Rivalry For The Ages

The Rich Tradition Lives On Whenever Harvard And Yale Meet On The Ice
Joe Paisley

The Harvard-Yale men's ice hockey rivalry stirs in the hearts of athletes and alumni, especially for those who missed out last season when the Ivy League shut down winter sports due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"It's been on our minds for a very long time," Harvard senior captain Casey Dornbach said. "We're hungry to get back after it."

The sports rivalry began with the first intercollegiate crew competition in the U.S.in 1852 followed by the first football game in 1875. Ice hockey followed suit on Feb. 26, 1900, after several years of negotiation, according to the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle.

The game was played in New York City where most alums lived. Yale defeated Harvard, 5-4, before 2,000 rowdy fans at Manhattan's St. Nicholas Rink.

It made for a memorable scene with the Yale fans celebrating with the traditional "Long Cheer" according to a 2014 article in The New York Times.

The chant "Brek-ek-ek-ex ko-ax, ko-ax," which started at an 1884 football game, mimics the frogs on the banks of the River Styx from Aristophanes' "The Frogs," according to chief research archivist Judith Ann Schiff in the May 1988 issue of Yale Alumni Magazine.

The stakes were raised when Harvard defeated Yale, 4-3, in triple overtime to win the 1904 Intercollegiate League championship.

The rivalry continues to build on its rich tradition, whether the game was played last week or decades ago.

"Seeing and hearing what the rivalry means to the alumni definitely gives you a little extra motivation as a player to continue to build upon the program and legacy that the alumni have built," Yale junior captain Graham Lillibridge said.

The competition has gone through its ups and downs based on each program's success, but it has never lost its significance.

"So when I was in school, Cornell was the big game for us," said former Harvard goalie Joe Bertagna.

"However, once you step on campus, you have an awareness of this thing, Harvard vs. Yale. It's the only football game that gets sold out and the whole weekend all these other sports are playing each other, the intermurals are playing each other. So you get it from the older generation that Yale is a big deal."

That campus-wide atmosphere has changed with fewer Yale-Harvard matchups on the same weekend but remains exciting for most.

"I know when I was playing it was the last two Saturdays of our season," U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Ben Smith of Harvard said. "Now the Yale-Harvard game could be in the middle of October, November, December, January. So for me, it's not the same as it was before."

Postseason meetings stoke a rivalry's fire, including Yale's, 3-1, win over then- No. 1 ranked Harvard on Jan. 31, 1989. The sting was soothed by Harvard's first NCAA championship that season. Yale won its first NCAA title in 2013.

"We're all competitive by nature and there's a lot of respect for what they stand for and the success they've had," Harvard coach Ted Donato told The New York Times in 2015. "But there's certainly something in the water at Harvard that the school in New Haven is not our friend. And when both teams are going well, it certainly adds to the rivalry."

The competition was invigorated by the first Rivalry On Ice game on Jan. 11, 2014, at Madison Square Garden. It was the first NYC game since 1970.

"When I heard the game was going back to the Garden, the first thing I did was put a marker on my schedule," former U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), who played junior varsity at Yale, told The New York Times in 2014. "This is one of those venues, like the old Boston Garden, that defines sports history."

"Madison Square Garden in January of 2020 right before Covid-19 ended our season," Dornbach recalled of Harvard's first  Rivalry on Ice victory. "A sold-out Garden, the presidents of both universities and lots of alumni in attendance, and a huge (7-0) win for the Crimson. Definitely a special experience for many reasons I will not be forgetting anytime soon."

The importance of these games does not change when you've gone from player to coaching their alma maters like Donato and Keith Allain (Yale) have.

"One of the things that makes it special is that the student-athletes on both rosters were likely recruited by both schools," said Allain, a member of the Yale class of 1980. "Alums from these games will see each other again as they become leaders in their respective fields as they move on from college hockey. Added to that are the history and tradition of the schools involved. It all comes together to bring a heightened awareness and competitiveness out on the ice."

Freshmen soon realize the game's importance.

"Even growing up in Minnesota I had heard rumblings of the rivalry, but until I experienced it first-hand, I didn't quite know what to expect," Dornbach said. "There's always a little extra pride on the line to honor those who have gone to battle before us, and the appreciation for the tradition's rich history has definitely continued to build during my college career."

It only took Lillibridge one contest to appreciate it.

"There was an extraordinary level of energy in the (Yale) rink that night that hasn't been matched since," he said. "The (Nov. 2018) game ended in a 3-3 tie, but the experience was everything I expected and then some."

The next game this Dec. 4 isn't far from anyone's minds. Yale, which competed in the first intercollegiate game in 1896, saw its 125-year playing streak end with last season's cancellation.

Everyone seems anxious to play, especially against a traditional rival.

"For many players, it will be their first time experiencing the rivalry which adds to the already increased level of excitement on both sides," Lillibridge said. "I'm certain the alumni are eager to come back, watch the game and see old friends and teammates. Overall, it will be great to resume the storied rivalry and compete against one another again."

Joe Paisley is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo.




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