Baker Rink; Princeton, NJ
New Jersey is an incredibly crowded sports market. With Philadelphia to our left, New York to our right, and the Devils and the haunting apparition of the Nets within state lines, major professional sports teams in the area sometimes struggle for exposure in such a crowded space. Developmental and minor league teams in the state often find it difficult to get any attention outside of their home counties. Besides the occasional nationally ranked Rutgers football teams or the competitive groups Monmouth and Seton Hall basketball manage to occasionally assemble (such as this past college basketball season), teams outside of the big four likely find the Garden State’s clutter too big of a foe in the battle for relevancy. This millennium has been particularly difficult for a lot of those organizations, as we have seen the demise of teams like the Newark Bears, Atlantic City Surf, Trenton Titans, Camden Riversharks, and Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies (excuse me if I missed any), none of which have yet been replaced. Stadiums and ballparks across the state remain underused or entirely vacant. One glaring example of a team that does not have much traction in the local sports market is the Princeton University ice hockey program, a Garden State tradition of 116 years that is almost entirely neglected by sports fans and media in New Jersey.
Princeton University has sponsored an ice hockey team since the 1900-01 season, a quarter century before the New York Rangers and New York Americans joined the NHL, and 82 years before Jersey City native Dr. John McMullen brought major professional hockey to New Jersey. Their early years were spent playing some fellow Ivy League schools like Penn, Columbia, Yale, Brown, and Cornell, against colleges and universities in Canada, and against local independent hockey clubs in New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia. For much of their early history, Princeton played many of their home games at the St. Nicholas Ice Rink across the river in New York City. The team didn’t shift permanently to their campus in Mercer County until their on-campus rink was built in 1921. Baker Rink, named for Princeton sports and American hockey legend Hobey Baker, Class of 1914, still houses Princeton hockey.
Hobart Amory Hare Baker, better known by his nickname, Hobey, is not only one of the most revered figures to emerge from Princeton athletics, he is also considered to be the first American superstar in the game of hockey. Baker was born to an elite family in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, a wealthy area that straddles Philadelphia and Lower Merion Township. A direct descendent of an original Quaker settler of Philadelphia, Baker went to Princeton in 1910 as a third generation Tiger. Hobey learned hockey at a prestigious New Hampshire preparatory school called St. Paul’s School, where by some accounts the first hockey game in the United States was played in 1883. He excelled at every sport he participated in, and immediately starred with the hockey and football teams as a freshman at Princeton. He only dropped baseball due to Princeton’s policy of allowing students to participate in no more than two varsity sports. He captained both teams and set many school records, at least one of which with the football program still stands. Baker graduated in 1914 and went to New York to take a job on a Princeton connection. He continued to play hockey and drew large crowds at the same rink in Manhattan he played in for Princeton, but he never played professionally. Although Baker was offered a contract by the Canadiens, men of his social status were not supposed to play sports professionally during this time.
Portrait of Hobey Baker during his military service
Instead of accepting a contract from the Canadiens, Hobey chased the adrenaline-rush he sought to France and joined the World War I effort when America entered the conflict in 1917. As an already accomplished aviator, Baker became a fighter pilot and eagerly sought to participate in combat on the front. He quickly rose to the rank of captain and spent time in England and Paris training other pilots. He did eventually see action, accumulating three confirmed kills and earning the Croix de guerre, a French military decoration. He said military combat was the greatest thrill he experienced in his life. In October of 1918, a month before the armistice of November 11th, Baker was given command of a new unit, the 141st Aero Squadron. Baker chose to use a tiger for the squadron’s insignia and orange and black for its colors. Residents of Central Jersey can still see Baker’s squadron today, as the 141st still exists in the New Jersey Air National Guard as a refueling unit stationed at McGuire Airforce Base. Their colors are still orange and black, and a tiger still occupies their insignia. The KC-135s are easily recognizable aircraft, and are the only large planes that regularly fly in some local airspace. If you live anywhere around either Navair in Lakehurst, Dix, or McGuire, take a look up next time you hear the sound of a jet engine; it could be one of Hobey’s planes.
Although Hobey Baker made it through the war, he never made it back to the United States. A month after the armistice, Baker received his orders to return home, and decided to take an aircraft for one more flight. Shortly after takeoff, his plane experienced engine failure and crashed just outside of the airfield in Toul, France; Hobey Baker died at age 26.
Plaque commemorating a few of Hobey Baker’s accomplishments
Hobey Baker was the quintessential all-American; star athlete, war hero, a gentleman on and off the ice and field, academically accomplished. He was a beloved athlete and socialite. He was the first American to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, of which he is a member of the inaugural class of 1945. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, and lends his name to the Hobey Baker Award, the trophy given to the top player in NCAA Division I ice hockey. In a short 26 years, Hobey Baker left an incredible legacy still felt almost a century after his premature death. His jersey hangs in the Princeton ice rink that bears his name, and his portraits litter the walls of many Princeton facilities, including the Ivy Club, an eating club at Princeton which is considered the university’s most prestigious social institution, of which Hobey was a member. The rallying cry of “Make Hobey Proud” can still be seen on banners at the rink today.
A view of the action at Baker Rink
Since Hobey Baker graduated, however, Princeton hockey has lacked the prestige and success he helped cultivate in the program’s early years; since the 1930’s, Princeton hockey has been remarkably bad. Princeton regularly goes years upon years of not even breaking the double-digit win mark. Their failures have been so great and consistent, I think it is an achievement in itself that they still compete in a major division one conference and against the best schools in the NCAA. If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, let me put it in some perspective;
Between the 1956-57 and 1978-79 seasons, the Tigers managed to break double-digit wins two times, hitting a low of 1-22-0 in 1970-71. The 1967-68 season, when Princeton had a 13-10-1 record, would be the last time the school would hit the .500 mark until 1994-95, almost 30 years later. Princeton has never won a regular season ECAC title, a 55-year-old conference of which they are a founding member. They have managed two conference tournament championships, winning their first in 1998, and second in 2008. That 1998 conference tournament victory gave the Tigers their first Men’s Ice Hockey Championship tournament appearance, 50 years after the inaugural tournament took place in 1948.
My best attempt at film photography
In more recent decades, the Tigers have managed to stagger their futility a little more. They were able to put a somewhat competitive team on the ice for eight consecutive seasons starting in 2005-06, before falling to a 6-26-0 record in 2013-14. They haven’t yet recovered, having won a total of nine games in the previous two seasons. The school has won a game early in its 2016-17 campaign, but it was an exhibition against the United States Under-18 national team. They have allowed at least four goals in all of their three losses to NCAA opponents this season.
Although there may not be a Hobey Baker on this roster, New Jersey is well represented on this current Tigers team. There are four Garden State natives skating for Princeton this season, including stand-out goaltender Colton Phinney. In the 2015-16 season, Phinney managed a .924 save percentage and a sub-3.00 goals against average on a Princeton team that finished 5-23-3, making an average of just over 35 saves per game. Phinney may have the best chance to be the next Princeton alumnus to join the NHL ranks, a small fraternity of about 10 players highlighted by goaltender Mike Condon, and retired enforcer and New Jersey native George Parros.
Another view from ice level
Back in February, after discovering that Princeton’s hockey program played in a hundred-year-old rink right in our back yard, I decided to buy a couple of tickets, and a friend and I made the trip to the campus. Princeton was taking on Yale in their last home series of the year, and the ranked Bulldogs made no mistake of illustrating the massive gap of quality between the two programs. Before the first period came to a close, Yale had taken a 4-0 lead. They would eventually cruise to a 6-0 victory. Chances were few and far between for Princeton, who were outperformed in every aspect of the game. Despite being disappointed at not being able to see at least a goal from the home side, the experience was incredible. The intimate but electric atmosphere was far from what I expected, with plenty of animosity in the packed stands with a large Yale contingent on hand. Apparently the two schools don’t care much for each other. Every bleacher-style seat is on top of the ice with a small capacity of just north of 2,000, and every tiny detail of the game is on full display for all in attendance. The highlight of the trip was absolutely Baker Rink. The beautiful facility features a stone facade and interior, with wood fixtures and a wooden ceiling with steel supports. One corner of the rink carries a small Hobey Baker museum, with various equipment of his and a few plaques and photographs commemorating his playing days and military career.
Baker Rink during play
Baker Rink is absolutely a must visit for any New Jersey sports fan. I don’t know how this isn’t one of our state’s athletic highlights; with Princeton being the only Ivy League to demolish their traditional football stadium, and the original Rutgers Stadium having been abandoned over 20 years ago, Baker Rink is the oldest facility used by a major sports program in New Jersey. Tickets are cheap ($10), Princeton is easily accessible from anywhere in the state and Philadelphia and New York, and the university setting offers plenty to do before and after the game. With a beautiful and historic campus to explore and plenty of nightlife options on Nassau Street, there’s as much to do around a Princeton game as there is in Newark or Philly on game-day. Princeton takes on #10 Harvard in their home opener this Friday, November 11th. The following night they host Dartmouth at Baker Rink. If you have an open night this weekend, make the trip. Maybe the Tigers will surprise us and grab a victory.
An opposite perspective of the rink
When you think of college hockey, you generally think of the Bean Pot tournament in Boston, UNH taking on Maine in Orono, undrafted free agents out of Providence, packed stands in North Dakota and Minnesota. You think of Martin St. Louis at University of Vermont, Jack Eichel at BU, the Clarksons and Unions and St. Lawrences in Upstate New York. You think of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. You don’t think of New Jersey. Talk to a casual sports fan in the state, and I doubt you’ll hear the conversation turn to the ECAC and Princeton’s slim chances of taking the conference this season. Princeton hockey is a marginal competitor in this area’s sports market and mostly serves the exclusive Ivy League community it represents, but I think it is important for every New Jersey sports fan to take a game in and experience one of our state’s oldest sports institutions. Make the trip to Princeton to watch these Tigers who have been quietly competing at the top level of college hockey since the puck first dropped between American universities. And the next time someone tells you that New Jersey is a non-traditional hockey market, just remind them that we’ve been making Hobey proud for over a century.