Cornell had the winning percentage in college hockey this season.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Cornell had the winning percentage in college hockey this season.

March 21, 2018

The Mindset Behind a Championship-Caliber Season

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This story is part of The Sun’s 2018 NCAA Hockey supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.

At first puck drop this season against Alabama-Huntsville, even among the blinding haze of a raucous and eager Lynah Rink back in October, four objectives sat clear in the minds of Cornell men’s hockey: a Kelley-Harkness Cup, Cleary Cup, Whitelaw Cup and, the most sought-out, an NCAA championship.

So far, two of those goals have been accomplished. The Red downed Boston University — its imminent opponent in the first round of NCAAs this coming Saturday — at Madison Square Garden in November for the first trophy. An improbable regular season run that included only three ECAC losses handed Cornell a first-place finish in the league and the second trophy.

“They’ve exceeded our expectations of them,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86 after the regular season. “I knew we could be in the top four, but I think we’d clinch [first place in the ECAC] with a game to go. I knew that we had some questions, and the team has answered those questions.”

The third, however, fell quickly out of grasp. Princeton, No. 7 in the ECAC, flipped the regular season script and handled Cornell in the conference semifinals. The Tigers would go on to steal an automatic NCAA bid by defeating Clarkson in the finals.

As for the fourth goal, Cornell will need to mentally refocus before it begins its journey for the ultimate prize: the third NCAA championship in program history. As evident in the 32 contests up to this point, the physical capabilities are there. But it’s not falling trap to déjà vu from last year that will be key.

“We’re still in that transition [period],” Schafer said after his team was bounced out of the NCAA tournament last year with a 5-0 loss to UMass-Lowell. “I thought these guys had a great year, one of the best years we’ve had here at Cornell.”

If you thought Cornell played above its capabilities last year, you will be excited to learn what the team accomplished this go-around.

Cornell hasn’t just surpassed the expectations set out for it, the Red has proven a juggernaut all season long. Cornell touts the best defense in the league, giving up an average of 1.53 goals per game (.37 better than Clarkson in second place).

This isn’t exactly new, however, as Cornell has long been a defense-first team that also touted a top-10 blue line as early as last year with 2.31 goals allowed per game.

But the biggest factor in this year’s incredible run, the team will tell you, is its mental fortitude — not getting too high when the wins, and a temporary No. 1 national ranking, come pouring in.

“When you win a lot of games, you have to be mentally tough to be consistent to win,” Schafer said before ECAC semifinal heartbreak last week. “It is so much easier to chase people than to stay out in front. There’s a different mindset. And to be out in front is much tougher than it is to get to the top. It’s much more difficult to stay at the top.”

As part of his plan to exercise his team’s mental toughness, Schafer had his team read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, over the summer.

In the book, Dweck writes that, “those with the growth mindset [find] setbacks motivating. They’re informative. They’re a wake-up call.” That’s just one of many lessons that were seared into the minds of the Red’s skaters this past summer — a mentality that never ceases the desire to improve, to better oneself.

“Every day is an opportunity to get better,” Schafer said before the season. “When you wake up and you relax on your laurels from the day before, or you think you did pretty well on that test and you rest on it, all of a sudden the guy that didn’t do so well, he’s going to study a lot harder.

“So you better wake up the next day and you better get after it,” he said.

No instance of this mindset is more palpable than Cornell’s crushing, 2-1 loss to Rensselaer the same week it was crowned the No. 1 team in the nation in both major polls. At the time, RPI was ranked 59th in the country, according to a mathematical ranking of every team in the country.

There are 60 Division I men’s college hockey programs.

“I’m thinking we better get our shit together this week,” was a fiery Schafer’s assessment after the loss. “That’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that these guys better wake up.”

It was one of the rare time’s Cornell’s mental toughness was called into question over the course of the season. While dominant, Cornell’s season thus far has not been without its hardships. Injuries, having to edge out close wins and swallowing tough losses have all been thrust upon the team this season — nothing incredibly unique, but it has all helped the team build its mental strength.

While the RPI loss was the worst by statistical standards, no game was tougher to swallow than the last, when Cornell missed out on the chance to play for the Whitelaw Cup by losing to Princeton, 4-1, in the ECAC semifinals. It was the second straight year Cornell missed out on ECAC postseason glory after losing to Harvard in the finals last year.

A team Cornell managed to beat twice up until this point (once by a score of 7-1), the Tigers’ explosive offense was too much for even the nation’s top defense to handle.

“The hardest part, at least for me, is that we knew exactly what we had to do to win the game,” said senior forward and co-captain Alex Rauter after the semifinal loss. “We knew how to be successful, and we just didn’t do it.”

So now Cornell will have to push forward with its worst loss of the season still fresh in its mind. Will the loss help in motivation to prove the doubters wrong or form a cloud over what has been a magical season?

Having his team read Mindset this past summer could very well prove pivotal in the single most important stretch of the season: the pursuit of an NCAA championship.

“We’ve bounced back and met every challenge we’ve faced this year,” Schafer said recently. “We’ve played in the bright lights, big city of New York City and we’ve grinded it out in front of 900 people in some other people’s rink where there is no atmosphere. They’ve met every challenge mentally … When you win a lot of games, you have to be mentally tough to be consistent to win.”

***

For the second straight year Cornell will head into NCAAs fresh off a crushing loss at Lake Placid.

Only this year, Schafer hopes his troopers are able to channel another edition of Whitelaw Cup disappointment into something productive — a national championship — instead of letting a magical season go to waste.

“‘Success is never final, failure is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts,’” is the paraphrased quote from Winston Churchill that Schafer offered his team this week ahead of what is now the do-or-die home stretch of the 2017-18 season.

“It’s a quote that you can win as much as you want and just because you lose, you’re not done,” Schafer added. “It’s about getting back on the horse and getting ready to compete and get after it. That’s all that matters to us. It’s that courage to compete and and play hard every game for Cornell and for themselves.

“They’ll be able to do that,” he said.