Although a 2-0 win over Quinnipiac on Friday night ensured that the seven seniors on the men’s hockey team will play a few more home games in the ECACHL playoffs before their time in a Cornell sweater is done, the Senior Night celebration the following evening still resonated with senior captain Byron Bitz.
“I remember right when we did the stick salute, I felt a lot of emotions running through my body,” Bitz said on Tuesday. “It was a little tough, I got a little teary-eyed, but I pulled it together for the lap. … It just comes so fast. It’s been a great four years and that was Senior Night, but we’ve got a couple more home games yet and hopefully we can keep it going here as long as we can.”
[img_assist|nid=21569|title=Saturday Night Lights|desc=Seniors gather at center ice after 8-4 win over Princeton on Saturday night.|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=66]
Bitz and his classmates are leading a squad that has hit its stride at the most opportune time of the season, as the Red is 5-1-1 in its last seven games as it heads into the final weekend of league play before the playoffs begin. However, things didn’t always appear so rosy for Cornell’s (14-9-4, 10-6-4 ECACHL) seven members of the Class of 2007.
The first obstacle came last summer, as defenders Ryan O’Byrne ’07 and Sasha Pokulok ’08 followed goaltender David McKee ’07 to the NHL.
“[It is] unprecedented to have three players leaving off one team [for the NHL],” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “It’s the first time it’s ever happened in our league to one team. It’s very difficult for those guys to come in having expectations and then having those changes throughout the course of the summer.”
However, Schafer said the manner in which Bitz and his six classmates — Mark McCutcheon, Mitch Carefoot, Dan Glover, Evan Salmela, Kevin McLeod and Matt Hedge — handled that turn of events has set them apart from any other class that has made its way through the Cornell program.
“[They did] a great job as far as leading, not complaining about it, not talking about it, understanding there’s change and then moving forward with it and never discussing what would have been or could have been if those three guys were here,” Schafer said. “I think that’s what set them apart — having to deal with that adversity before the year starts and then because we’re so young to deal with it … when we weren’t winning through the month of January, to deal with it at that point in time also.”
Throughout the ups and downs, players on the team credit the seniors with leading by example.
“They’ve kind of taken hold of everything. Everyone looked up to those guys,” said sophomore goaltender Troy Davenport. “They’ve been really good, the whole seven of them, top to bottom. And on the ice they’re doing all the little things, and it just trickles down to the underclassmen.”
Standing in the spotlight on the ice Saturday night, McCutcheon was reminded of another reason that his four years at Cornell have been special.
”It was just a good time to take the time out for the fans,” he said. “That’s been the best experience of my four years, was to play in Lynah Rink and having the unbelievable atmosphere. … It was nice to acknowledge them and hopefully they know how much we appreciate them and everything they do for us.”
While the fans have been there every weekend, the seniors also point to their teammates as valuable to their collegiate experience.
“Lifelong friends,” Bitz said of his classmates. “We’ve won a lot of games together, we’ve suffered losses together, but we’ve been really close and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Among Bitz’s favorite memories was defeating Harvard in the ECAC championship game in his sophomore season. McCutcheon and he also pointed to the triple-overtime loss to Wisconsin in last year’s NCAA tournament as a special game.
“It’s probably the most fun I’ve had in a game, even though we lost,” McCutcheon said. “It was a heartbreaker, but everyone was having fun, we played well and to come that close to the Final Four is a great accomplishment. But we’d like to make it a little farther this year.”
Despite their accomplishments, all seven seniors are on the same page as their coaches, looking to end their final campaign victoriously.
“I think that the team is capable of winning the ECAC championship, just like any other year,” Schafer said. “I think our team has shown that we come out and we play hard and we can give ourselves an opportunity to win against any team in the league.”