first-ever ECAC regular season conference title. They then defeated Cornell 5-0 in the final to win their first-ever ECAC playoff championship and earned the school’s third invitation to the NCAA tournament.
But the big breakthrough came in 2012-13, although it didn’t look like it at first as Yale finished third in the ECAC and fourth in the conference tournament, just sneaking into the 16-team NCAA tournament field as the 15th seed.
Allain (middle row, fourth from left) coached at the 1992 Olympic Games.
But then the magic occurred, as the Bulldogs upset No. 2 seed Minnesota, 3-2, in overtime in the first round, eventually advancing to the school’s second Frozen Four and upsetting No. 1 Quinnipiac, their local rivals that had beaten them three times already that season, in the championship game for the school’s first-ever national title.
“For me, the most satisfying thing was to see the guys in the room after they’d won,” Allain said of the experience. “As a coach, you spend all your time trying to urge the guys, ‘If you do this, and if you do this the right way, you’re going to have success,’ and to see it bear out and the joy that brought that group of players, is something I can’t really describe.”
Since then, Yale has remained a national contender, finishing among the ECAC’s top three and making it to the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons, where each time the Bulldogs lost first-round games in overtime.
And while a difficult 1-6-1 February this season contributed to the Bulldogs’ 13-15-5 record and second-round ECAC tournament loss, there’s no question that the program has enjoyed a lengthy stretch of unprecedented success and is now established as a year-in, year-out championship contender.
Even more impressive is that Allain has accomplished this without even being able to offer scholarships at a very expensive university, although it is also one of the world’s most respected institutions.
“I think every school, every program has a unique set of challenges and a unique set of opportunities,” Allain said. “Being an Ivy League school, some of the things that make life difficult for us are that our admission standards are so high and that, obviously, we don’t offer scholarships, and we’re competing with schools that do. On the other side of the coin is that we are offering an opportunity to go to one of the best universities in the world and now we have a hockey team that plays at a high level as well, so it’s a really unique combination.”
Allain acknowledged that the lack of scholarships often costs them prized recruits, and that the high academic criteria also limits their pool of players, but they have managed to overcome those obstacles – and the recent winning certainly helps the cause.
“We lose kids because of money on a fairly regular basis, but I think we try to let families understand the value of a Yale education and a Yale degree throughout someone’s lifetime would be worth their investment,” Allain said. “[Winning has] been helpful, there’s no question about it. I think where it’s helped us the most is that early on, you’d get interest from lots of kids who are intrigued by the idea of going to an Ivy League school. That’s a lifelong goal for many. Now we get kids who are interested in winning while getting an Ivy League education, which is a different mindset, and that’s what we want. We want real competitors who also understand the value of a Yale education.”
One thing that has helped Allain in recruiting and relating to players is his wealth of experience coaching at just about every level of the sport, including numerous stints with USA Hockey.
Besides his time as an assistant at Yale in the ‘80s after his playing career ended, Allain spent time coaching in Sweden and also served as an assistant coach and scout in the NHL with Washington and St. Louis between 1989 and 2006.
He has also been the head coach for Team USA at the World Junior Championships in 2001, 2002 and 2011, winning a bronze medal in ‘11, while also serving as an assistant on the legendary 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship team, at the Winter Olympics in 1992 and 2006, and world championship squads in ’05 and ’06.
“I think first of all, I’ve been blessed with the opportunities that USA Hockey has given me, and I think over the years, that’s really shaped me as a hockey coach,” Allain said. “All the way from working with an Under-16 team to the Olympic Games, the athletes that I had the opportunity to work with, the other coaches that I had an opportunity to learn from, I think that’s really helped develop who I am as a hockey coach.”
All that experience, especially at the World Juniors where players are the same age level as in college, has been invaluable to the recruiting process.
“It does help, when I talk to a recruit,” he confirmed. “I think I am one of the few coaches in college hockey [who has] been on the bench during a World Championship, an Olympic Games, the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the World Junior Championship, and I like to bring all those experiences to bear. And I think now, with the visibility of the World Juniors, it helps in the recruits’ eyes that the coach who might be their college coach has coached at that level.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.