Ice hockey, an unpopular sport even among people who enjoy sports, is a veritable obsession at some elite business schools. Each year, hundreds of students at U.S. MBA programs don skates and pads—many for the first time ever—to compete against their peers on the ice.

The ice hockey tradition has a long history at B-schools, where hockey clubs are often the most popular of any student activity. It's not because students are particularly proficient at the sport. Rather, its appeal is that the slick ice lets a class of overachievers meet each other on equally unsure footing, students say. 

"People are trying to figure out the baseline mechanics of how to skate," says Lauren Cohen, a captain of the  Yale School of Management hockey team, and a second-year MBA candidate. Close to 20 percent of students in the program join the hockey club, most without any experience. "If you can skate backwards and know how to stop, that’s definitely the high end of intermediate," she says. 

It can be a relief, Cohen says, to see students who glide through complex mathematical equations stumble just as much as the next person on the ice. 

"Seeing your classmates struggle to stay upright is a nice reminder that we are all human," says Cohen. 

A Yale MBA candidate takes a shot on goal in a game among colleagues.

The sport is officially no-contact, but it often doesn't end up that way at Yale. "There's plenty of contact, and most of that is because people can't control their limbs," Cohen says. 

Hockey is so baked into MBA life at Yale that some students start preparing to join the club well before they arrive on campus. At a welcome weekend for admitted students in the spring, incoming students can negotiate with outgoing graduates to buy their pads, helmets, sticks, and skates at a discount. 

On the much larger campus of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, the hockey club does not have the physical space to fit the ballooning ranks of MBA candidates desperate for ice time. 

More than 200 of the nearly 1,700 graduate students at Wharton made it into the hockey club this academic year, and another 100 applicants were left on the waiting list. The squad has had to cap its ranks because its time on the rink is limited.