“I was attracted to the equipment,” Danis recalls. “I liked the big goalie pads, and I thought having a catching glove was cool. That Christmas, my parents bought me all the equipment.” His team lost his first game in goal by a score of 10–0. “I remember,” Danis says, “sitting deep in the net thinking, ‘All right, what am I doing here?’ The next game we lost 8–2. The third game we lost 7–4, and then it started getting better.”
A decade and a half later, Yann Danis put on the pads for the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs, the top minor-league affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, and shut out the Toronto Roadrunners in his first game as a professional hockey player. “He’s a winner,” says Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens’ director of player personnel. During his four years at Brown, Danis broke seven Brown and three Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) records. He was named a first-team All-American, Ivy League Player of the Year, ECAC Player and Goaltender of the Year, U.S. College Hockey Online Defensive Player of the Year, and New England Hockey Writers Association’s New England MVP. Most impressively, however, was Danis’s selection this spring as one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey’s answer to football’s Heisman Trophy. Danis was the first Brown player to be a Hobey finalist since the award was created in 1981. As Mike Rubin ’00, the radio voice of Brown hockey, put it while wrapping up the last game of Danis’s collegiate career: “From this point forward, [Danis is] the standard by which all Brown goalies will be measured.”
Over the past four years, the men’s hockey program has benefited from the steady, upward progression in Danis’s goaltending skills. The little boy who once couldn’t stop anything grew into a young man who stopped almost everything. Danis, a business-economics concentrator, will be remembered as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—goalies in the seventy-seven-year history of the varsity program. He first caught the eye of head hockey coach Roger Grillo during the summer of 1999, when Danis was playing in a tournament in Lowell, Massachusetts. Grillo was the first college recruiter to contact him. Today, the coach calls Danis “a huge part” of the resurgence of Brown hockey over the past four years. Before Danis’s arrived on College Hill from his native Saint Jerome, Quebec, in the fall of 2000, the Bears had slogged through five straight losing seasons. The team has since made three straight ECAC playoff appearances, including one visit to the ECAC Final Four, and has posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1995. This past season, the Bears shared the Ivy League title for the first time since 1995 and finished third in the ECAC, their highest ECAC regular-season finish in nine years. As Grillo told the Boston Globe, “Early on, Yann allowed us to stay in games. Then, he was winning us games.”
Danis, in fact, has received some of the most extensive media coverage in Brown hockey history, something, his teammates and coaches say, he has taken in stride. “I think he’s handled [the attention] perfectly,” says forward Pascal Denis ’04. “He hasn’t changed at all. I’ve played with him for four years, and he’s the same guy he was freshman year. He’s done a very good job of coming to the rink and playing hard.” Grillo adds, “Yann’s a well-grounded kid and a well-rounded kid—exactly what you’d want out of your son, exactly what you’d want a college athlete to be all about. He keeps things in perspective. He doesn’t walk around campus like he’s a superstar.”
Bill Corrigan ’58, the executive director and treasurer of the Brown Hockey Association, and a man who has followed Brown hockey as closely as anyone over the past half-century, says that Danis’s numbers are beyond what anyone else at Brown has averaged, “not just on an Ivy League basis, not just on a regional basis, but nationally.” So, is Danis Brown’s best goaltender ever? “It’s hard to say,” Corrigan replies. “But he’s one of the greatest, and Brown’s had a slew of them.” Kevin McCabe ’77, for example, who was the backbone of the 1976 NCAA Tournament team, owns six Brown records. And Don McGinnis ’70 still has the school record for fewest goals allowed in a season (thirty-four). All-American Mark Holden ’80 later played for the Canadiens and the Winnipeg Jets, while Mike Laycock ’79 and Geoff Finch ’94 were first-team All-ECAC selections. Chris Harvey ’90 remains the all-time ECAC career save leader (3,236). Almost forty years after Dave Ferguson ’66 was the goalie on the Bears’ 1965 Final Four team, he remains sixth on the school’s all-time save list. And don’t forget Don Whiston ’51, who tended goal for the U.S. team at the 1952 Olympic Games. (All but Harvey and Finch played before the advent of the Hobey Baker Award.) Danis smartly dodges any request to measure himself against past Brown greats. “I’d feel honored to know that people thought of me as the best goalie that ever came out of Brown because the program has produced a lot of great goalies,” he says. “But it’s hard to tell because the game has changed so much over the years.”
One thing is certain, however: four years ago no one would have predicted that Danis would end his Brown days as a legitimate contender for the nation’s top collegiate hockey award—never mind in possession of a two-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens’ organization. Like so many young Canadian hockey players, he dreamed of playing professionally, but by his late teens his chances looked pretty slim. As a Junior player, he was good but not a top-shelf prospect; he was never selected in the NHL entry draft.
After the 1999 summer tournament in Massachusetts, Danis watched as some teammates and opponents spoke to college recruiters outside the locker rooms, but no one approached him and he quietly returned to Quebec. A few days later, the phone rang and on the line was Grillo, who had been impressed by Danis’s quickness and athleticism. It was the first recruiting call Danis had ever received. Grillo and his staff stayed in touch as Danis began to blossom during a very strong year with the Junior A Cornwall (Ontario) Colts. By this time, other colleges were noticing as well, but the early enthusiasm and persistence of Grillo and his coaches paid off. Danis chose Brown over Clarkson’s offer of a full scholarship. “I was coming to Brown to get an education and play hockey,” he says. “Maybe if I played well for four years and I was lucky, I’d be invited to an NHL camp. Nowhere in my mind was I thinking about being drafted or being offered a contract.”
By January of 2001, Danis, still a freshman, had taken over for Brian Eklund ’02 as Brown’s number-one goalie in a difficult, four-win season for the Bears. The following year, with Danis in the crease, the team got better. Brown finished a game under .500 and qualified for the ECAC playoffs, where it took on the eventual conference champion, Harvard. The Crimson took out the Bears in two straight games, but not before Danis had grabbed the attention of pro scouts with a spectacular, sixty-six-save performance in the Bears’ 2–1 double-overtime loss in game two. That year, Danis finished second in the country in save percentage and was a second-team All-American. Grillo told him that during his junior year, professional scouts would be watching him closely.
Danis and the Bears kept getting better in the 2002–03 season. That year, the team put up its first winning record since 1995 and advanced to the ECAC Final Four for the first time since 1994. Danis set an ECAC tournament record with 243 saves in seven tournament games and wound up second in the nation in save percentage. The scouts noticed. Last summer, the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens made him contract offers, but after weighing them carefully, Danis turned them down, deciding that neither offered enough money or opportunity to make him forgo his senior year at Brown. “With the Hobey Baker talk and all the scouts at our games, there was a lot of pressure on Yann, but he responded,” says Grillo. And every time someone approached with a notepad or microphone and asked Danis about the Hobey Baker or professional hockey, he would politely answer that the prospects of both were flattering and exciting, but all he really cared about was helping the team win its first-ever ECAC championship.
For much of the winter the dream seemed ever closer to reality. The Bears were at the top of the ECAC until mid-February, when a late-season losing streak cost them the regular-season title and dropped them to third in the standings. Redemption was readily available in mid-March when the Bears hosted Harvard in the ECAC quarterfinals, but the Crimson brought Brown’s season and the career of Danis and his six fellow seniors to a bitter conclusion with a two-game sweep, capped by a 3-2 overtime win in game two.
“It was a huge disappointment,” Danis said afterward. “We had such high expectations going into the playoffs.” Asked about the late-season dip’s impact on his Hobey Baker chances, Danis revealed the extent of his frustration: “I’m not really thinking about it. It’s not even important now that we lost and didn’t make it to Albany [site of the ECAC Final Four]. Whatever happens with the Hobey Baker is not important.”
Still, less than a week later, he signed a contract with the Canadiens through the 2005–06 season and was assigned to the Hamilton Bulldogs. “Losing to Harvard was a huge disappointment,” he says. “My four years at Brown were the best years of my life. But then six days after the loss, I signed with Montreal. Every hockey player dreams of playing in the NHL, and for me to sign with the team I grew up watching was an even bigger thrill.”
Grillo says Danis’s impact will be felt even in his absence. For Brown to have a Hobey Baker finalist, he says, brings national respect to the men’s hockey program. “It helps recruiting,” he explains. “It helps the hockey program and the whole athletic department. It means a lot to our program and to this university to have a kid at this level. It’s exciting, and it’s a proud day for our university.”
“It’s going to be weird,” Danis said before leaving to turn pro, “to look down and see that I’m wearing a different jersey.”
Contributing editor Scott Cole covers sports for the BAM.