Yale hockey star returns to his roots in Frozen Four appearance
For a class project, Jesse Root sent a letter to a newspaper. It decried political candidates who say false or misleading things about their opponents.
“I don't think it's fair,” the 9-year-old wrote. “Why don't they just tell the truth and say what plan they have to make their community better?”
This was in 1999. Now a 23-year-old junior at Yale majoring in political science, Root has maintained his interest in the subject. But the letter did not reflect a deeper passion. By that age, he was playing competitive hockey for several years. Later, he would help lead Mt. Lebanon High School to a championship season and eventually enroll at Yale, where the hockey community is decidedly better for his presence. Coach Keith Allain calls him “a terrific player for us.”
Root's body of work, which includes centering the Bulldogs' top line, is impressive. But it took just one moment to cause a seismic impact when his overtime goal beat Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament West Regionals. Yale winger Kenny Agostino stole the puck behind the Minnesota net and flicked a pass through the crease to Root, who was heading to a defensive position but then altered his course.
Root shot as the pass arrived and the goalie never had a chance. The game was over in nine seconds.
It was the quickest overtime goal in tournament history. More important, it sent Yale, seeded fourth in the region, into the finals against North Dakota the next day. Root scored the go-ahead goal in the 4-1 victory, advancing the Bulldogs (20-12-3) to their first Frozen Four and a date with Massachusetts Lowell (28-10-2) in the national semifinals Thursday at Consol Energy Center.
Looking back, “It was surreal when it happened, and everything happened so fast,” said Root, who is related to Dan Marino on his mother's side.” It's just reacting. I don't think it's fully set in.”
Root has many attributes, including winning faceoffs. But he lost the one at the start of overtime before Agostino's aggressive forecheck caused the turnover. Agostino had learned the day before he was one of two prospects the Penguins traded to Calgary for veteran Jarome Iginla.
“He made an unbelievable pass,” Root said. “I was going to my forechecking spot. I was going to help him. But I saw he was going to force the turnover. I just didn't know how clean he would have it. When he won the battle clean I went to the net and he made a perfect pass.”
Root is accustomed to finding the right place at the right time. As a sophomore, he was one of several talented players who contributed to Mt. Lebanon's unbeaten state championship season in 2006. Among his teammates were Parker Milner and Patrick Wey, who played for Boston College's 2012 national champions.
“He could always read the game, read the play very well,” said former Mt. Lebanon coach Paul Taibi, who now heads the West Virginia men's program. “He could anticipate the play. He knew where to be. He did the little things you can't teach.”
Root plays between Agostino and Andrew Miller, the club's top two goal scorers. Allain said he sometimes thinks of Root as “the conscience” of Yale's top line.
The sequence capped by Root's game-winner passed in a flash. “I guess that's why they call it sudden death,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said afterward, acknowledging that he missed the goal. So did Root's father, David, who watched the game after work at a downtown restaurant.
“It happened so quickly,” he said. “I heard it was Jesse who scored, and I went ‘Oh, my god.' ''
The founder and CEO of a wealth management firm, David Root drove to Grand Rapids, Mich., the next morning to see the win over North Dakota, which ensured a special homecoming for a hockey family. David played intramurals at Michigan. Jesse's younger brother, Alec, plays at Bowdoin. Kathy Root, Jesse's mom, “is their biggest fan,” her husband said. “She's the first one they call.”
It was no secret what was at stake for the Root family at the start for the season. But the notion of Jesse Root coming home for the Frozen Four was rarely discussed. Even when Yale made the NCAA Tournament, the subject remained off-limits.
“We talked a little about it as a family before he went to school this year,” David Root said. “But not a lot. It was always in the backs of our minds.”
Then Jesse scored. “Jess, you're halfway to Pittsburgh,” David Root texted his son.
There, he said it.
Close in distance, Consol otherwise represents light years from the South Park outdoor rink where David taught Jesse and Alec, who is two years younger, how to skate. Both fired countless shots at the basement goal, broke picture frames playing ball hockey in the living room, competed together in youth hockey, attended Mt. Lebanon and then the challenging Taft School in Connecticut.
Jesse left Mt. Lebanon after his sophomore year and spent three years at Taft.
“I always wanted to compete at the highest levels, athletically and academically,” he said. “I saw a lot of kids committing to Ivy League schools and I thought it would be a good opportunity for me.”
Root said the experience helped prepare him for the rigors of Ivy League academics and top-quality hockey. But who could have predicted this?
“It still doesn't seem real,” he said.