By Jake Newman
Reprinted from the 2021 Summer Magazine
Although unique to each member of our expansive community, the Clarkson experience for the past 100 years has included one constant for nearly every alum, student, current and former faculty and staff member, and friend of the University: the rich and storied history of Golden Knights hockey.
The 2021-22 season sees Clarkson hockey celebrate its centennial. From the first games played on an outdoor surface at Ives Park to the newly renovated Cheel Arena, the game of hockey has been ingrained in the culture of Clarkson and the surrounding Potsdam community since its inception.
And while the on-ice efforts of the Golden Knights cannot be understated, one of the true hallmarks of the Clarkson hockey experience lies in the rabid fandom from the Green and Gold faithful. Each time the hockey team skates onto the ice, the Clarkson hockey community rises to the occasion to support its beloved squad.
This was especially true for the 53 years that the Golden Knights inhabited Walker Arena, according to Steve Yianoukos ’72. Yianoukos, who worked in Clarkson’s athletic department for 35 years, including 15 years as athletic director before his retirement in 2019, has seen as many Golden Knight hockey contests as anyone.
“I was a season ticket holder when I was 11 years old, and I have been one ever since, through my high school days, college, my professional career,” says Yianoukos. “To me, being part of Clarkson hockey is deeply embedded as one of the very most rewarding things in my life. I really enjoyed going to the games, watching the games. It has been a big part of a lot of Clarkson alums’ lives.”
Walker Arena, named for the father of Clarkson hockey, Murray Walker, housed the Golden Knights for more than half a century. In that time, Clarkson posted an almost unfathomable 471-160-22 record. Each night, the stands were packed full of fans, eager to make themselves known. They stood together in the pursuit of one common goal: to will the Golden Knights to victory.
“In Walker, we only had roughly 1,400 seats, but we used to get in 2,200 to 2,500 people at the games,” says Yianoukos. “Walker is more like a gladiator pit: you only had about four rows of seats. But they would just jam in there. So, if you were on the ice surface and looked up, the only thing you saw was people. They’re on the beams, they’re on the rafters, they were all the way around.”
The packed Walker Arena — a notoriously difficult place to play according to most coaches who experienced the venue from the visitor’s bench — was home to some of the most successful Clarkson hockey teams in the storied history of the program.
“Back when Walker was in its prominence, we had three teams make it to the final game in the country. It was the 1962, 1966 and 1970 teams that made it to the final game,” says Yianoukos. “During the 1970s is when Jerry York came in to replace Len Ceglarski. It took about three or four years for him to build it up, but from 1976 through the last year in Walker, which was around 1990, the teams were exceptional.”
Jerry York, a legend in his own right, has coached college hockey since he began his tenure at Clarkson during the 1970-71 season as an assistant, before heading the program for six seasons. York then spent the next 15 years behind the bench at Bowling Green State University until the 1994-95 season, when he became the head coach at Boston College, where he remains to this day. York is a five-time NCAA National Champion and is the first coach in NCAA Division I hockey history to win 1,000 games.
“Hockey is interwoven right into the fabric of the people.” — Jerry York
Through his 48-year, hall-of-fame coaching career, York still recalls the atmosphere of Walker Arena.
“Oh, that was a terrific old venue. Small ice surface, small capacity. The student body, the fan base was right on top of all of the action,” recalls York. “Everybody now has built bigger arenas and more pro-style arenas. Back in those days, everyone had the old barns, and back in the 70s, Clarkson was probably considered one of the most difficult places to play in college hockey. They had a huge bell they’d ring every time we scored a goal. The fraternities really supported the teams. It was a raucous environment.”
Yianoukos adds, “The pep band was at the far end, and the visitor’s locker room was right there. Back then, the big tradition was that the Delta Sig fraternity had a bell, and every time we scored, they would clang it, and it was very annoying. In between periods, they would be banging that thing the entire time, so it was a real distraction to the visiting teams.”
Yianoukos and York agree that the Clarkson hockey community feels like family. Attending games is as much a social outing as it is a sporting event, and that goes for students and local community members alike. Yianoukos hearkens back to memories as a Clarkson student. When talking about the passion for the hockey program among those on campus, Yianoukos’ description evokes an almost spell-like bond to the team.
“Most of the Clarkson students have never skated, never seen a hockey game until they get here. And when they come in, they just fall in love with it,” he says. “I remember my freshman floor, I played freshman hockey that year, and everyone in the dorm went to the games. They just thought it was the greatest thing going. I don’t know if it’s the physicality, the speed, but for whatever reason, it is a big draw to the Clarkson student.”
York recalls the community atmosphere fondly. Having grown up just outside of Boston, he said he cherishes the nine years he spent in small-town Potsdam and the friendships he made through Clarkson hockey.
“I met a lot of really good people, rock-solid people. The families I met there, the interactions with the faculty, just the regular student body — I really enjoyed the small-town atmosphere of Potsdam and of Clarkson in particular,” York says.
“It’s a small town, that’s the key. Clarkson hockey is the focal point,” Yianoukos says.
And so, while the longstanding success of Clarkson hockey can be reflected in record books, the memories of seeing the Golden Knights rise in support of their team is what stands out so prominently to those who lived it.
“The long, successful history of Clarkson hockey has been well supported by the University, by the town and by the alumni. It’s an integral part of the Clarkson experience, I think,” York says. “Hockey is interwoven right into the fabric of the people.”