April 8, 2003

Reflections on Icers' Last Championship

Print More

The similarities are evident — even to a casual hockey fan, Cornell’s two NCAA champions relied heavily upon superior and very special underclassmen goaltenders — sophomore Ken Dryden ’69 in 1967 (1.46 goals against average) and junior Brian Cropper ’71 who recorded a 1.86 mark for the undefeated 1970 titlists. This year’s Red, ECAC kingpins and No. 1 in both national polls, has benefited from equally spectacular netminding in the form of sophomore David LeNeveu with his microscopic 1.14 GAA. And there’s more. The 2003 club entered the season with a few scores to settle from 2002, specifically the double overtime upset at the hands of Harvard in the ECAC playoff finals and the equally frustrating loss to New Hampshire in the NCAA quarterfinals. Both were by 4-3 scores.

Thirty-six years earlier, Cornell’s determination had been fueled by a 6-2 loss to Clarkson in the 1966 ECAC title contest, and the subsequent deprivation of a hard-earned NCAA berth due to an Ivy League-inspired dispute over athletic eligibility. And the 1970 outfit burned to correct the injustice perpetrated at the 1969 NCAAs when, less than 20 hours after downing rugged Michigan Tech in the semis, it lost an incredibly tight title game to defending champion Denver — particularly since it was played in the mile high Colorado altitude to which the Pioneers were so well acclimated (weirdly, both the Tech and D.U. games were decided by the same 4-3 score).

“We all felt that we should have won the previous year, despite the handicaps put in our path. We matched up very well against Denver and would have come out on top had we enjoyed the extra day’s rest instead,” said John Hughes ’70, co-captain of the 1970 club, “and Ned [Harkness] made sure we never forgot it the whole next season.”

Droughts also figured prominently in this NCAA hockey equation. The 1967 team entered the national tournament hoping to become the first Eastern school to seize the title in 13 seasons — when RPI (then coached by Cornell mentor Ned Harkness) had done so in 1954. Now, it has been 14 years since the ECAC has claimed the winner’s trophy (Harvard – 1989) and 13 since the league even placed a representative in the final game (Colgate, loser to Wisconsin in 1990). It also has long been noted that Cornell’s two titles resulted when the Frozen Four games were played within driving distance of Ithaca (1967 — Syracuse; 1970 — Lake Placid). Happily, in 2003, the NCAA has returned to upstate New York and Cornellians will only have to drive two and a half hours to Buffalo’s HSBC Arena in order to root the Red home.

Nonetheless, despite these impressive parallels, so very much is so very different. For starters, in 2003, hockey is a venerable and venerated institution on the East Hill. It is the most popular sport on the campus with a 40-year run of almost uninterrupted success. The trophy case features the two NCAA crowns, a record 10 ECAC tourney titles, 17 Ivy League championships, and 14 NCAA tournament appearances. In the four decades which followed Ned Harkness’ move to Ithaca in 1963, there have only been eight losing seasons and 34 Red sextets have participated in the ECAC playoffs. Sitting atop it all — like the bright red cherry adorning the ice cream sundae — is one of the truly unique achievements in the history of collegiate sports. The unblemished 29-0 mark compiled by the 1970 NCAA winners is the only undefeated-untied record accomplished by the national champion in over a century of college hockey competition.

It is this tradition which coach Mike Schafer ’86 draws upon so often to inspire and motivate his troops.

“I want our players to learn about the Big Red teams of the past — the great players, the great games — so they will strive to become part of that success, to add to it.”

In 1966, there were no wonderful memories, no fabulous confrontations to remember, no rivalries in which to revel and no famous victories to recall. Playing outdoors on Beebe Lake, Cornell barely had a hockey team for the first half century. Then the sport disappeared for a decade and only re-appeared with the opening of Lynah Rink in 1957. Yet, neither NCAA invitations nor titles appeared. To even think of bringing the national title to Ithaca certainly qualified as a pipedream. Dryden emphatically states that the first time he truly thought his club could actually win the 1967 NCAAs was only after it upset WCHA winner North Dakota 1-0 (the only 1-0 result in the 55 year history of the NCAA semifinals and finals) and after ECAC runner-up Boston University also knocked off defending champion Michigan State the next night which set up and All-Eastern final game.

Intersectional play was very rare in those days, and thus, the Western squads were pretty much a mystery. All the ECAC clubs knew was that it had been a long time since one of them had won the title and that fact did little for anyone’s confidence.

Dryden illustrated this point very well when he described the Red’s reaction to watching Nodak’s practice the afternoon prior to their epic confrontation: “it was a very impressive work-out, crisp, fast, well coached and, above all, they were huge.”

The college hockey universe was also so much smaller in the 60s. Only two leagues existed, the ECAC with 17 teams and WCHA, traditionally eight, but jumping to nine when Wisconsin reinstated the sport in the middle of the decade. No Hockey East, no CCHA, no new expansion leagues. Compare this to 2003 with six full-fledged Division I circuits and 59 clubs between Alaska and Maine. No national television exposure back then, prime-time on ESPN now.

The other great distinction between then and now relates to campus mood and atmosphere. Despite the somewhat depressing fact that the U.S. again finds itself at war on the eve of the 2003 NCAA final four, this conflict in Iraq has not affected Cornell in the way Vietnam did. It is perhaps ironic that Cornell hockey rose to prominence simultaneously with the escalation of the American involvement in Southeast Asia. Both reached their peak in the 1969-70 when the Red won their second NCAA title in four years as this nation’s troop deployment topped out at over one-half million men. This means that all which happened in Lynah occurred at a Cornell regularly wracked by protest, enveloped in often-revolutionary change and, yes, these events were sometimes accompanied by violence and angry expressions of wildly divergent opinions. It is doubtful that any university in America experienced more upheaval, more turmoil than Cornell in the 60s.

“Of course, all the hockey players were aware of what was going on; heck, there were guns in the Straight,” Hughes recalled many years later. “But, when we got to the rink, we were able to shut it out, put it aside. If we hadn’t, Ned would have made sure we did … plus, most of the protests took place in the spring — after hockey season.”

And this is he program which has been handed down over the generations and that Schafer inherits today. It means that the 2003 Red will enjoy many of the advantages and assets which helped its 1967 and 1970 predecessors achieve the ultimate. But, it will still come down to one question — as it always has since the inaugural NCAA tournament was staged in 1948 — you take to the ice, you win two hockey games and they call you National Champions.

Archived article by