March 28, 2003

Returning C.U. to Prominence

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On a cold February day in 1986, Sun reporter Wendy Wagner entered Lynah Rink with a mission to commemorate the six graduating seniors of the men’s hockey team. As a part of her mission, she asked each one his plans for the future. Some of them didn’t want to return to Canada, some wanted to play hockey professionally, another one said:

“I want to get in the coaching area if possible. If I get a chance, I’d probably follow up on that.”

Who would have predicted that 17 years and one month later that same person would be guiding his alma mater to its best season since the fabled undefeated-untied ’69-70 season. Mike Schafer ’86 has gone from Cornell hockey captain to the second-most successful coach in Red history and is on the cusp of his fourth NCAA tournament appearance in his eight years as coach.

This year, Schafer also became the only ECAC coach to earn a second consecutive Coach of the Year Award for leading the Red to a No. 1 national ranking. He, and assistant coaches Jamie Russell and Brent Brekke were also recognized by the American Hockey Coaches Association as the Staff of the Month.

But while Schafer garners praise from people both within and outside the Cornell community, he is uncomfortable accepting the credit he is due.

“I really think it’s a team award,” he said of being named ECAC Coach of the Year. “I’m happy for our staff, I think it’s a staff award, not just myself, and it’s reflective upon the fact that our assistant coaches have done a tremendous job bringing in great talent for our program. I’ve said it many times before, you’re a better coach when you have better players.”

Certainly, Cornell’s recruiting has been one of the keys to its success — an area of coaching that becomes increasingly difficult in the Ivy League where coaches must adhere to higher academic standards without the help of athletic scholarships.

However, Cornell’s trademark defense — a defense allowing 1.30 goals per game (Harvard is the next best in the nation allowing 2.18) — No. 1 penalty kill, and overall smothering style of play were all fashioned by Schafer.

“They’ve been the driving force behind us all year. They’ve established all the systems, they make sure all the guys buy into it, and they’re the main reason that we’ve been successful all season,” said sophomore goaltender David LeNeveu.

While his success on the season has put his name on the short list of coaches considered for the Penrose Award, given to college hockey’s coach of the year, his name elicits much respect among his players.

“Coach Schafer, I couldn’t say enough about him on every level. I think what’s made him so strong, and what’s really made this program so strong is that he knows how to have fun with the guys. He knows when to be serious, he knows when to buckle down, and he’s honest with every player,” senior defenseman Travis Bell gushed. “I’ve never played for or seen a more respected coach from his players. Every guy wants to play their best. He really is like a father figure to us, the guys just want to perform for him.”

“Obviously you can tell from his record what he’s done for the program,” said senior forward Shane Palahicky when asked about Schafer. “He’s the first coach I’ve had for four seasons in a row, and he’s taught me so much about not just hockey but about life. If you’re having a bad day, he’s always willing to talk to you and take you under his arm. He’ll help you out and not just talk to you about hockey, but about school, about whatever else is going on in your personal life. And I think that’s a sign of a great coach and a great man.”

Archived article by Amanda Angel