March 12, 2002

History Lessons: Lynah Style

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Safety school!” “I’m blind, I’m deaf, I wanna be a ref!” “Screw BU, Harvard too!” Such are the sounds at Lynah Rink on hockey night. Yes, it’s fun to yell cheers and insulting phrases at opposing teams, but praise and passion for the Red hockey team is empty without an understanding of where this team has been, what it has experienced, and where it stands now in relation to its history. Now, as the team records triumph after triumph, garnering national media attention, you may be tempted to jump on the bandwagon. Sure you can call yourself a fan, but to gain a full appreciation for Cornell hockey, you must first realize the program’s difficult start, its rise to national recognition in the late 1960s, and its subsequent fall, from which it is finally beginning to recover.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Cornell hockey team began well but eventually skated into trouble. In 1897, a group of students tried to start a club hockey team but failed miserably, having no coach, no facilities, and no money. In 1900, however, a hockey club was formed and coached by G. A. Smith, who went undefeated in his first and only season.

The team itself went undefeated in three of its first four seasons, and when it established its first permanent coach in Talbot Hunter, won its first Intercollegiate League Championship. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this feat was that every game was played on the road.

But after this early success, the team only recorded five winning seasons over the next 36 years. Reasons for this slump included the horrible conditions on Cornell’s home ice, Beebe Lake, and the difficulty in preparing the team for its usually road-heavy schedule. The Cornell hockey team learned how to skate on Beebe Lake, perhaps not the best of locales.

Perhaps former team member Dave Cutting described it best, as related in Good Sports: “It was primitive hockey during my time and compared to the luxurious conditions at Lynah Rink, laughable.”

He goes on to describe how the rink was bordered by three inch wooden walls against which players would pack snow to cushion the blows from rampant checks. The ice would also crack from time to time, carrying away parts of the boundary. Many teams were not willing to come to Beebe to play, and so Cornell was forced to play much of its schedule on the road.

But over the next few years, the team underwent a face-lift. A new coach was hired, Cornell joined the Ivy League, and in 1957, Lynah Rink was built.

Now with a difficult past behind it, and a solid foundation to build on, the Red was ready to take on the nation. New head coach Paul Patten was a highly qualified coach who brought discipline, a hearty spirit, and an extensive knowledge of the game to Ithaca. He utilized his many recruiting connections to bring in a highly talented class. In its first three seasons under Patten’s reign, Cornell went 9-42-2, allowing double digit goals 18 times, including an 18-0 bashing at the hands of Harvard.

However, as a testament to Patten’s ability, the team about-faced in its next three seasons, going 29-26-6 without giving up even one double-digit loss. To complete the impressive turnaround, on February 3, 1962, Cornell upset Harvard 2-1 at Lynah Rink for the first time in 50 years and eight tries — a period over which the team had been outscored 86-8. The bumbling team in Carnellian and White that had been jeered at in opposing rinks was finally coming into its own.

In 1963, Cornell brought in a new coach to take it to a new level. Using his ability to get the most out of his players, Ned Harkness forged one of the greatest dynasties in college hockey history. It was a team that not only recorded impressive stats but also brought together a great number of big names. Under Harkness, Cornell had four straight NCAA Final Four appearances and won two national championships. The dynasty’s most remarkable achievement occurred during the 1969-1970 season when it recorded the only undefeated, untied season in the history of college hockey. On top of such success, the team picked up four ECAC titles and five Ivy League titles. During his tenure, Harkness recorded one of the highest winning percentages in NCAA history at 85.4%.

Ned also brought in some of the greatest players Cornell has ever seen, including Ken Dryden, Cornell’s first NHL draftee, Harry Orr, Brian Cornell and the Ferguson brothers – Doug and Dave. Dryden’s class included Cornell’s first batch of All-American selections.

But the golden days of titles and winning records could not last forever, as Harkness left Cornell to coach in the NHL in 1970. Over the next 25 years, the Red reached only two Final Fours, zero National Championships and three ECAC titles. For a team used to competing on a national stage, this success rate was not enough. Double-digit loss seasons were recorded for the first time in 10 years, and the team never again recorded over 10 wins in the Ivy League.

But in 1995, the athletic department introduced Mike Schafer ’86 as head coach and the men in Red responded immediately, picking up two straight ECAC titles. The team recently won another ECAC title and is primed to make a run at the national championship.

In 102 years of hockey, Cornell has had two major upswings and two major downswings. With the leadership of Schafer and strong recruiting classes, the Red is ready for another upswing into national prominence. So with an understanding of where this team came from — playing on Beebe Lake with wooden boards that float away, to two national championships, to its current rebuilding period — perhaps the passion in your “Screw BU” will be a little deeper.

Archived article by Sumeet Sarin