Paying It Forward
Yale's Allain Wins by Building Upon Lessons of His Mentors
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
PITTSBURGH Keith Allain's playing career was over.
Having graduated Yale, and played in Europe, an injury signaled the end. It was 1984 and a career in business was ahead, a perfectly fine profession for a Yale graduate.
Until he got a call from his old coach, Tim Taylor.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do, and Tim called me up and said, 'I think you should come back and coach,'" Allain said. "The boost of confidence that gave me, I'm thinking, 'Geez, if Tim Taylor thinks I can coach, maybe I can coach.'"
The genesis story of Allain's coaching career weighed particularly heavily on his mind this weekend, as he was leading the Bulldogs to a national championship.
That's because of how bittersweet it was.
Allain names three essential people in his coaching life. Two-time Olympic coach Dave Peterson passed away in 1997. Allain's father passed away last October. Taylor has terminal cancer.
In addition, Allain's father-in-law passed away this week; his wife missed the Frozen Four to attend her father's funeral in Sweden.
It's been an emotional season, obviously, and the end of it gave an opportunity to reflect.
"My dad taught me to love the game, and that was the gift he gave me," Allain said. "And then I went to Yale and I had Timmy, and Timmy taught me how to see patterns in the game and how to analyze them, and he loved the game as much as my dad. Coach Pete (Peterson) taught me to trust my players, and give the game back to them."
How Allain would go about passing those things on to his players, was a process that started when he was an assistant coach for Taylor, through stints in the NHL, with the U.S. national program and Olympic teams, and eventually back to Yale again.
The public perception may not always be warm and fuzzy, but the reality, and effectiveness, is another story.
"I have to be myself," Allain said, long after the celebration of Saturday's championship game victory had calmed. "When Tim asked me to come back and coach with him, I said, 'What do you want from me?' He said, 'Hey, you gotta be yourself. I'm hiring Keith Allain, and if you're not, the players will know you're being a phony and you'll lose them forever.' So, my personality is differnt than his for sure, but I think my love of the game, my passion for Yale and Yale hockey are similar to his."
The impact is clear.
"Number one, he's extrememly well organized," Yale assistant coach Red Gendron said of Allain, who he's coached with, off and on, for over 20 years. "Number two, he's passionate, about the game, and passionate about everything that we do, like, it has to be done professionaly and just so. So he creates a culture at Yale of hard work, and accountability and discipline and a culture of growth, and everything starts with him."
Said Yale freshman Stu Wilson, who grew up with a coach for a father, Wayne Wilson of RIT: "He's a true players' coach. He is the best coach in college hockey, bar none. He definitely has a presence in our room, and everyone respects him. We want to play for him, and he told us that we gave us more than he could ever give us, but I think he gave us much more than that."
The elation of winning a college hockey national championship may seem insignificant when put against the backdrop of life's other cold realities, but Allain learned from Taylor that coaching young men can be a noble profession. And there is nothing wrong with appreciating the fruits of your labor, the grind of a season, and all of the work and effort and sweat that goes into accomplishing it.
"The lessons that we teach them about being successful in sport, are the lessons that will help them be successful in life," Allain said. "You gotta prepare, you gotta put the work in, and you gotta compete.
"(Taylor's) an educated guy, he went to Harvard, he has a degree in English. He could've done anything in the world, but he chose to coach. And the way he carried himself with such professionalism, and his demeanor ... he was a teacher, he was a leader, all those things meant nobility to me."
These are rare peeks behind the curtain for a private man that is typically of few words — at least to the media.
Allain has no tolerance for bad questions, and even less tolerance for anything after a loss. Most notably, recently, he blew off the post-game press conference following his team's consolation game loss at the ECAC tournament that seemingly ended his team's season.
At the Frozen Four, he couldn't escape it. And on more than one occasion, people needled him about his reputation. To his credit, he went along with it.
"I don't think I'm a bad guy," he said, with a twinkle of self-deprecation. "I think the people that know me, respect me, like me, and if an outsider doesn't know me, I'm OK with that."
Did it help that they won? Surely. But a turning point? A learning experience? Perhaps.
"I don't love it, but I get it," Allain said of the media attention. "I mean, I like to help (the media) do their job, but not to the extent that it makes it harder to do mine, if that makes sense."
It does, and it doesn't, but expanding on that, is for another time.
For now, all that needs to be known is how much respect and admiration Allain has of those around him.
"Keith Allain is a very passionate professional," Gendron said. "When you say people misunderstand him, it's only because they don't really know him, and they choose not to. He doesn't brook any nonsense, so maybe that's why people misunderstand him. But anybody who's ever played here for him — and he and I have been friends for 30 years — he's one of the kindest, nicest people that I've ever known on Earth."
Said Yale junior Kenny Agostino, "He likes to be extremely business-like in front of the media, but he's an unbelivable guy off the ice, and an extreme gentleman and an incredible hockey coach.
"He's helped me with everything, little things, we've had discussions about school, life off the ice, hockey on the ice — the staff as a whole has done a great job making me a better defensive player, and that a tribute to coach Allain. I've learned so much in my three years here, and he's definitely the best coach I've ever had."
This type of admiration matches what Allain feels for his mentors. And to Allain, there is no bigger compliment.
"I always felt that if I could have that kind of impact that any one of those guys gave to me," Allain said, "that I'd be doing a heckuva job."
A heckuva job indeed.