As a researcher and lecturer at Caltech, George Yates spends much of his day enlightening students about the theories and principles of mechanical engineering.
At night, Yates often translates the equations of non-linear water waves and other concepts of fluid mechanics in another arena as coach of the successful Caltech ice hockey team.
“Some of our locker room talk probably wouldn’t be understood by some of the other teams,” said Yates, 40. “I would venture to say we have the smartest hockey team in the world.”
Also, apparently, a talented one.
Caltech is the defending champion of the Worden Division in the 14-team Pacific Collegiate Hockey Assn., which had been known for 16 years as the Southern California Collegiate Hockey Assn.
The league is broken into two divisions and played at the club, rather than intercollegiate, level.
UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Arizona State and Cal State Fullerton compose the Adams Division.
Caltech, Cal Lutheran, Cal State Northridge, UC Irvine, Pepperdine and second teams from UCLA and USC make up the Worden Division.
The Caltech squad is open to students, faculty members and employees of the university and Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This season, the Beavers are 9-4-1 with a roster that includes four undergraduates, eight graduate students and 10 faculty members. In the past, players from France and Scandinavia have participated, but this season every member is either American or Canadian.
The opportunity to continue playing or revive junior careers thought to be dead draws a diverse group of Caltech players to the rink.
“In the Caltech community, people are very school-minded and they aren’t very funny,” said Martin Brouillette, 26, a graduate student from Montreal who is completing his Ph.D. in aeronautics and is the team’s leading scorer with 16 goals and 19 assists. “On the hockey team, we have a bunch of funny guys.”
Take, for example, Dwight Berg, a junior defenseman from College Park, Md., who has played hockey for 10 years.
“This is a good way to get out aggression,” said Berg, who is double-majoring in mechanical engineering and economics. “I like to get the guys at school excited about hockey.
“For every penalty minute I get, they earn a bonus point toward a free beverage. Sometimes there’s 10 or 15 guys from the dorm cheering for me to get penalties. It makes the game exciting.
“It’s also nice that George is the coach because I can get him to help me with my homework between shifts.”
Dave Fort, a 43-year-old engineer who helps run the campus astrophysics lab, began playing to stay in shape.
“I don’t have the proper willpower to get exercise done,” said Fort, who is Canadian. “I could never jog regularly or something like that. I need something that schedules me. With hockey, everything is laid out in advance. You know exactly when you play and practice.”
Caltech players pay $200 for the privilege of lacing up their skates, donning the Beavers’ sweater and practicing twice a week--after 10 p.m. on weekdays and Sunday mornings at 11:15--at the Pasadena Ice Skating Center behind the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
Despite the varying skill level of players and Yates’ willingness to give everyone playing time during games, Caltech has managed to win five division championships over the years.
“They are disciplined,” said Cal Lutheran Coach Wayne Frye. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. Obviously, they have a pretty solid academic background. Maybe that’s why they’re so good on the ice. They take an engineer’s approach.”
Said Pepperdine Coach Sean McGillivray: “Caltech plays a dump-and-chase, hard-hitting game, which is probably closer to what you see in the pros. That game is very difficult to defend against. The smaller the arena, the more advantageous it is for a team that does not have a lot of fast skaters.”
An abundance of crude rinks that vary in size and are often rimmed by a chain fence rather than plexiglass has not deterred the league’s growth in popularity.
Cal Lutheran, which began as nothing more than a marketing project for Frye’s business students, has become the league’s showpiece and the model for other programs.
Before Wayne Gretzky skated onto the ice at the Great Western Forum for the Los Angeles Kings, Cal Lutheran was packing more than 500 fans into the Conejo Ice Skating Center, which is located in an abandoned discount store in Newbury Park and has a seating capacity of just 200.
That kind of support is difficult to imagine at Caltech. The largest crowd in Caltech history was about 300 for a game two years ago against Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Our priorities are a little different from maybe USC, Pepperdine or some of our other neighbors,” said Ted Herowitz, vice president for institute relations. “It’s a hard thing to ask the priority of a hockey team versus a new laboratory for a biologist or a chemist.”
With an attack led by Brouillette, Pavel Svitek (14 goals, 19 assists) and Mike Freeman (15 goals and 11 assists), Caltech figures to once again challenge for the division title, which will be decided at the league tournament April 4-9 at the Conejo Ice Skating Center and the Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank.
On Friday, Caltech travels to Culver City Ice Rink to play UCLA in one of three remaining regular-season games.
“There have been a couple of exceptions, but there’s kind of a tradition of Caltech athletic teams being losers,” Yates said. “We’ve traditionally had a winning season, and I think we have a good chance to defend our title this year.”