You would expect to find the nation's No. 1 college hockey team here on the northern shore of Long Island Sound. This is true hockey country, even by New England's impossible standards. You would expect to find a team that built a 21-game unbeaten streak from November to February, a team that posted a 17-2-3 conference record, a team that stars a Hobey Baker Award finalist goalie who's allowed just 62 goals in 40 games, a team that steamrolled into the Frozen Four, which is underway tonight in Pittsburgh. In New Haven, Conn., the various arenas featured beloved pro teams almost continuously from 1926 until 2002. The nation's oldest college hockey program plays here, too. That would be Yale, of course, but we're not here to talk about Yale.
Quinnipiac, the nation's top college hockey team—the NCAA tournament's top seed, now just two wins away from a national title—plays its home games in Hamden, 20 minutes from downtown New Haven, on top of a traprock plateau surrounded by trees. Quinnipiac owes its success to its coach and its arena. One has been there throughout the climb. The other turned up six years ago, while most everything else in New Haven, especially the town's hockey tradition, was fading.
Now hockey's back, right? Yale, representing the Elm City proper, has also made the Frozen Four. No hockey team hailing from New Haven has won a championship since the 1955-56 New Haven Blades, and Quinnipiac (and Yale) give the city a 50-50 shot at ending that streak on Saturday. But the Bobcats' hockey has little to do with the hockey, and the fans, that made New Haven famous. They play a smooth, skills-centric game unlike the one New Haven loved, and they play it before parochial audiences whose membership is largely dictated by affiliation with a private college. The hockey culture here is different now, scaled down, like New Haven itself.
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Quinnipiac doesn't have the obvious mission that its peers in greater New Haven do. Albertus Magnus is the Catholic school. Gateway's for commuters. Southern Connecticut's the state school. University of New Haven's for the locals who want to go to a private school. And Yale is Yale. What's Quinnipiac?
"Quinnipiac," to start with, was one name for an Algonquian people that controlled southern Connecticut, the region along Long Island Sound, before Europeans arrived. Now little is left of them but the Algonquian word, which graces the school and a nearby river. It is said to mean either "long-water country" or "turning point"—no one knows for sure because even the native nomenclature was commandeered by outsiders. The school started in 1929 as the Connecticut College of Commerce. In 1951, it became Quinnipiac College, and in 1966 the school moved from New Haven to Hamden. But the school didn't grow much until president John Lahey showed up in 1987.
Lahey wanted to make the school much bigger, and fast. He had Quinnipiac absorb the law school that broke away from the University of Bridgeport after the Moonies took over there. He built Quinnipiac's polling institute to get the school's name in the papers, and he expanded all of its graduate programs. By 2000, Quinnipiac College had become Quinnipiac University. But the biggest expansion didn't happen until later in the decade, when Quinnipiac bought two campuses. One is in North Haven, a 104-acre plot where Quinnipiac houses its nursing school, health sciences school, and where its new medical school will open in the fall. The other campus is high atop York Hill, where dormitories and an Adirondack-themed student center sit on a plateau above the TD Bank Sports Center, which opened in 2007.
The sports center contains two buildings in one. The basketball arena holds 3,570, and the hockey arena holds 3,386. They're joined by a rotunda, where one buys whatever one buys at Quinnipiac games. The whole complex—really, all of the new campus—glimmers, and even the most hardened cynic of colleges' sports-related expenditures would have to concede that it's a fine place to watch a game.
But it's hidden high in the sky, away from New Haven and, really, any community at all. Quinnipiac had to move 615,000 tons of earth and rock to build up there. You can sit down for dinner or a drink in Quinnipiac's University Club, above the arena, which has gourmet food and a full bar, if you're a member. Otherwise you're stuck driving back down the hill toward pizza joints in strip malls.
Quinnipiac put $300 million into York Hill, and the North Haven campus, with land and buildings accounted for, cost nearly as much. That's why, according to its 2011 tax filings, the university carries nearly $500 million in debt, and why its gleaming arena bears a corporate name that matches the one on the Bruins' and Celtics' arena in Boston. The school's most famous alumnus is still former MLB middle reliever Turk Wendell, the loudmouth who wore the teeth of animals he killed around his neck, but he won't be for long. Applications to the school have increased tenfold in the last 20 years.
As Quinnipiac has ballooned, New Haven has consolidated. The city's two hospitals—two of its three biggest employers—merged in September, and more than 100 workers lost their jobs. The New Haven Register is selling its building and laying off its press workers. Most all of the manufacturing jobs—clocks, firearms—left years ago. New Haven's only real growth sector is education. Yale's bigger than ever. Gateway Community College has a large new downtown campus.
And in Hamden, there is Quinnipiac, taking from the college boom all it will offer. Its law school, business school, and various other masters programs generate big bucks. The medical school will too. The university also offers an online nursing degree and an online MBA, which is even better business. You could say that Quinnipiac is craven, or you could say that it is smart, or could say merely that it is like any other aspirational American university with a small endowment and meaningful college athletics.
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Rand Pecknold has been head coach at Quinnipiac for 18 seasons. His last losing season came 17 seasons ago. Pecknold wears his red hair short and has thick, dark eyebrows. He is the very picture of stern authority. Nothing would seem awry if he showed up with epaulets on his shoulders.
I first encountered him when I was 10 years old. He was running a summer hockey clinic at the Northford Ice Pavillion a couple of nights per week, and I, a doughy kid who couldn't skate or shoot despite five years of hockey, had been signed up for it.
I played then, during the regular seasons, for Yale Youth Hockey. Our rink, Eero Saarinen's "Yale Whale," was just a short drive from school, but that's not why my parents stuck me in the Yale program. The hockey experiences in the nearby towns, the ones in East Haven, Hamden, and Northford, weren't for me. Their kids played meaner. Their coaches were tougher. We, instead, were coddled, generally coached by reluctant dads who had little more experience playing hockey than we did.
At Pecknold's camp, things were different. There was no coddling. The practices lasted two hours, and we weren't supposed to break for water. During an especially exhausting one, I resorted to grabbing shaved ice from my skate blades and shoving it through the bars of my helmet.
I spoke to Pecknold this February, just after his team's streak had ended. He asked if I still played hockey. No, I told him. I quit a year into Pee Wee. He sounded disappointed, although he cheered up when he heard that I had gotten into a good college. But my hockey career wasn't the occasion for the call; I hadn't built the No. 1 team in college hockey, and a 21-game unbeaten streak, at a school no one outside of Connecticut had heard of in 1995.
Less than a decade ago, Quinnipiac played its games at Northford, the community rink tucked away in an industrial plaza a town over. What few spectators turned up for the games sat on metal bleachers in a cold rink with foggy glass. Quinnipiac played its games then in the MAAC, a Division I conference with a handful of Division II and III athletic departments that moved up to play hockey. The school jumped to the ECAC, its current conference, in 2005. (Before the MAAC, the school had played Division II sports at every level.) Then the rink came, and then, well, they were here.
"I had never really put that much thought into it,” Pecknold said of his success. “I knew we'd be a top 20 team, maybe top 15 this year. I hoped we'd be in the top 10 for a little while. But I didn't think number one was something we could do."
Pecknold commands his players to play and skate fast. He wants them to be in better shape than anyone else, and he wants them to stretch the other teams up and down the ice, to the point where, two periods in, the opponents are tired and Quinnipiac isn't. It seems like a sports platitude, like calling a team "dynamic." Judging from watching Quinnipiac, though, it isn't. Pecknold's team has no exceptional scorer but considerable depth, and, when the players are feeling it, they can skate loops around their foes. In Quinnipiac's second-round game against Union, for instance, the Bobcats resembled a surging army, charging through lumbering, befuddled defenders. They're scrawny—the three top forwards are all listed at 5-foot-10 or shorter—but they can move. And Quinnipiac's enjoyment at having one of its games on television is always tempered by the presence of TV timeouts. The other team gets too much time to catch its breath, Pecknold said.
How'd Pecknold get all these skaters? "We win. The kids, they have the internet, they do their research. They can see that we haven't lost in 15 years." He used to have problems recruiting against the powers of the upper Midwest: Minnesota, Michigan, and Notre Dame. "If a kid got offered by those schools, we were done. He was going there." But those problems have mostly vanished. Pecknold's assistants find talented players to fit the program, and Pecknold goes to close things himself. Lots of other head coaches don't, he said. Pecknold has a fair success rate with Americans, and a better one with Canadians. He doesn't know exactly why that is. But he said all players like the school when they visit. "Well, we've got nice dorms. And more female students than male ones. Lots of things that appeal to 18-year-old males."
Pecknold said that knowing full well that only one player on his team, Matthew Peca, is under 20. The Bobcats have the roster composition of a Canadian major junior club. (Hell, most of his players played Canadian junior hockey before heading to Quinnipiac.) Look at the hometowns in their media guide: Edmonton, Saskatoon, Prince George, plus several named after lakes. Few of the players, and certainly none of the best players, are local—there's one from Connecticut, and a handful of others from Massachusetts. Pecknold said the team has six or eight potential NHL players, and 14 or 15 could wind up playing pro hockey at some level.
Quinnipiac benefits from the ECAC's unusual arrangement. Half of its 12 teams come from the Ivy League—Penn and Columbia do not have varsity teams—and the other half (Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence, Union, Clarkson, RPI, and Colgate) play their other sports in other conferences. The Ivy League schools can offer better name recognition and fancier educations, but the non-Ivy schools can offer athletic scholarships. To hear Yale tell it, it's not a fair fight.
"Jack, do you follow hockey?" asked Steve Conn, who handles media relations for Yale's hockey team, when I spoke to him before the Yale-Quinnipiac game in February. Yes? I think? "Well, let me tell you something. We are not competing for the same players Quinnipiac competes for." Conn went on to cite Yale's stricter academic requirements, and greater academic demands, to explain that the Bulldogs can't fill their roster with ex-pros from British Columbia.
Pecknold sees it differently. "We have probably 12 to 15 kids that could have gone Ivy." He cites his top-line junior twins from B.C., Connor and Kellen Jones. "We've definitely won recruiting battles against the Ivies." And other battles, too. The Bobcats beat Yale in each of their three meetings this year by a combined score of 13-3.
Quinnipiac center Jeremy Langlois, a senior and the team's leading point-scorer, comes from Tempe, Ariz., where he grew up playing roller hockey. He thought about the Ivy League, but Rand and the rink sold him. "I hadn't heard of the school when coach Rand came to recruit me. And then when I told people I was going to Quinnipiac, they'd just shake their head and say they didn't really know what it was. Occasionally someone would know the polling institute," Langlois said. But Langlois has loved his time playing for Pecknold.
The coach had an opportunity to leave last summer. UMass coach Don "Toot" Cahoon had quit, and the university courted Pecknold. But Quinnipiac offered him a new deal, with a raise, and he stuck around. Pecknold said he's not going anywhere anytime soon. "There's not a lot of job movement in college hockey. Jack Parker's been at Boston University for 35 years. Jerry York's been at Boston College forever." And there's too much job movement in the pros for his taste. He has four small children. He can't fathom jumping from city to city.
So he stays at Quinnipiac. "It's a pretty good gig. We get every resource we need. Nothing wrong with being loyal."
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New Haven has always had hockey. Its minor-league hockey history is extensive and beloved, but it hasn't had a professional team since the United Hockey League's Knights ditched the closing Veterans Memorial Coliseum after the 2001-02 season. (The city couldn't scare up enough money to demolish the building until January 2007. It sat vacant until then. Now it's a parking lot.) The bare-bones league, which is really all I'm old enough to recall, wasn't the best vessel for what was left of the city's hockey tradition, but it did well enough. It had hits, goals, saves, beer, jock jams, intermission hijinks, and fights. So many fights. The one Knight who ever made an NHL team—Raitis Ivanans, the Latvian—fought nearly every game. The regulars in Section 14 ("the Jungle") loved him, just like they loved all the other goons: Ken Boone, Chad Cabana, Kenzie Homer.
Before the Knights came the American Hockey League's Beast of New Haven—the Beast of New Haven, of course, not the New Haven Beast—a squad that did little more memorable than bestow this logo, and an overall lavender-lime-watermelon-navy color scheme, on its players and throughout the Coliseum.
The Beast turned up after the New Haven Senators had left town, and the Senators followed the Nighthawks of the AHL, New Haven's last truly thriving pro hockey team. The Nighthawks played in the Coliseum from its opening in 1972 until 1992. They made it to the Calder Cup finals four times, and they lost each of the four times. But the Nighthawks aren't remembered for their players—although they had some good ones: goalie Chico Resch, winger Bob Nystrom—so much as their fans. The fans were the same guys who turned up at the Coliseum for Van Halen, Rush, Aerosmith, Queen, and AC/DC. Live jock jams one night, taped jock jams between whistles on the others.
“The Jungle”–Section 14–sat at the corner of the visitors' bench. The fans there would engage in the usual boorish shenanigans. On one night, they found that the armrests on Coliseum seats would pop off with the application of a little pressure to a key point. The fans lifted up their armrests and threw them at the Rochester Americans, who charged back.
Often Section 14 kept its antics psychological. One Whalers prospect was sent back down to Binghamton three games short of qualifying for his NHL pension plan; the fans taunted him about it. Another visitor defaulted on a loan for his farm back in Canada; the fans reminded him of it. And it wasn't just the opposing players. A beat writer for the Moncton Hawks once referred to Section 14's fans as Neanderthals, and the fans went after him. The Nighthawks had to apologize formally to the league for Section 14's behavior during the 1989 finals.
But Section 14 drove New Haven hockey. They had inherited their rowdy tradition from the Zoo, the passionate corner of fans at the old New Haven Arena. If one's frame of reference for minor-league hockey is Slap Shot, then the Arena is the kind of building that comes to mind. Instead of plexiglas, the Arena had chicken-wire fencing above the boards instead, and the crowd could smoke freely, so the air inside would thicken grayishly before the end of the first period.
The foul air matched the quality of play. The Eastern Hockey League's New Haven Blades, the Arena's longest-tenured tenants (1954 to 1972) played ugly hockey, full of fights. Everyone's favorite games came against the Clinton (N.Y.) Comets. "The Comets were the Canadiens to our Bruins,” Rich Coppola, the sports director at Fox 61 in Hartford (where Quinnipiac forward Jordan Samuels-Thomas interned under him) and a New Haven hockey lifer, told me. He was young when the Blades played. “The fights were much better in those games. You'd see several fights a night."
Coppola remembered a night when his favorite fighter, Kevin Morrison, had already left the ice and shedded some of his pads when he heard there was a fight going on. He ran back and wrestled an opponent off his goalie. (Morrison's 1970-71 stat line with the Blades is something to behold: 55 points and 348 penalty minutes in 64 games. That's a fight a night, and then some. And, recall, the fights then endangered the players much more than they do now. No code prohibited fighters from wielding their sticks as weapons, so they did.) Another night, said Kevin Tennyson, the author of Hockey in New Haven, a Blades brawl had roped in so many members of both teams and of the audience that the New Haven fire department cut the building's lights and sent everyone home, with the Blades forfeiting.
The fights helped New Haven fall in love with the Blades. But the rest of the city's affection came from the closeness necessitated by the Arena. The locker rooms sat on the arena's concourse; the players would have to walk through the fans to get to their benches. And no glass separated the fans from the benches. They could jabber freely at players. After the games, the players and the fans would drink at the same bar, the Arena Grille next door. The town owned the team, and the team owned the town.
That unofficial kinship solidified in 1968 when the city itself built the Coliseum as the Arena's successor. The place cost $23 million and opened in 1972, the last piece of New Haven's major postwar urban-renewal plan, which had also funded the Chapel Square Mall, the Long Wharf district, and lots of housing stock. By the time Lyndon Johnson took office, New Haven had spent more federal money per capita on urban renewal than any other city in America. It was called the Model City.
As part of the transition to the Coliseum, the Arena's old site became public space, too—today the FBI has its New Haven field office there. In 2008, an investigation by that field office helped throw James Galante, the owner of the UHL's Danbury Trashers, into federal prison. That was the last time New Haven got involved with pro hockey.
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The fans who turn up now at Quinnipiac games look nothing like the fans at the Coliseum or the Arena from years ago. The students decked out in blue-accented yellow fill a handful of sections, and the rest of the seats belong to university employees, alumni, and families with kids. At a home game against Yale in February, the students were loud and feisty, banging inflated ThunderStix together during important stoppages, yelping after every goal and big hit. They appeared to have a sufficient grasp of what to appreciate. The rest of the fans were rather sleepy and hadn't quite filled the seats, despite an announced sellout. Many left early. The games, I am told, get awfully quiet when students are on vacation. They're still learning. Yale games have a slightly better non-student following, thanks to the Bulldogs' history.
As for New Haven's pro loyalists, some have defected to Hartford, others to Bridgeport, even a few to Danbury, where a scaled-down pro team has risen in the Trashers' wake. Only a small handful turn up at Quinnipiac games. Rich Hanley, a Nighthawks diehard who directed Last Days of the Coliseum and teaches in the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac, said he likes the college games fine. He said it's a decent replacement for a dearly missed pro game that's never coming back. Aesthetically, the game fills the void well. It may even do New Haven one better: Quinnipiac's games are crisper and faster than most of the minor-league hockey New Haven once knew.
Spiritually, though? The pretty game played at the private rink with the corporate name on the man-tamed hill isn't the messy, raucous, mean, and inclusive game that won over and mirrored New Haven. You have to drive a long way from downtown, and even a long way from the suburbs, to get there. Here in long-water country, we're well past the turning point.