Yale Holds The Key To All-Connecticut Hockey Tournament

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Rand Pecknold had gone on a passionate, 424-word roll the previous night about the necessity for an annual all-Connecticut college hockey tournament. So the Quinnipiac coach, who took his team to the national title game in April, mustered only six words when asked Monday if he had anything to add.

"We need to make it happen," Pecknold said.

Need. To. Make. It. Happen.

Quinnipiac is in, so are UConn and Sacred Heart.

It's up to Yale.

Contrary to a widely held perception, athletic director Tom Beckett insisted Tuesday that Yale is not against the idea. Yet when he was finished listing a number of logistical concerns, I was convinced those concerns must be hurdles for Yale to clear and not a barrier that Yale chooses not to cross.

Yale marches to its own Ivy League drummer. Even with Quinnipiac looming in the Frozen Four, it was made clear last spring that Harvard — not the school located eight miles away — was The Rival. We get it. Coach Keith Allain has no interest in winning the Miss Congeniality Award. We get that, too.

Yet for the growth of the college game in our state, an annual all-Connecticut tournament to be hyped and anticipated — one that develops into part of the state's sporting culture — needs to happen. Whether you like hockey and UConn or not, the rules around here change with UConn going into Hockey East next season. A permanent Connecticut tournament is something that should become an annual passion for our schools to point to and our kids to dream about playing in one day.

"I've been working on getting an all-Connecticut tournament for 13, maybe 14 years," Pecknold said. "[Former Yale coach] Tim Taylor and I had actually come to an agreement that we were going to make it happen. We had already loosely felt UConn and Sacred Heart were in. Tim and I had agreed to it. We were going to do it every year.

"We weren't quite sure if we were going to rotate it between the four schools or to go Hartford-Bridgeport. There were a lot of different ways it could have worked out, but it was done. We were ready to launch it and a month after that Tim was no longer the coach."

Taylor, who was forced out in spring 2006, coached Yale for 28 seasons, the U.S. Olympic team in 1994 and four national teams. The gentleman godfather of college hockey in Connecticut died of cancer in April at age 71, only a fortnight after Yale won the national championship against Quinnipiac.

UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh has repeatedly pitched the idea of calling the state tournament the Taylor Cup. Perfect. It makes sense for all the right reasons.

"I think the tournament is a natural for the state and, having spoken to our administration, we'd love to see it," Cavanaugh said. "I don't like to hear, 'It's never going to be the Beanpot.' The Beanpot wasn't what it is now in Boston when it started in the fifties. It has grown. The tradition and rivalries have accelerated it to a cult tournament. There's no reason why we can't start the tournament here."

The 21st annual UConn Hockey Classic, which brought three-fourths of the schools together, was played at the XL Center for the first time this week. The potential and the work needed to be done were on display. The announced attendance was 2,423 Sunday and 2,632 Monday, but clearly there wasn't that many for any one game. A tournament needs to be nurtured, sold, become a media event, something special for the students and alumni to enjoy — because of the hockey and beyond the hockey.

Sacred Heart would be the annual underdog, but the Pioneers also beat UConn, which turned around and beat future Hockey East opponent UMass the next night. Although Sacred Heart was outclassed by Quinnipiac 5-0 in the championship, goalie Alex Vazzano, a Trumbull kid, turned in a performance to be remembered. Sacred Heart was outshot 25-0 in the second period — 25-0! — and Vazzano stopped 23. It was at once brilliant and exhausting. Quinnipiac could have had 10 goals.

"As evidenced by [UConn's loss], Sacred Heart can beat anybody," Cavanaugh said. "They beat Yale a couple of years ago. C.J. Marottolo does a great job."

Every year, there'll be a story dying to be told and eventually those stories will be needed to be retold.

"I grew up in Connecticut, I'm in youth hockey rinks a lot," Marottolo said. "There's a sentiment that people would love to see it. I think it would be pretty cool. It would great to create a tradition within the state and give something for our youth players to look forward to every year."

Speaketh the Ivies?

"I don't think it's a fair characterization to say we're opposed to it," Beckett said. "We're not opposed to it all. We just would like to know more about it.

"No one has really come up with a concrete proposal. I did speak to [UConn AD] Warde Manuel during the halftime of our basketball game at the XL Center and said we'd be more than interested in discussing an idea like that."

Well, it time for The Meeting. It's time for concrete proposals. Whether a tournament starts out at Yale, Quinnipiac, the XL Center and Webster Bank Arena on rotating basis, whether two Mondays in January or February should be carved out like with the Beanpot, or it can draw back-to-back nights with the students out of session during the holidays … get it all on the table.

"We have some unique circumstances facing our program," Beckett said.

The Ivy League allows 29 games, he pointed out, while the NCAA allows 34. Yale has seven non-conference games and start two weeks later than everybody else. Yale looks at things like a home-and-home series with Hockey East opponents, and travel for an intersectional game to promote recruiting. Outside two ECAC meetings, for instance, Yale plays Harvard at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 11 and 11,000 tickets reportedly have been sold. All legitimate variables to consider and none of them, in my mind, insurmountable or more important than the hockey possibilities for our state.

"We understand the passion for hockey in Connecticut," Beckett said. "We think it's fabulous. We want to be part of feeding the enthusiasm. We're certainly not going to stand in the way of it. We want to be part of it. We also want to be able to do what is Keith Allain's vision for developing our program.

"We would love to sit, share ideas and see how it develops … I would love to think if every fourth year we could have it in our building."

Look at the Beanpot in Boston. A school with no shot at the national title steals the Beanpot, it's big-time delicious. Great memories are made in an instant.

"It's crazy that we don't do it," Pecknold said. "We're not going be the Beanpot. The Beanpot has been around forever. But it can be a great tournament. It will be great for the state and great for youth hockey. You could do youth clinics and different things and really jump on it. It might be easier to promote if each school hosted it every four years. We jut need to make it happen and it always seems something comes up and we don't follow through.

"I wish we were in year 13 of it. Always something comes up where one team, or the school doesn't want to do it … There always seems to be one school."

Yale can change that.

"I wish somebody would step in and make us do it," Pecknold said. "Maybe get Gov. Malloy to tell us we have to have the tournament. He's a big hockey fan and a great guy, so maybe he'll make it happen."

Oh, boy, Pecknold dropped the "G" word. The governor is a big reason why UConn moved up to Hockey East. He remains open to entertaining bids for an NHL franchise. Getting Yale to play in a tournament should be a heck of a lot easier.

Shouldn't it?

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