Yale junior relishes chance to play for title in hometown
PITTSBURGH -- Yale team captain Andrew Miller braced for the travelogue as the Bulldogs’ team bus rolled through Pittsburgh earlier this week.
The city is hosting the 2013 Frozen Four, the last stop in the NCAA tournament. It’s also home to Yale forward Jesse Root, and he was eager to show it off.
“He obviously wants to play at home and as soon as we got in [the tournament], we’ve been talking trash to him,” Miller said. “I got the tour on the bus coming in from the airport of every exit and every place he’s been to, and every restaurant in the entire world that we passed by.”
“They give me a hard time and they call Pittsburgh the Rust Belt,” Root said. “So I was quick to say that ‘it’s beautiful, you guys are going to be surprised.’ And now I got all of them coming up to me and saying, ‘Rooter, I had no idea the city was so nice.’ I mean, I was telling them all along but good for them to see it firsthand.”
The Bulldogs may develop their own Pittsburgh fondness if they upset East Coast Athletic Conference rival and top-ranked Quinnipiac in Saturday’s national championship game at the Consol Energy Center. Thursday’s semifinal victory in overtime against UMass-Lowell set up a dream homecoming for Root.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people,” Root said. “There’s been a ton of support for me here and back on the Yale campus.”
A 6-foot, 185-pound junior, Root starts on Yale’s top line. His overtime goal against Minnesota on March 29 lifted Yale to the West Regional final, where Root struck again as part of a late comeback against North Dakota, whistling another game-winner to propel Yale to its first Frozen Four -- and first national championship semifinal -- since 1952.
Given those nerves, he didn’t flinch once when his name boomed about the Consol Energy Center rafters Thursday during pregame introductions.
“We do a good job just making sure we keep our focus and the coaches and the entire staff does a great of job of making sure that we’re focused on our goal and that’s a national championship,” Root said. “We don’t really let that stuff get to us.”
His mom, Kathy; dad, David; and younger brother Alec, a defenseman who plays at Maine’s Bowdoin College, all are present. Root caught the hockey bug from his father, who also played the game and remains a Penguins' season-ticket holder.
“I remember sitting on my dad’s lap at a game,” Root said of his earliest memory. “If that puts me at 4, 5 -- I don’t know, maybe 3. It was early.”
His father put him on skates even earlier, at age 2 or 3. A stint at the Taft School, a Connecticut prep school, prepared him for Yale. But he hasn’t abandoned his Pittsburgh sporting interests, one fueled by Penguins Hall of Famer and team co-owner Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, and current stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
During Yale’s 2011 Christmas break, Root got the opportunity of a Steel City fan’s lifetime. His friend Rob Bailey, a goaltender with the local University of Pittsburgh club team, was participating in a practice session with Lemieux who, though now retired, was preparing for a fantasy camp.
“I kind of asked if I could tag along,” Root said, grinning. “It was funny because I was in mid-season form. It was Christmas break so I’d been playing for a while and I think it was Mario’s first time skating [in a while] and I was throwing passes all over the place and he was right on his stick. He didn’t miss them. It looked like he was playing in the NHL the night before.”
For Root, childhood images and emotions merged.
“That was unbelievable for me, to see that -- just so much God-given talent,” he said of Lemieux. “He obviously works hard, too. That was cool to see however old he is, to see that he still has that. He was still banking it off my friend’s legs and behind the net. It’s even hard to put into words to describe the feeling, to watch all those videos growing up and to see him do that firsthand.”
Root opened a second unexpected Christmas gift from Bailey this past December.
Tagging along again, he skated with Crosby and two other Penguins, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams, as they waited out the NHL’s latest lockout. Some local Robert Morris players also participated, but odds are Root only had eyes for his heroes.
“That blew my mind,” he said of sharing the ice with Crosby. “It still does. Watching the success he’s having this year actually didn’t even surprise me after seeing how good he was on skates.
“He was a great guy, just another guy. Treated me like another guy. I still have posters of him in my room. So to meet him was really cool and to see that he’s just another hockey player and just a really genuine guy was cool.”
Root’s own NHL aspirations are on hold. He plans to return for his senior season at Yale, then deal with his playing future.
“I’m solely focused on this team,” he said. “I don’t really focus on any of that right now. I just want to win a national championship with this team.”
A political science major, Root says he’s eyeing a potential career in investment management once his playing days are done. But for now, there is Yale hockey and the possible potential of more than one national championship.
“From the day I stepped on campus three years ago, it was, we want to win a national championship,” Root said. “We want to win all the championships, but the national championship is our end goal. So to have that opportunity this weekend is really exciting. It speaks volumes to the coaching staff and to the character of our leadership and the guys in the room.”