Just outside of Toronto, Ont. lives a very proud family that has a long history of producing quality athletes, students, and people. Two of the bunch have resided here in Ithaca for the last four years and can be found at one of a number of places on any given night.
First, check the ice at Lynah. If you don’t see a No. 17 jersey working drills with a similarly built individual wearing No. 29, you might want to try the stationary bikes at the Friedman Center. You’ll see two curly-haired guys sweating through their t-shirts, chatting about their days on the ponds of Ontario or tomorrow night’s biochemistry prelim. If you still have no luck, the library would be a good bet, since they both have medical careers to worry about once their hockey days are over.
Whenever you run into Matt and Mark, the McRae brothers, as they’re known around campus, you’ll likely notice an intensity and closeness that so often characterizes the relationship between identical twins.
“It’s been a great experience being here with him,” says Mark, a senior defenseman for the Red. “I just love being around him, playing hockey with him, living together and going to school together. It’s been amazing.”
So amazing, in fact, that the brothers are now at the top of their class both on the ice and off. What makes the pair even more special is its ability to translate their challenging of one another into the rhetoric of the entire team.
This year’s hockey team has some of the greatest expectations a Cornell team has faced in recent memory, and the McRaes have been essential in channeling that pressure into a positive force together.
“We’re not calling it pressure. With the group of guys we have, it’s really become a confidence that we deserve that pressure and are willing to face it this season,” said Matt, a forward for the icers.
Though neither brother was named a preseason captain, their ability to lead has become one of the most important factors on head coach Mike Schafer’s ’86 team.
“They’ve really taken on a role as leaders and that has been very apparent in the preparation of the entire team this season,” said Schafer.
Part of that preparation was realized in the McRaes’ willingness to stay in Ithaca this summer to work on their skills and help out with some offseason activities the team commits itself to each year.
“I think it’s important that they stayed the entire summer,” said Schafer, “they could have done a lot of things, they’re a great family and them staying was a big sacrifice and an example to the team.”
The McRaes have offered the Red a lot heading into their senior campaign and are sure to contribute even greater success once the first puck is dropped this season.
“Our entire focus is in taking the program to another level before we leave,” said Mark. “We want to bring it back to the good old days and surpass the accomplishments of that era.”
In order for the Red to accomplish its team goal of legendary status, Matt will be expected to contribute more points than in seasons past. In his first year on the Hill, the playmaker showed great promise, leading all ECAC freshmen with 24 points on eight goals and 16 assists. The mark was good enough for fifth overall on the team and resulted in a first team All-Rookie selection for the young gun.
Expectations for more production rose heading into Matt’s sophomore campaign, but a nagging injury forced him to accept limited ice time. The second-year rising star was also forced to sit out a number of games in what promised to be his breakout season.
The frustrating 2000-01 season saw Matt score just three goals, coupled with six assists. He was also only able to muster two multi-point games, which paled in comparison to the six he had his first year. However, despite the headaches of his second season, last year saw the emergence of the scrappy McRae, as Matt was able to play in all but one game for a competitive Red squad.
Now a veteran and seeking retribution for a sophomore season gone wrong, Matt was able to pick up 17 points on 11 goals and six assists. This time around, however, Matt’s points came when they were needed most, the sign of a true champion. He scored two goals in the huge win against B.U., two regular season game winners, and the winning goal in the 4-2 victory over Yale in the ECAC playoffs. Matt’s points also came in bunches, as he was able to string together two three-game goal streaks and tallied a point in five consecutive games on two separate occasions.
“Freshman year I played really well and scored a lot, then sophomore year was just really tough with the injury constantly holding me back,” he recalled, “but junior year I started to play like I knew I could, and that was encouraging heading into this season.”
Mark also showed great potential early for the Red, leading a talented defensive corps in scoring during each of his first two seasons at East Hill. He was also named to the All-Rookie team as a freshman with 21 points on five goals and 16 assists. Mark’s freshman year included a record-tying performance against Clarkson in which he equaled the freshman mark for assists in a game with four.
Mark’s sophomore year proved to be a smoother ride than his brother’s, as the defenseman overcame an early rookie season injury to play in every game in 2000-01. He racked up 19 points his second season, improving his goal count to eight.
Last season, Mark unequivocally emerged as one of the ECAC’s top players from the blue line, if not its very best. Notching an incredible 15 points on the power play and 30 overall, Mark earned second team All-ECAC and All-Ivy honors by year’s end. Mark’s 30 points, good enough for third amongst ECAC defensemen, included an incredible 22 assists and seven multi-point games.
“It was a big year for me, and our power play was really able to step things up,” said Mark of his special teams partners, a group that is considered one of the best in the nation, “but I’ll have to do even more if we expect to go further this season.”
Regardless of where these two talented brothers can take Cornell in their last year at Lynah, their legacy at the University will go down as one of the finest in-the-family efforts ever. The twins are touted as two of the finest student-athletes to ever go through Schafer’s program, and the coach is quick to make the point clear.
“They are the very best at being actual student-athletes. A lot is expected of them in all areas of their lives here, and they step up when it comes to the big things. You can’t ask for more from those guys than they already give,” lauded Schafer.
Stepping up is exactly what the brothers McRae have done in completing a stringent pre-medical curriculum here at the University with GPAs in the high 3.0s. Both have also scored very well on their MCATs and are looking to medicine as a “fallback” after they’re done competing in hockey.
“It’s tough,” says Mark of the work-play balance, “you’re going to basically the major leagues of academic universities and also playing top-notch hockey. It’s all about avoiding distractions because if you skip on your work, you’ll have to stay up the next night and then you won’t play well. You can really fall behind here if you don’t stick with it.”
Having taken the same classes through much of their time here, the brothers have created a rhythm in their studies that reflects the ease with which they mesh on the ice.
“We really back each other up and help one another when the other is struggling.” Matt continued, “I can’t imagine having to do it on my own, it must be rough. I got lucky having [Mark] here with me.”
Whereas academics obviously provide the brothers with a huge opportunity for success, their career choices were complicated when the Atlanta Thrashers chose Matt in the fifth round and Mark in the ninth round of the 2000 NHL amateur draft. Both brothers participated in the team’s camps this summer and will be looking for offers in 2003.
So what’s the immediate goal?
“It’s definitely to play hockey right now,” Mark said, speaking for his brother as well, “I really want to give it all I have while I still can and med school will be something I can do once I’ve either succeeded or not in my attempt to play hockey for a long, long time.”
Of course, the prospects of an NHL career can be distracting for two seniors with much to accomplish before they toss their graduation caps.
“It can be overwhelming because we want so badly to finish out our careers here with a major step forward for the program. At the same time we want to continue to work hard in the classroom and not ruin things on that front,” said Matt. “But it’s not like the guys from Atlanta care about my organic chemistry midterm.”
Regardless of what becomes of the two brothers that grew up playing alongside each other and big brother Peter, who captained the Sacred Heart hockey team until last year, they will always have their glorious years on East Hill.
“It’s been a real treat, that’s the only word I can use,” concluded Mark. “We didn’t have to play together or come here together or even live together but it’s been a blast and we made the most of a great opportunity.”
Archived article by Scott Jones