Mishkin’s Musings – Yale Hockey And How I Became A Play-By-Play Broadcaster
Last Saturday, the Yale University Hockey Team won the NCAA National Championship with a 4-0 victory over Conference Rival and Connecticut neighbor Quinnipiac. Not only was it the first-ever hockey championship for the University, it was Yale’s first NCAA title of any kind in 60 years.
In some ways, Yale’s run was rather improbable. The Bulldogs were the 16th and final team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. After losing two games in its Conference Final Four – including a defeat to Quinnipiac in the consolation game – Yale needed UMass-Lowell to beat Boston University in the Hockey East Final and Notre Dame to upend Michigan in the CCHA Final. (Had either BU or Michigan won, that team would have grabbed the final spot, since Conference champs get an automatic bid).
En route to the title, Yale took a previously untraveled path. It defeated three Number One seeds and one Number Two seed, becoming the first team to beat three top seeds since the NCAA adapted the current format. Those three wins came against the top-three ranked teams in the country: Quinnipiac, Minnesota and UMass-Lowell. The other victim, North Dakota, was ranked seventh in the country.
Still, in other ways, Yale’s title was not completely out of the blue. Including this year, the Bulldogs had qualified for the NCAAs in four of the previous five seasons. In 2010-11, they held the number one overall seed. In two of those years, including 2011, they lost to the eventual champions. My point is that, while it’s true the path to the Championship this year was unique, Yale Hockey has been in the national conversation for the last several seasons.
When I arrived at Yale as a freshman in the fall of 1987, the Hockey Program was not in the national conversation. At that time, Yale had qualified for the tournament just once, in 1952, when only four teams made it. In the 1980s, Yale’s standard was being competitive within the ECAC Conference – and in the two years prior to 1987-88, the Bulldogs had made it to the ECAC Final Four. Two future NHLers, Randy Wood and Bob Kudelski, had starred for Yale, but Wood graduated in 1986 and Kudelski in 1987. Yale went 6-20-0 in my freshman year.
As a freshman, I was enthusiastic about attending different sporting events, including hockey, but I didn’t get involved with the college radio station until my sophomore year. It happened almost by accident. Sitting at the dining hall with friends one day early in the fall semester, I noticed a table flyer – called ‘table tents’ – promoting WYBC’s radio broadcast of the upcoming Yale-Brown football game. I exclaimed out loud, to no one in particular, “I could do that!” Unbeknownst to me, the student who had been distributing the table tents was nearby and heard me. “We have an introductory meeting this week,” he said. “Why don’t you come?”
Needless to say, I went. I sometimes wonder where my life and eventual career would have taken me if not for that chance interaction. While in high school, one of my classmates had started up a fledgling radio station during my senior year and the two of us did a couple of football games and one hockey game. But once I got to college, joining the school radio station had never before occurred to me. Until I saw that table tent.
When I was at Yale, WYBC carried the four major sports: football, basketball, hockey and baseball. Most of the broadcasts were of home games, but students traveled to announce road football games and some of the road basketball and hockey games. There was also a 30-minute sports talk show that aired at 7:00 PM from Monday through Friday.
As one of the newer members, I got to participate in the talk show right away. Before being allowed to call actual games – especially play-by-play – I had to practice by doing ‘dummy’ broadcasts. This involved calling a game into a tape recorder. They sounded rough, but that was the point. Each successive practice tape became a little less rough.
I embraced the challenge. I did ‘dummies’ of every home football game that fall and when hockey season started, I took my tape player to Ingalls Rink. I’d also go to the basketball games. At all these locations, I’d sit in the stands and announce. This usually prompted curious looks from fans nearby. There were times that hockey season when I didn’t bring the recorder, intending on just watching the game. But once the action started, I couldn’t help myself. I’d start the play-by-play, like a character in a movie musical breaking out into song in the middle of a crowded mall. Without the tape player in hand, the looks I got from surrounding fans got more quizzical, but at no time did anyone ask me to stop.
By the middle of the 1988-89 hockey season, the upperclassmen at WYBC began giving me games. Not play-by-play, but color. As luck would have it, there were no juniors in our little sports department. So the following year, I became one of two sports directors. We rotated the football play-by-play between the students that were ready (and interested in doing them), but I was the only one eager to call hockey games.
Maybe my fellow WYBCers were a little intimidated by the speed of the game. Or they let me have the games because I was so enthusiastic about them. All I know is that, while I enjoyed calling games in all sports, I especially loved hockey. With the fast pace and rapid puck movement, it was challenging, but thanks to the ‘dummies’ I had done, I could handle it. Because I could handle it, it became fun. Like how crossword aficionados get through the Sunday edition (an impossible prospect for a crossword ‘plumber’ like me). It also became clear to me that this was something I wanted to pursue professionally after graduation. Once I got a taste of it, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
During my last two years at college, I broadcast close to 60 hockey games. And not just any hockey games. Division I college hockey games, which featured some of the best young players in the country. I called games that included future NHLers like John LeClair (Vermont), Bill Guerin (Boston College), Joe Juneau (RPI) and Ted Donato (Harvard), just to name a few.
The existence of the Yale Hockey Program afforded me the chance to call those games. Head Coach Tim Taylor (no relation to the former Lightning forward and captain) patiently accommodated my incessant requests for pregame interviews. Usually I drove myself to road games – they were typically only an few hours away from New Haven – but when the team went to upstate New York to face St. Lawrence and Clarkson during my senior year, Coach Taylor invited me to ride on the team bus. Heading north on a Thursday, the team stopped at Lake Placid for a practice. The USA’s “Miracle On Ice” was barely a decade old and I was standing in the rink where it all happened. At the team dinner after the practice, Coach Taylor and his staff welcomed me at dine with them at their table. It was a quite a weekend.
Yale didn’t have much success on the ice during my four years in New Haven, but I was fortunate to call some memorable wins. In 1988-89, in one of my first games on the air (I was doing color), Yale beat Harvard, 3-1, at Ingalls Rink. Harvard entered the game undefeated and that was one of only three losses it had all year. Harvard won the National Championship that spring – and was the last ECAC (or Ivy League) team to do it before Yale this season. In 1989-90, Yale finished 10th out of 12 teams and had to play a one-game playoff at seventh-seeded Princeton. Yale stunned the Tigers, 5-1. And in my last college hockey broadcast, Yale, as the ninth seed, beat eighth-seeded Brown, 2-1, for another one-game road playoff win.
In those years, I experienced some broadcasting hiccups, too, which were equally memorable. At a hockey game in Dartmouth, the rickety radio equipment ceased to work, so the color commentator and I called that game – and the one the next evening at Harvard – over a telephone. During one game at home over a holiday break (I had returned to school a little early), I needed two of my roommates to handle the controls at the radio station, since no one else was around. They figured out how to get me on the air, but couldn’t decipher anything else. So I called the entire game, intermissions and all, without taking one break. Then there was the playoff series at Colgate my junior year. After the first period of Game One in a best-of-three, the zamboni broke down while making its first turn. My partner and I killed two-and-a-half hours on the air, waiting for the ice crew to remove the zamboni. Finally, they found a tractor from a nearby farm and pulled the zamboni off. Only then was the gaping hole left by the melted ice visible. The game was suspended until the next day.
Thanks to those 60 or so games, I was able to cobble together a demo strong enough to land me a job right out of college, calling games for the East Coast Hockey League’s Johnstown Chiefs. Officially, my broadcasting career had begun.
But really, it had started before that. Many years ago, I read a quote summing up how people might find their true calling: “There are three things – what you love, what you’re good at and what you do. God willing, they’re all the same thing.” Thanks to Yale Hockey and WYBC, I found out at a young age what I love to do. I had the chance to practice it so that I became good at it. Good enough to eventually get paid to do it.
So on Saturday, as the National Championship game clock ticked down to zero and I watched the players jubilantly celebrate their National Championship, I felt chills. I was so happy for the players, Head Coach Keith Allain, his excellent coaching staff and Sports Publicity Director Steve Conn, who has covered the team for the University and been to every game, home and road, since my freshman year. But most of all, I was thrilled for the Hockey Program as a whole. Yale Hockey gave me so much, just as it has given to everyone who has been associated with it over the years. Saturday, the Program got something back.