Ivy League connections helping Bridgeport’s cause

by Kimber Auerbach || AHL On The Beat Archive

Joe Callahan played college hockey up the road from Bridgeport at Yale University.

When you pull into the Bridgeport Sound Tigers player’s parking lot at Arena at Harbor Yard, you have to walk along a giant brick wall that stands as the groundwork for the Metro-North Railroad, taking passengers to and from New York City.

Draped in spots over the brick is Bridgeport’s very own Wrigley Field ivy wall. With spring and the Calder Cup Playoffs right around the corner, the ivy is slowly starting to spread.

This season, another type of ivy has found its way into the Sound Tigers’ locker room.

In past years, the Sound Tigers have had players such as Jeff Hamilton and Ray Giroux that have played for Ivy League schools. This season, the Sound Tigers have five players in their lineup that once donned the sweater of one of the Ivy League institutions.

There are eight Ivy League schools that are all located in the northeastern United States: Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, Columbia University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania. To receive the label of “Ivy League,” these eight institutions have prided themselves on academic excellence.

Joe Callahan, Dennis Packard, Mike Iggulden, Jon Gleed and Yann Danis have taken that ideal and transferred it onto the ice, which has helped to change the mindset in the Sound Tigers’ dressing room after two summers without a playoff berth.

From opening night in Philadelphia, that Ivy League mindset that those five players acquired at their schools seems to have become contagious inside the dressing room. Of course you’ve got your players kicking a soccer ball around before the game and the music is still blasting, but under that high-octane mask is a sense of calmness, and a higher level of maturity for the task ahead.

Bridgeport is the fourth New England AHL team for Harvard product Dennis Packard.

Everything starts with the leaders and trickles down to their teammates and when Sound Tigers head coach Jack Capuano appointed Callahan an assistant captain, the former Yale Bulldog made his presence felt, which is evident by the team’s success this season.

The defenseman out of Abington, Mass., has had an easy time settling in with the familiar surroundings of his Yale University stomping grounds just 30 minutes up the road in New Haven.

“Coming to Bridgeport and being so close to Yale really made this year an easy transition for me,” Callahan said. “Attending Yale was a great experience. I loved going to school there. The tradition of playing hockey there was incredible with all of the support from the city and alumni. There is a tremendous amount of pride in the school and you see it at alumni events where people who have graduated 30 years ago are still there cheering on the hockey or football teams.”

The tradition of Yale hockey almost always reflects back to the school’s long-time rivalry with Harvard University. During Callahan’s three seasons at Yale, the Bulldogs were usually found on the losing end of the contests with the Crimson.

However, at the end of the 2001-02 season, Callahan and the Bulldogs got the better of Harvard when he scored a goal in helping Yale beat the Crimson 4-3. Sitting on the opposing bench at Ingalls Arena in New Haven that night was another future Sound Tiger, Dennis Packard.

During his four-year career in Cambridge, Mass., Packard’s numbers increased exponentially starting in 2000 and ending in 2004. In his freshman year, Packard scored four goals and four assists and in his final year he tallied 11 goals and 11 assists.

Yann Danis was a Hobey Baker finalist as a senior at Brown in 2004.

“There is a lot of hockey tradition at Harvard with the national championship in 1989 and then several Hobey Baker winners in the past,” Packard said. “When I arrived there my freshman year, I caught on quickly to how much the university’s history plays such a big role in the present. It makes you work that much harder to become a part of it.”

Like any good hockey team, there is a set structure and system put in place so that everyone knows what his role is both on and off the ice. For Packard, that was something he has carried over to his professional career, one in which he has played five seasons between the ECHL and the AHL.

Packard began the 2008-09 season with the New York Islanders’ ECHL affiliate in Utah and through his hard work and structured training was called up by the Sound Tigers a month into the season.

Packard has played every role within the system this season and has stuck as a regular in the lineup. Whether he is a fourth-line checking center used to add toughness or a second-line winger relied on to cause traffic in front of the net and score, Packard has done it all.

Harvard took on Brown University in the opening round of the ECAC tournament this year, and was beaten 1-0 and 2-0 to end their season. Thankfully, Packard did not have to hear the “chirping” from Danis, a Brown graduate in the Islanders’ organization. Danis has spent the majority of the season with the New York Islanders due to the goalie injuries the Sound Tigers’ top affiliate have sustained this year.

Packard does, however, always hear it from Iggulden — his childhood friend from St. Catharines, Ont., and teammate with the Sound Tigers — when Cornell beats the Crimson, but it’s all in good fun.

Mike Iggulden has scored at least 20 goals in each of his four AHL seasons.

Joining Iggulden with the Big Red pride in the Sound Tigers’ room this season is defenseman Jon Gleed, who played alongside the team’s leading scorer at Cornell for three seasons.

“Playing four years of hockey at Cornell was incredible,” Gleed said. “I had a terrific time both on the ice and in the classroom. When I went to visit the school before I was admitted, I knew right when I got there that Cornell was where I wanted to go.

“The hockey tradition and high level of academics made my decision to attend Cornell an easy one.”

Both Callahan and Packard agreed that playing at Cornell University’s Lynah Rink was always the highlight of the season because of the intense atmosphere that the building had every night. The Big Red plays its home contests in front of sell-out crowds of 4,267 Ithaca, N.Y., locals, proud alumni and a raucous student section.

When you enter the arena, take a left and a student section that has numerous school cheers bombards you. Take a right and you’ll join hundreds of alumni cheering on their Big Red.

“When they announce the day that tickets go on sale, students rush the gates to reserve their seats. Fans have slept over the night before to ensure they get tickets,” Gleed said. “Obviously the student section is the loudest but when we score a goal, the arena erupts because the roof is so low that the noise just bounces all over the place.”

Jon Gleed was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 2004.

Gleed joined the Sound Tigers just after the halfway mark of the season and has turned into one of the team’s top shut-down defenseman. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound defenseman has been paired with Chris Lee to allow Lee the freedom to skate the puck while knowing that Gleed has the ability to stay back and stop any opposing rushes.

With hockey serving as the Cornell’s most popular sport, Gleed never let the sport interfere with his main goal of earning a degree.

“I know hockey is not going to last forever so to have a degree from such a prestigious Ivy League school is something that will hopefully help me down the road when I figure what my next career path will be,” Gleed said.

“These guys have brought a confidence level onto our team this season that resonates throughout each player,” Sound Tigers head coach Jack Capuano said. “I’ve put each of them in numerous situations on the ice and just about every time they succeed. Their versatility to execute different roles on the ice and have the maturity to do it without a complaint has made our team stronger this season.”

This is something that most people haven’t seen in the Sound Tigers’ dressing the past few years. When the team has lost, its been taken to heart which often times spiraled out of control and has left the Sound Tigers watching the Calder Cup Playoffs in April.

This season, that sense of confidence and maturity has shown through by the fact that the players understand the mistakes they made and are excited to get back on the ice to correct them.

Right now, for Gleed and the rest of the Sound Tigers, the path they are headed on leads to the Calder Cup Playoffs. With the new sense of confidence and understanding of the importance each game holds, these Sound Tigers look to apply their Ivy League experiences to help the Sound Tigers advance past the opening round for the first time since 2003.