By JOON LEE
This is the latest Cornell hockey head coach Mike Schafer ‘86 has gone without naming a captain, or any officially delineated student-athlete leadership, for his team. Traditionally, college hockey teams name the leaders for the upcoming season at the end-of-season banquet in the spring. Schafer and his team decided to forego tradition, something he has done in the past, but this is the closest he has gotten to the start of the season without naming a captain.
But then again, the 2014-15 season was unlike any season Schafer had gone through during his 20 years at the head of Cornell’s hockey program. The Red put up a 11-14-6 record last season — the worst under Schafer — and failed to make it out of the first round of the ECAC tournament for the first time under the head coach’s watch.
The 2014-15 season presented a lot of firsts for Schafer, few of the positive variety.
The decision to not name a captain reflects a shift in the culture that Schafer and his coaching staff hope to institute in wake of one of the most disappointing seasons for Cornell hockey in recent years. While injuries certainly played a large role in the team’s lack of success last season, a lack of unity in the locker room appeared to have played a role in the team’s disappointing record.
Commitment and Accountability
This year, Schafer has strongly emphasized the idea of culture and the legacy of what it means to be a member of the Cornell hockey programs. The idea of forming stronger bonds with teammates appears to have struck a chord among the players in Schafer’s locker room.
“It’s as simple as a senior getting lunch with a freshman or something like that,” said senior forward Teemu Tiitinen. “I don’t want to dwell on last year’s problems or anything, but it’s fun. Guys are like best friends with each other already, so it’s going to translate onto the ice.”
Coming into the season, Schafer wanted to focus on restoring two things to the program that may have been absent last year for the Red: commitment and accountability. In order to achieve this, Schafer began to hold 6 a.m. weight room sessions.
“For me, lifting at 6 and 6:30 in the morning is sign of commitment,” Schafer said. “It’s a sign of having to be on top of your school work, having to be taking care of yourself off the ice and having to be organized because you have to get up at 5:15 in the morning. Not too many Cornell students want to do that.”
One of the major changes that Schafer made coming into last season was the forecheck, hoping to invigorate the Red’s defense in the opposition’s’ defensive zone. Cornell struggled mightily in the forecheck and after the last game of the season, Schafer announced he was going back to his old system. This move, Schafer said, will bring accountability back for the players.
“My frustration with [the new forecheck system] was that there were a lot of excuses,” Schafer said.” The way that I’ve always forechecked in the past, everybody has a role. Everybody knows where they are supposed to go and it was a very simple system to explain to non-hockey people. The system that we used, there could be a lot of excuses. There was a lot of thought instead of being where they were supposed to be.”
There are no more excuses, Schafer said. Reestablishing the culture of commitment and accountability will go a long ways, Schafer said, to getting the Cornell hockey program back to its glory days.
“You try to listen to the leadership counsel or leadership committee or the captains. In the past, I listened,” Schafer said. “Now, I’m demanding.
“When I first took over the program, it was about commitment, commitment to each other and commitment to the team and the way we want to play. We got away from that last year and I’m in the one that has to reset the culture with the coaching staff and the players’ response to it has been absolutely phenomenal. I think what the players wanted 20 years ago and, with no question, this group of players, they carry that same enthusiasm going into the season.”
A Departed “Loud” Senior Class
From an outside perspective, replacing a senior class of players consisting of Joakim Ryan ‘15, now with the San Jose Sharks organization, John McCarron ‘15, now with the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Penguins of the AHL, Cole Bardreau ‘15, playing for the Philadelphia Flyers organization, Joel Lowry ‘15, playing for the Los Angeles Kings organization, and Jacob MacDonald ‘15, with the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL, looks like a daunting task.
The 2015 senior class came into Cornell as one of the most hyped recruiting classes in recent Cornell hockey history and, with three players drafted by NHL teams and another who probably should have been drafted by an organization, among the most talented.
From the moment they stepped onto the slope, the class garnered significant media attention, proved to be a loud, vocal presence in the locker room and asserted leadership in the locker room, highlighted by McCarron’s captainship of the Red as a sophomore.
But the group, in the end, never lived up to the hype coming in. The team never won an ECAC championship, and Schafer admits that the team underachieved while the group was on campus.
“You look back at it and you can point your fingers at a few different things. Lots of talented players in there, but as a team, we never achieved our potential,” Schafer said. “This is a look back at it and we have really good players coming back and some good new freshmen and it’s just a new opportunity for these guys to play as a team and maybe come out from some of those guys’ shadows and emerge from the shadows.”
Senior Christian Hilbrich further propagated the idea that the last senior class, primarily highlighted by McCarron, Bardreau, Ryan and Lowry, dominated the locker room during their time on campus.
“We definitely had some loud guys leave with [Bardreau], [Lowry], McCarron,” Schafer said. “Essentially that entire class was loud personalities. Now, it’s not as dominated by one class. We have voices from everywhere. Everybody’s voice is heard. It’s a well-distributed team voice, as opposed to previous years.”
It speaks loudly to hear seniors such as Hilbrich and Tiitinen talk about camaraderie between teammates, players spending time together off together, playing paintball, as if it is a completely new experience.
“You can just look at the tradition here at Cornell and when you’re at Lynah Rink, you better be the hardest working player or hardest working team here,” Tiitinen said. “I think that’s something we’re going to take pride in and you can talk about prior years and how we’ve shifted away from that, but for me, this is the closest group of guys that I’ve been with here in Ithaca. Guys hang out off the ice, on the ice. It’s completely different. It’s exciting moving forward.”
Hockey, more so than other sports, depends on the chemistry of players between players. At many points last season, the Red looked flat on the ice, passes went unreceived and the team looked out of sync around the net. Finding that chemistry and dynamic within the team remains incredibly important.
“It’s difficult in the sport of hockey for a player to take over the game,” Schafer said. “There’s some special guys, but you get to the very end and there’s the goaltender. Guys like [Buffalo Sabres rookie and former Boston University center] Jack Eichel come around very rarely and then guys around them gain confidence and then they have banner years and they make plays and the team takes off. Being comfortable and learning how to win and all of those things within the team, having success, handling failure, we’ve got to go in and be able to, as a team, we’ll handle success well and handle failure well.”
One area where having a vocal senior class could hamper a team’s develop is the integration of freshman, Hilbrich said.
“Sometimes, it’s a little intimidating when you have a vocal senior class,” Hilbrich said. “You don’t want to step on their toes as a freshman. You don’t know what to expect.”
Despite a talented freshmen class, the highest point total came from defenseman Ryan Bliss, with eight. Integrating freshmen will prove integral to the team’s success given that the Red welcomes in nine this season, which accounts for 31 percent of the team’s roster. In contrast, the Red welcomes back a total of four senior icers.
“Our senior class, we’re very open guys. Personable guys,” Hilbrich said. “We’ve tried to make them feel as home as we possibly can. We need them to be a contributing class this year and the more we can make them feel at home, the better chance they have.”
Freshman Anthony Angello, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014, said he has felt a warm welcome from his teammates.
“The guys took us in and I felt like part of the team instantaneously,” Angello said. “They’ve been great.”
Building that team chemistry early on will prove to be the foundation of the team as the Red heads into the season. How the team deals with wins and losses, ultimately, will shape the fortunes of the team during the new season.
“You need to trust your teammates full heartedly and we’ve done numerous team building exercises. We’ve played paintball,” Tiitinen said. “That has nothing to do with hockey, but guys love it. Guys are dressing up and having a good time. Creating those preseason memories, guys are going to be able to laugh about it. It’s a long season and we’re going to be up in Dartmouth when it’s freezing cold or something and we’ll have that.”
So, Who’s the Next Captain of the Red?
There is a decent chance that when the Red opens on opening night, there will not be a player on the ice with a red “C” or “A” on their chest, and according to Schafer, that is by design. The Cornell hockey program has always been highlighted by the physical and tough defensive style and the next-man-up mentality. Schafer said he hopes that the lack of captaincy will foster the growth of leadership within the locker room.
“I want to see when issues arise how they handle things within the team, who steps forward, who has a great attitude, who performs well on the ice,” Schafer said. “With nine freshman, who integrates with everyone? You have a lot of guys in one class that are a part of the team. Is that person someone who reaches out and touches base with all of those guys?”
The response to the lack of captaincy, Schafer said, has been an incredibly positive for the development of the Red. As many in the media ask him who the next captain of the Red will be, Schafer has not heard a peep about the vacancy from any of the players.
“The only time we only get this question is from the media,” Schafer said. “I find that ironic because, up to this point, we’ve had great leadership in the locker room. As I said, there’s been tremendous buy-in, great camaraderie, they’ve been working hard and we haven’t named a captain. We’ve been getting leadership, which we should, from every class and all groups of different guys. Eventually, I should probably do it soon and sit down and ask what they think who should be captain and assistant captain or whatever it is.”
Schafer said he has been impressed by everyone in the senior class, with each of the four players bringing something different both on and off the ice.
“In their own way, they’ve done a great job of leading and those guys, Reese Wilcox is kind of quiet and Teemu Tiitinen works extremely hard and John Knisley is detail oriented and Christian Hilbrich is laid back, but very well spoken,” Schafer said. “They’ve all reached out and done a great job of touching base and I think that we’ve got that through all of the classes. It’ll be interesting to see who they go with and who they project as the guy who helps us through problems and helps us through tough times and be humble and through successes, be humble and very level headed.”
Given the small size of the senior class, it is also entirely possible that a member of the junior class will step up as the next to don the red “C” on their Cornell hockey sweater. Among the juniors, Schafer pointed to forward Eric Freschi, forward Jeff Kubiak, defenseman Patrick McCarron and forward Jake Weidner as players in the class who “stepped up to the forefront” and shown massive improvement over the course of the summer.
“You want to go with the players’ vote because that guy will hold others accountable,” Schafer said. “Everybody thinks that I’ll name the captain, but the team’s going to name the captain soon. I’ll lay down the guideline. Who’s going to be the guy that will come to their need in adversity? Who’s going to be the guy that will raise the level of play when things aren’t going right? Who’s fully committed on and off the ice to follow the principles and traditions and the standards that we have as a program? Who is that guy?”
Dealing With Lower Expectations
People certainly do not expect Cornell to top the ECAC this season. In the preseason coaches’ poll, Cornell finished in seventh of 12th in the ECAC while the preseason media poll pegged Cornell to finish ninth in the conference. The departure of a skilled senior class, however, does not phase Schafer and his expectations for the season.
“Everybody looks at those guys that have graduated and says, yeah, they’re good players, but now, everybody needs to step up here,” Schafer said. “Everybody needs to play a better team game and we need to step forward. You hope that a few guys evolve.”
Schafer points to sophomores Dwyer Tschantz, Alex Rauter and Trevor Yates as the young players who he hopes to see “blossom this season.” But Schafer’s 20 years of experience points to the preseason picks not holding a lot of significance.
“How healthy are we going to stay? It’s the factor of getting off to a good start, not getting into a slump,” Schafer said. “I’ve had a lot of teams and we were picked to be in the bottom part of the league and we’ve won the league. There were years we were picked second and everybody looks at the players that graduate, try to project on the kids that come in. Nobody knows, even the coaches don’t know, what’s going to grow within the program.”
The lower external expectations certainly do not have members of the Red down. During the team’s pre-season media session, many expressed excitement and optimism for the team’s season.
“We had some great skilled guys and everything, but that’s the beauty of hockey,” Tiitinen said. “It’s a team sport and we’re going to win as a team and, unfortunately, sometimes we’ll lose as a team. We’re just going to come out and out work everyone. That’s as simple as that so especially in front of our fans and [Schafer] is really emphasizing that the culture is going to change and I think it’s something that the people here, the Ithaca people and the students, are going to be excited to see.”
Cornell has a steep road ahead of them with a strong ECAC conference returning many of its key players. Heavy hitters from last year, such as Harvard, St. Lawrence, Yale and Quinnipiac, look to return with strength and make a play for the conference title. But junior goalie Mitch Gillam has other ideas for the ECAC.
“We’ve been put down a little bit this year on the scale for standings and what not,” Gillam said. “I think we’re going to turn some heads this year.
“We’re going to shock the league this year.”