Remembering Yale's 1952 Run
Current Frozen Four Team Inspires Recall of College Hockey's Rich History
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
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Yale is the only team remaining in this year's NCAA tournament to ever make the Frozen Four before — 61 years ago. That nugget of information has provided the opportunity for us to reach back in time, to a different era.
Of course, it wasn't called the Frozen Four then. In 1952, the NCAA tournament was just five years old, the ECAC didn't exist — Yale was playing in what was known as the Pentagonal League — some schools were still playing in outdoor rinks, and there was very little recruiting.
And, as hard as it might be to fathom for modern-day fans, the Eastern schools did not allow body-checking in the offensive zone. The Western league was allowing it at that time, in essence, creating two vastly different games. Eventually, body-checking was removed for everyone, only to be reinstituted again in the early 1970s.
Looking back through the history books of college hockey, is like looking into another world. But look hard enough, and you find that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yale's 1951-52 season was as captivating as anything we know today. And its architect was a tough-minded, smart hockey coach — something that every good team will need until the end of time.
Murray Murdoch is a name probably unknown to most modern hockey fans, but he was every bit as legendary in his day as Jack Parker or Red Berenson is today. Murdoch — who grew up in Lucknow, Ontario, and improved his skills by stickhandling frozen cow dung on his walks to school — was an original New York Ranger, and the NHL's first ironman. He played the first 550-plus games in the New York Rangers' history, winning two Stanley Cups.
As his playing days wound down, Madison Square Garden president General John Reed Kilpatrick — a Yale alumnus — thought Murdoch would do well as a coach at his alma mater. Murdoch was offered the job and accepted for the start of the 1938-39 season.
Murdoch was by all rights a very kind man, strong hockey coach, and great mentor. He also chain-smoked on the bench during games, and he probably wasn't alone among the coaching fraternity. It was a long ways from Mike Keenan's ice-chewing habits.
"He was just sound," said Art Moher, who played at Yale from 1945-48, and also played shortstop on the baseball when the first baseman was George Bush, later, of course, the nation's 41st president. "(Murdoch) wanted you to come back, back check hard, pass the puck and get in good position."
Players were not recruited then. But, if you were a prep school boy in those days in New England, you usually played hockey, and you usually went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. You'd sign up to play hockey at those schools like you would join a club, and many would play on the freshman team. It was from there that the varsity coach would have a look at you, and invite you to play varsity the next season, if you were good enough.
Of the 48 boys at St. Paul's School in 1948 that applied to Yale, 47 were accepted. One of them was Harry Havemeyer, who went on to become the captain of the 1952 Yale team.
"By playing on the freshman team, you could get yourself significantly better," Havemeyer said. "Kids can't do that now. They start skating and playing at a much higher level than we did."
Murdoch preached being in shape, with a 1950s equivalent of Herbies — a lot of stops and starts.
"No circles for Murdoch," Havemeyer said.
Becoming a Power
In those days, Boston University and Boston College were strong teams, as usual. Outside of Boston, it was the Ivy League schools like Dartmouth that dominated. Dartmouth, led by the Riley brothers — Jack (the future coach of Army and the 1960 Olympic team), Joe and Bill — played in the first two NCAA tournament finals, losing both. In the coming years, St. Lawrence, RPI (under Ned Harkness) and Cornell would emerge.
By the 1949-50 season, Yale was coming along. Mighty Michigan — which won six of the first nine NCAA championships — came East, and Yale defeated the Wolverines in front of a packed house of 4,500 at New Haven Arena, the team's home in those years.
The next year — following the team's annual break for exams and a visit by the Ice Capades — Yale faced Boston University during a blizzard in New Haven. BU was nation runner up in 1950 and was strong again, led by Jack Garrity, a Life Magazine cover boy that year. Yale won the game, 5-4, behind 38 saves from Peter Cruikshank.
When the season ended, though, Yale was by-passed for the NCAAs, and instead BU and Brown were chosen as the Eastern representatives. It was a sour taste that fueled Yale's 1951-52 run.
No one out West — where Michigan and Colorado College were particularly dominant — would believe how good Yale was (sound familiar?). So Yale started heading out there to play games during the holidays.
In the mean time, Havemyer married a girl named Genie during the 1951-52 season. He convinced Murdoch to let her come on the trip, so it could serve as their honeymoon.
They are still married today, living in London.
"It was on that trip that she became known as our mascot," Havemeyer said.
It took a day for the team to get acclimated to the elevation in Colorado. The first night, they were sucking oxygen during the game, and lost. But the Bulldogs came back to win the second game. They split in Denver, too, where Yale faced a Denver team that was full of Canadians, huge for its time, and which punished opponents.
"In four years of Yale hockey I was never hit harder than by one legitimate check by Eddie Miller," Yale's Pat Howe recalled years later.
Then Yale went to play Minnesota, led by the legendary John Mayasich, and split with the Gophers, too, getting an overtime goal from defenseman Archie Douglas to win in overtime of one of the games.
In all, Yale went on to go 3-3 on the trip, and came back feeling confident. But there also seemed to be a letdown, and the season hung in the balance after a 5-0 loss to Brown. Yale wound up winning 11 of its last 12 games, however, including one at Harvard that clinched the Pentagonal League championship.
Yale believed it earned a trip to the NCAAs.
If you're critical of the Pairwise, the mathematical system currently used to select the NCAA tournament field, just remember how it used to be done. Back then, two teams from the East and two from the West were picked to play in four-team NCAA tournament, by a committee. Typically, it would choose the strongest Boston team of that year, and the winner of the Pentagonal League. But with other teams on the rise, like St. Lawrence, it couldn't be so cut and dried anymore.
Boston University and Boston College figured going to the NCAAs was a right of passage at that point. They were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 by the Boston sportswriters, for whatever that was worth. Yale players believed the Boston sportswriters were in the pocket of the two local teams, so perhaps it wasn't worth much. Meanwhile, Yale had big wins, and St. Lawrence had the best record of any Eastern school.
Dartmouth's legendary coach Eddie Jeremiah was a member of the committee at that time, and good friends with Murdoch. He and the committee wanted BU and BC to play in a four-team tournament with Yale and St. Lawrence to determine which two teams would represent the East in the NCAAs.
BU and BC said, in essence, to bug off. So the committee sent Yale and St. Lawrence, contingent upon Yale winning its final game against Harvard, which it did.
The hullaballoo inspired the eventual creation of the ECAC, which played its first season in 1961-62, and whose top two teams would go to the NCAAs as a matter of course until the tournament expanded to eight teams in the early 1980s.
The selection meant that Yale would be headed back to Colorado Springs, which, at the Broadmoor Ice Arena, hosted the first 10 NCAA championships. This time they were more prepared for the elevation, and got a boost when two members of CC's high-scoring top line were out of the game, one because of injury, and another because he was ruled ineligible.
The elevation still caught up to the Bulldogs, however, as they blew a 3-0 lead and lost. They then avenged a loss from earlier in the season, winning the third-place game over St. Lawrence.
"Now they're smart enough to have the NCAAs in a neutral place," Havemeyer said.
They seemed to make an impression on their Western counterparts, however fleeting it may have been.
"Our style of play, as opposed to the Canadian style, was more pleasing to watch," Havemeyer said. "We did get our share of penalties, but we did not try to slam players into the boards all the time."
Six months later, Havemeyer was in Korea, fighting in the last remnants of a war. Everyone went their separate ways, as always happens when college ends. But every year, the surviving members of that team gather at Ingalls Rink in New Haven, to tell the old stories and take in a pair of Yale games. This year, they saw Yale sweep Dartmouth and Harvard. They follow the team best they can — the Internet, of course, makes it easier.
"We follow it very closely, and this group has been going on for 20 years at least," Havemeyer said. "While Murray was still alive, we would get together and we it kept going after."
Time marches on, of course. Just this past week, Archie Douglas, who scored that game winner in Minnesota at Christmas-time 1951, passed away.
Murdoch coached until 1964-65, never matching the success from that year. He never coached an NHL player — though three of his players eventually became NHL owners, a precious tidbit of information that could only derive from the Ivy League.
Murdoch was days short of his 97th birthday, the oldest living NHL player at the time, when he passed away in 2001.
Havemeyer wanted more people to know about Murdoch, so he wrote a book of his remembrances, published in 2008, called "Remembering Murray Murdoch." We're grateful to that book for some key information in this article.
Art Moher remembers Murdoch, now, as much for his friendship with Yale's baseball coach, Red Rolfe, who played third base for the Yankees in the 1930s and '40s. The two got to know each other while both playing in New York.
"They were both left-handed golfers," Moher said. "Neither one was great, but Yale's course — it's a tough golf course — the two of them locked heads all the time. Neither one would give anybody a short putt."
Those Yale alums may bristle at being considered ancient history, but they are happy their stories have a reason to see the light of day again.
"I'm pleased that people want to know something about what happened long ago," Havemeyer said.