Last year, Ray Sawada ’08 was a co-captain of head coach Mike Schafer’s Cornell hockey team that lost to Harvard in the ECAC Hockey tournament semifinals. This year, Sawada, the 52nd overall draft pick in the 2004 NHL entry draft, found himself playing for the Dallas Stars, alongside professional hockey all-stars like Mike Modano, Marty Turco and Brenden Morrow.
For most of the 2008-09 hockey season, Sawada was skating for the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. Sawada has so far netted five goals and 10 assists in 49 games for the Moose, a team that is currently in first place in the AHL.
On Feb. 19, which happens to be his birthday, Sawada was called up for a stint with the Stars. Sawada made his professional debut that night in Dallas against the Stars’ long-time playoff rivals, the Edmonton Oilers. Sawada wasted no time in making his presence felt, as he scored his first NHL goal that same game, helping the Stars notch a 4-2 victory. Sawada scored at 16:36 in the first period after he came streaking across the Oilers’ zone, received a pass from teammate Mike Ribeiro and then fired a backhand shot that made it past Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson.
Sawada remained in Dallas for a total of five games before he was ultimately sent back down to the Moose. Sawada impressed many of his teammates and coaches in his stint with the Stars, and is expected to receive more playing time with Dallas in the future.
Sawada played for four years at Cornell under Schafer ’86. In his time with the Red, Sawada recorded 31 goals and 45 assists for 76 points in 137 games.
Sawada recently spoke with The Sun, reflecting on his experiences as a professional athlete since leaving Cornell.
Sun: Can you describe what it was like scoring a goal in the NHL?
Ray Sawada: I can’t even compare it to any other experience. It just seemed like the best time of my life out there. Getting that goal on my birthday in my first NHL game just made for an unbelievable and unforgettable day. It couldn’t have been scripted any better I think. It just worked out great –– getting called up on my birthday, getting the first goal, winning the game and staying up there for awhile. It worked out really well, and I turned 24, so it was all a really good experience.
Sun: What was your daily schedule like when you were with the Stars?
R.S.: Usually I just get up probably around 8:30, have a little bit of breakfast and head to the rink for practice at around 11:00. Practice is usually just half an hour to 45 minutes long, and afterwards you just come off, stretch, we do hot tub and cold tub, and then for the rest of the day you get to pretty much relax. The only thing you need to worry about is just keeping yourself busy and making sure you get enough to eat. You don’t really have too many worries when you are up there, that’s for sure.
Sun: When you were playing with the Stars, was there any one moment when it kind of just hit you: ‘wow, I’m in the NHL right now’?
R.S.: In my first game I was just so worried about being in position and doing the right thing out there. Then I felt it by the third period –– I was sitting on the bench and we had a power play, so I knew I wasn’t going on the ice. I was just sitting there and looked down at my jersey and I was like ‘Holy crap! I’m wearing a Dallas Stars jersey.’ I look at the team we are playing, and it’s the Edmonton Oilers. I look up in the stands, and I see how many people are there. Then I look to my left and Mike Modano is sitting right beside me, and that’s when I was just like ‘Wow — I’m playing my first game in the NHL.’ That’s when it really hit me, I think.
Sun: What was it like playing with NHL legend Mike Modano and being in the same locker room as him?
R.S.: The guys like Mike Modano, Brad Richards, Marty Turco –– they are all unbelievable guys. It was a really great experience just being on the same bench as them, practicing with them, just watching them play, and seeing the plays that they make and why they have been such great players for the last 10-20 years. It was pretty amazing just watching [Modano] skate and shoot out there.
Sun: Did any of your teammates or the guys you played against give you a hard time about the fact that you came from Cornell/the Ivy League?
R.S.: Once in awhile when I couldn’t figure out a joke, or I couldn’t help them out with a crossword puzzle or something during the day, yeah, they would give me a hard time. Not necessarily for being from Cornell, but just being a college kid. There are only a few of us on there, compared to the major junior hockey players. Actually, funny enough, I actually played Doug Murray on San Jose. So that was kind of interesting and fun to play against him, just knowing that he came from the same place that I did, so that was kind of fun.
Sun: Is there anything like a Cornell hockey ‘fraternity’ with the former Cornell hockey players in the NHL?
R.S.: Matt Moulson, I keep in touch with. And other guys playing in the AHL and the East Coast –– Mark McCutcheon ’07, Mitch Carefoot ’07, Dave McKee ’06, Ryan O’Byrne ’06 –– all the guys that I played with I sort of keep in contact with once in a while. We are all pretty busy, but it’s nice to know how they are doing and how their hockey careers are going.
Sun: Do you keep in touch with any current Cornell hockey players?
R.S.: Yeah, actually, I try and keep in contact with them as much as I can. I’m pretty close with Mike Kennedy ’09, so I text him probably more than anybody else. So, yeah, I keep in contact with them once in a while.
Sun: Have you been following the Red hockey team this year?
R.S.: Yeah, they have been doing great. I mean, they were ranked second in the country at one point, and Ben Scrivens ’10 has been playing unbelievable. Hopefully they can start playing really well and hopefully get to the Frozen Four.
Sun: What do you miss most about being at Cornell?
R.S.: The lifestyle — you get to go hang out with your buddies throughout the day at school and at class. Then, afterwards, you get to hang out with them at the rink and then go find something to eat after –– just being around them all the time and the relationships that you build. You find good friends when you are playing in the AHL or the NHL, I’m guessing, but the friendships that you make in college are just one of a kind.
Sun: Over the course of your post-Cornell career, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the nature of being a professional athlete?
R.S.: What I learned being up there is that you have to try and limit your mistakes. I mean, you are going to make mistakes, but you always have to be on top of your game because there are so many people that are trying to take [your spot] and will take it if you mess up. So that’s one thing, I mean you can’t be perfect, but just shooting to be perfect pretty much every game.