November 3, 2000

A Study in Determination

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Before a story can be written on senior tri-captain Andrew McNiven, the writer must understand one simple thing.

Hockey is Andrew’s life.

Not in the sense that Andrew has grand aspirations of scoring 40 goals and joining an NHL team next year. Not in the sense that he looks each week in hockey stories, searching for his name. Certainly not in the sense that the engineer brushes aside his studies to play this great game.

Hockey simply flows through Andrew’s veins.

For proof, you just need to talk to his father, Peter McNiven. Distance and an inconvenient injury during the Harvard game two years ago have kept Andrew’s father from ever seeing his son play college hockey, but he speaks of his son’s passion with pride that is evident in his voice. As Andrew loves hockey and cherishes the opportunities it has given him, so has his father.

This family loves its hockey.

Andrew’s passion for the game started at an early age, as it does for so many young Canadian boys.

The young McNiven grew up in Delta, British Columbia, about 10 miles south of the city of Vancouver, right on the American-Canadian border. The boy was close-knit with both of his parents, as well as his older brother Sean.

“I have a brother who’s about four years older than me. When I was a little kid, I used to follow him wherever he went,” the senior tri-captain reflected. “I looked up to him to teach me in life, whatever he did, I wanted to do.”

That included hockey. When Sean set off for hockey practice around the age of six, a two and a half year old Andrew inquisitively asked his parents where his big brother was going.

“He’s going to play hockey,” they replied.

The younger brother looked assertively back at his parents and said, “I want to play hockey too.”

His parents informed him he was too young to play, but nonetheless nurtured the young boy’s wishes.

“My dad cut this old hockey stick and I’d run around the house, batting a little ball around,” McNiven remarked. “Ever since then, hockey has been my number one sport in life.”

When Andrew was finally allowed to play competitive hockey at the age of four, it quickly became apparent that the young competitor was more than just an average hockey player. He was already better than other children who were much older than he was.

Peter McNiven remembers what may have been a turning point in Andrew’s young hockey career.

“When he was five, they hired a figure skater to coach his hockey team,” Mr. McNiven remarked. “From that he learned to skate well, and always had a skating advantage after that.”

That same skating ability remains one of Andrew’s strengths today. He covers the ice as fluidly as any player on the team, skating around, always lurking, always looking for the puck.

But it’s really all those days playing hard-nosed in hockey-rich western Canada that have made McNiven what he is today. He does all those things the “pretty” forwards don’t like to do. He plays the penalty kill. He fights for pucks in the corners. He would rather find an open man than shoot the puck himself. It should come as no surprise that McNiven has nearly four times as many penalty minutes as points in his career.

He is the definition of team player.

But after years of being a team player, McNiven has now been called upon to do something he’s never done before. Be the team leader. He will now need to prove that all those things that can’t be taught on an ice-rink, like determination, heart and intensity are what it takes to lead a team to a championship.

McNiven has no visions of changing his style of play now that a little white “C” has been stitched to his chest. “I’m just looking to be the same person I was last year,” he says dutifully. He knows his role on the team, and increased visibility hasn’t swelled his head or caused him to want to be more than he is. He remains the team player he always was.

That’s what separates McNiven from other hockey captains.

There are two distinct types of team captains in hockey. The first is the loud, screaming type we tend to picture in our minds, the men who get the glory and the blame. The men who stand on chairs and scream and compel their teammates to work hard and push harder with an evil stare and a few dozen curse words.

McNiven is not that kind of leader. He is the other kind, the player that leads not with words, but with actions. His captaining style will be similar to that work ethic he has displayed on the ice in the past. It could very well be said that his captaining style is his work ethic. He is the selfless leader, ready to give whatever it takes to help the team win.

“I don’t really think leadership is something you should impose on anyone,” he says. “As long as you can get the respect [of your teammates], then people sort of follow your lead.”

The younger players certainly appreciate the effort that their captain puts in each day.

“He’s probably the hardest working player on our team,” said sophomore forward Matt McRae.

“He’s not the loudest guy. Offensively though, he’s always leading the pack,” said Mark McRae. “He’s a heck of a leader.”

“I’m not a flashy player out there, I’m going to have to be the guy that leads the team by working hard in the corners and getting the puck out,” McNiven said.

Not exactly the words of a selfish player. He is as modest and quiet as they come, intense and yet not boisterous or even outspoken.

Don’t mistake McNiven’s soft-spoken ways for a lack of competitive fire though. McNiven thrives on an intense desire to win. He feeds off it, and in turn gives that fire to others.

When I asked Sean McNiven what he would tell Cornell if he could let the campus know one thing about his little brother he replied, “He wants to win. He’s very, very competitive.”

You can hear that desire to win in every statement Andrew makes. The fire and intensity of a champion rests within number 10, and it drives him every day. He looks up at the Lynah rafters and realizes that of all the banners, not one belongs to him.

“The ECAC championship is pretty much the only goal I have in my mind this year,” McNiven says with a sense of purpose.

Then, as though you can see the self-placed boulder upon his shoulders, he remarks, “I’ve gone three years already and we haven’t won anything.”

Those wins over Harvard, those trips to Placid, those winning records from the past few years mean very little to McNiven. If you don’t finish the year with a playoff win, you haven’t really won anything, McNiven believes.

When head coach Mike Schafer ’86 talks about his captains, one point keeps coming up. “All three have outstanding work ethic … and they hate to lose,” the coach says with a smile.

Failure, for McNiven, is not an option.

The senior understand this his last opportunity to do what he came to this school to do. Win it all.

It’s been a tough three years of not winning the ECAC for McNiven. Cornell has been good, but seemingly always a step away from the prize. These past three years could end up little more in the record book than an afterthought, the three years after Cornell won a pair of consecutive championships. McNiven is here to make sure that three doesn’t become four.

He wants people to walk by the team pictures that encompass the fabled rink, point to the 2000-2001 team picture and say, “they won it all.” He wants to join the Brad Char
trands, Dan Lodboas and Bill Hansons of Cornell hockey lore, captains who have led their teams to glory.

And while the senior certainly won’t be the greatest scorer in Cornell’s storied history, and he may not be the most imposing leader this school has ever seen, his legacy, he hopes, will be a little 38″ x 54″ piece of cloth to hang from Lynah’s storied rafters. That, more than any spot in a record book, would suit the senior just fine.

So, if you catch number 10 looking up from the bench during games, don’t be too alarmed. He’s just looking for a little space to write his name in the history books.

Archived article by Charles Persons