Coaching Champions

Coaching Champions

The best lines to describe what Keith Allain and his band of merry pucksters have accomplished are already taken: Against all odds . . . Miracle on ice . . . A million to one . . . No way!

Or, as Wayne famously replied to Garth, “Way!”

In a few short years, Coach Allain has transformed the Yale hockey team from a cellar-dwelling patsy into a national powerhouse that goes toe-to-toe with Goliaths like Notre Dame and Boston College. The Bulldogs have qualified for the NCAA playoffs three years running, and last season they were the top team in America in both scoring and defense.

They do it with a helter-skelter, run-and-gun style that leaves larger, slower teams dazed—and Eli fans elated. They finished 2010 ranked fifth in all the land, without benefit of the 18 athletic scholarships that non-Ivy League schools can dole out.

Last spring, Yale was ranked No. 1 nationally for weeks on end, finishing with a remarkable 28 wins, and only seven losses and a tie. They were a stunning 17-1-1 at home. The Bulldogs were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament, as they were the previous year, by the eventual national champion. Still, after more than a century of ice hockey, Yale has experienced nothing like this recent run.

Most improbable of all: In the quasi-amateur world of big-time college sports, Coach Keith Allain’s young charges graduate. And not with ditsy courses or special tutors. They all earn their sheepskins, even the ones planning to do postgraduate work in the National Hockey League. But when not in class, they have electrified Ingalls Rink (aka the Yale Whale), standing room only, with joy unbounded. Arthritic Old Blues now pine for winter, alongside many new acolytes who are jumping on the bandwagon.

What is happening in New Haven is that Yale has a coach (a son of Eli himself, class of 1980) who harbors not merely great expectations, but the greatest expectations: “When I came here, I wanted to prove a point—that you could go to the best school in the country and play hockey at the highest level,” says Allain. “I have those expectations for our guys this coming season. We lost nine players who graduated last year, but we’ve established a culture here. We prepare like champions.”

Allain returned to his alma mater in April 2006, when he was hired to replace his former coach and mentor, Tim Taylor. Allain had played for Taylor and Yale from 1976 to 1980, starting in goal all four years, and then served as Taylor’s assistant from 1982 to 1985. Taylor had nothing to offer Allain 35 years ago other than a degree and his personal guarantee that a bad program would get better. It would have to: In the previous two seasons, Yale had won but a single league game.

And things did get better with Keith in goal. The team even made the playoffs one year. But by 2006, Yale was once again mired in its old losing ways, finishing last or close to it in Taylor’s final seasons. Along came Allain again, a man for whom hockey is nothing less than a lifelong and sacred calling.

During the 1970s, the Allains were known around Worcester, Mass., as The Hockey Family. The seven boys all played, wherever and whenever they could. They played in the backyard rink, complete with lights, that their father, Bill, erected each winter. Or they skated at nearby Crystal Pond. Or competed in leagues at the new Norton PeeWee Ice Rink, where their dad spent many nights and weekends painting the building so his sons could play for free. They played on the same teams, and Bill was often the coach. For several years running there were foursomes of Allains on the St. Peter’s Catholic High School squad. Six of the boys would play varsity hockey in college.

The Allains trace their hockey genes to Canada and their father. The patriarch left economically challenged Monckton, New Brunswick, for Massachusetts at age 17. He became a citizen, enlisted in the Army and was shipped off to Korea. He came back and went to work as a painter for the Norton Co., which manufactured abrasives. In the evening he played hockey for the Worcester Warriors, a minor-league team that competed against regional rivals like the New Haven Blades. If life was hard, at the end of the day there was always hockey.

Reared during the Depression, Bill Allain, today 82, hailed from a generation that laid down unambiguous, if often unspoken, expectations for its children. They would work for what they got—or they were fresh out of luck. They didn’t pay for ice time, but they had to earn it just the same. Sometimes, silences spoke volumes. Keith’s younger brother David recalls, “You knew you’d had a good game when he didn’t say anything.”

The other source of gravity for the orbiting Allains was their mother. The former Irene McGrath was a jogger before jogging was cool. After the boys were grown, she went back to school and became a nurse. “Keith gets his hockey and his common sense from our dad,” says David, “and he gets his principles and his strength from Mom. She is the most positive person I have ever met in my life. She was our pillar. We grew up in a poor family, and she was always the one who was there saying that we could do whatever we tried to do. She’d say, ‘You may be playing Goliath, but remember David beat Goliath.’”

Of all the boys, Keith had the most discipline. He was the most responsible, according to David: “Keith was always focused. You knew he had a strategy, a game plan for his life. We might not have known what it was, but we knew he had one.”

It was a straightforward plan: He’d work hard, on and off the ice, and ride the hockey express as far as it would take him. He would be the first Allain to attend college. After Yale, the sky was the limit: He could work on Wall Street, for a Fortune 500 firm, go to law school or grab whichever brass ring he chose. Along the way, Keith fell in love with Yale, and not just the hockey. He liked his roommates and hung out with an eclectic mix of athletes, non-jocks and outright nerds. “I was 17 years old, and the hardest thing I had ever done in my life was leaving home for Yale — until it came time for me to leave Yale, because I enjoyed it so much,” he says.

After graduation, Allain decided to ride hockey a little further, to Sweden, where he played in a second-tier pro league for two years, until a career-ending injury obliterated his plans to reach the National Hockey League. Back in the states, he parlayed his undergraduate business degree into a promising gig at Procter & Gamble. He was a Yale grad, after all, and this was a real job.

Shortly, however, Plan B imploded. After a few weeks in management training, he knew it wasn’t for him. “I told him he was crazy to leave that job,” his brother David says, “but he told me he had to get back to hockey. He’s made a lot of sacrifices to do what he really wanted to do. He’s moved all over the place, been away from his family. But he has this real passion for hockey. I tell my kids today not to do what I want them to do, but to find a career they’re passionate about, even if they make less money.”

Allain called Tim Taylor, who happily welcomed him back as an assistant coach. Following a three-year apprenticeship under Taylor, he returned to Sweden to coach for several more years. Crossing the Atlantic yet again, he was soon coaching U.S. Olympians and NHL players—most recently as the goalie coach for the St. Louis Blues from 1998 to 2006.

But as in the past, Yale would bring out the best in Allain. He has found his niche, along with some long-overdue recognition. In five seasons, his teams have won 100 games, a total that normally takes Yale more than a decade to reach. They not only win, they do it with—and this word has never appeared in a hockey article before—panache. They play at a frenetic pace, bird-dogging the puck like springer spaniels, and reveling in every second they are on the ice. They also look like they are following a pretty good game plan.

“I had a great feeling about Keith, but you never know how things will work out,” says Roland Betts, who played varsity hockey for Yale in the late 1960s and who was the senior fellow of the Yale Corporation when important hockey decisions were made in recent years, such as raising more than $30 million to upgrade the Yale Whale. “Keith knows what these kids go through — the academic pressures on top of hockey pressures. I had no idea he would have this level of success, but now that I have seen what he does, I think this is sustainable.”

What Betts has seen is hockey practices that are fast and furious to the point of vertigo. They are also fun — and have been held, a time or two, on local ponds. In one drill, there are three teams of three players each, all confined to one end of the rink, with three goals and three goalies.Each threesome is battling the other two trios, trying to score on any of the three goalies. The result is a cross between juggling ginsu knives in a pay-phone booth and playing Chinese checkers. Pushed to the limits of time and space and motion in practices, the players find the pace of an actual game less daunting.

There is more to coaching than drills, of course. “He’s got a great style with the kids,” says Betts. “He’s really good with them. He loves them, but he’s also tough as nails. He’s demanding. And he keeps the proper distance. You can’t be too close to the players, or too patriarchal.” In synthesizing what he has learned on his international coaching odyssey, Allain explains simply: “I want to be the kind of coach that gives my players what they need at the right time. I think a big part of our job is to wear the face that they need to see. If they need calmness, I’m calm; if they need excitement, I can be excitable.”

If they need protection, he can do that, too. Against Dartmouth, a Yale player was on a breakaway when an opposing player pushed him from behind into the boards. The offender was thrown out of that game, as well as the next one. The handshake between the coaches after the game looked like a classic prefight dustup between Ali and Frazier. “I’m a competitive person, and I also am protective of our guys; so if one of my guys is taken advantage of, it upsets me,” Allain says of the incident.

If current Yale players are having fun on the ice, Old Blues are ecstatic in the stands. David Harrington, class of 1978, commutes from Long Island to New Haven to see his former teammate and watch him coach a handful of games every year.

The Harrington boys and the Allain brothers used to play together in summer hockey leagues back in the day. The two families could fill out an entire roster. “Keith was from Worcester, I’m from Cranston [R.I.]—same difference, right?” says Harrington. “He was a tough kid, a hard-nosed hockey player, always wanted to do better, always down on himself if he didn’t think he was doing enough.”

If there is any concern about Yale’s unprecedented hockey success from fans like Harrington, it stems from the fact that Keith Allain has done such an extraordinary job that his name is bandied about every time a college—or heaven forbid, an NHL team—is shopping for a coach. He says he’s comfortable right where he is, at a place he clearly has great affection for, where he and his family can put down roots after years of travel and relocations. He and his wife, Mi, live in greater New Haven. They have a grown daughter, and a son and daughter still at home. (Yes, the boy plays hockey.) Allain clearly can stay where he is as long as he cares to. When asked about how he would react to an offer from an NHL team, he pauses before saying, “At this time, I’d have to say 'no.' They have taken steps to see that I am happy here.”

One thing is clear: Keith Allain is doing exactly what he has always wanted to do. One of those bright college summers decades ago, he was driving spikes into the tracks of the Providence/Worcester Railroad by day, and tending goal at night for the Harrington/Allain amalgam. One day he drove a spike into his leg and had to be taken to the emergency room. He explained to the doctor that he had to sew him up quickly. He was late for a hockey game, which he made in the nick of time.

UPDATE: In 2013, the year after this article was published, Yale won the NCAA National Championship.