April 9, 2003

Era of Red Frustration

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Admittedly, this is probably a column which only a lawyer could really love. It will adopt a fairly controversial position, defend it vigorously, and hope to convince a few readers to nod in agreement. Now, appropriately warned, here it is.

The question before the court is simple — given the consistent and continued excellence of Cornell hockey, why has it been 23 long years since the Big Red last qualified for the Frozen Four? In the period from 1981 through 2002, the Ithacans compiled a 340-270-54 record, captured three ECAC playoff titles, were runners-up for that honor an additional four times, and earned six Ivy League crowns. Yet, none of these clubs was able to advance beyond the NCAA quarterfinals.

By way of comparison, it is interesting to note that other eastern schools of similar strength and tradition have been granted much greater NCAA success since 1980. For example, old rival Boston University has made 13 trips to the tournament, seven times to the Frozen Four, which has yielded one title, three runners-up and three more third-place finishes. New Hampshire received 10 invitations to the big dance and made three final four appearances producing one runner-up, and a pair of third place finishes. Ivy League buddy Harvard was a 10-time NCAa invitee and in five seasons it reached the final four. Boston College, last week’s gallant quarterfinal opponent, recorded 11 NCAA excursions, and six times they have advanced to the final weekend, where the Eagles have achieved a sort-of Frozen Four symmetry; one title, two silvers, two bronzes, and single fourth. Interestingly, non of these schools qualified for their conference finals more than did Cornell (seven) in this period. However, perhaps more relevant to their success is this little fact — on 22 occasions, these four schools received a first or second seed in the NCAAs.

Somehow, Cornell only returned six times to NCAA competition, with no title, no final four, and only two quarterfinal defeats to highlight over two decades of playoff hockey. Is there an explanation for this 23-year famine, these two decades of denial? Has it been a case of anti-Cornell sentiment dominating various selection committees over the years? Or have the Red sextets simply not been good as some of its neighbors? Lets look at a few facts.

The answer lies in the seeds. It seems that every selection committee came to the conclusion that each Red squad was lucky to qualify for the tournament. Otherwise, why did Cornell receive the lowest possible seed on four of the six times they were selected? And the other two placements were no beauties either — third out of four and “best” of all in 2002, a No. 4 seed after cobbling together a 24-7-2 record and running away with the ECAC regular season title before losing the playoff final in double OT. Never once has Cornell been awarded home ice for the first round or ever been given a convenient or friendly game site.

This bizarre pattern began back in 1981, when the NCAA shipped the Ithacans out to Marquette, Mich. (where they split two contests but lost on total goals) to face Northern Michigan. This happened in spite of the fact that Cornell had finished second in the ECACs. Home ice went to semi-final loser Clarkson and playoff victor Providence, despite the Friars barely cracking .500.

In 1986, a terrific Cornell club, led by Joe Niewendyk ’88 won the easterns with a 20-6-4 record. But somehow, it was third-place Harvard that got to sleep at home, while Ithaca’s favorite icers trekked out to Colorado to face the nation’s No. 1 team: Denver, in the mile high attitude to which the Pioneers were thoroughly accustomed. Despite all the obstacles, Cornell split the series but wound up a goal short of advancing. Five years earlier, a .531 Providence sextet received the lowest possible seed despite winning the very same tourney. Astounding.

Perhaps the problem was that Cornell seemed to earn NCAA bids in five year cycles. So, when 1991 rolled around, it was again a No. 6 seed and a plane ticket to Ann Arbor where the valiant road warriors managed to steal the opener from the hometown Wolverines before dropping the next two. Nonetheless, they may have been fortunate to receive any invite at all since Hockey East clubs were awarded four slots while the ECAC only received two.

The pattern continued in 1996 and 1997 — two remarkably similar seasons. The Red won the Easterns both years and entered the NCAA’s with virtually identical 21-8-4 and 20-8-5 won-lost marks. No matter, the Ivy Leaguers’ reward each time was another sixth seed, two more road trips and defeats at the hands of Lake Superior and North Dakota, the 1997 champion.

This year, it’s finally different. No. 1 ranked in the country, No. 1 seed in the entire NCAA field. But has it really changed? Coach Mike Shafer ’86 openly wondered why, in the first-time-ever 16 team field, was Cornell slotted to face No. 14 Minnesota State out of the rugged WCHA instead of either of the “expansion teams,” Mercyhurst or Wayne State, the two lowest tournament seeds. And while the quarterfinal was in the east, providence is certainly a lot closer to Chestnut hill, home of B.C., than to Ithaca.

However, this time Cornell survived — and now will get to play NCAA Frozen Four games in the much friendlier confines of upstate New York. Syracuse, Lake Placid, Buffalo; kind of’ has a nice ring to it…

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