November 18, 2015

LINSEY | Isolation, National Recognition and Cornell Hockey

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Lynah Faithful everywhere rejoiced on Monday, as Cornell entered the national Top-20 for the first time in a year. Out of 59 NCAA Division 1 hockey programs, the Red slotted in at eighteen, two spots ahead of its conference foe, Clarkson. Off to a 5-1 start, Cornell certainly deserves the eighteenth place. Yet, comparing Cornell hockey to other teams around the country has always felt awkward. This is because Cornell is far from significant college hockey hotspots, is isolated from major population centers and plays a different style of hockey than most teams.

College hockey doesn’t have the fan attraction level of the major college sports, football and basketball. The two main markets where college hockey draws significant attention are the Minnesota and Boston areas. Many Division 1 schools are located in or around these regions, but Cornell is not; no college hockey fanatic from either locale can take a short trip to Cornell to see a game. Thus, most college hockey fans have never been to Lynah Rink to see the Red in action. It is harder for them to accurately rank Cornell compared to schools in Minnesota or near Boston they’ve seen play many times.

Cornell is also isolated within New York. Lynah Rink’s cozy confines seat 4,267 vociferous students and Ithacans. However, few people regularly make the trek to Lynah from longer distances. Schools such as Colgate and Union likely benefit from the proximity of Syracuse and Albany, respectively. Cornell’s fan base, on the other hand, is confined to students, locals and Cornell alumni. Colgate and Union’s location near those medium-sized cities draws attention from large media outlets. For example, if Cornell was located within thirty minutes’ drive of New York City and the New York Times occasionally ran Cornell hockey write-ups, the Cornell fan base would increase significantly. It goes without saying that Cornell’s location in New York limits the publicity available to the Red.

Cornell plays a defensive style of hockey, which differs significantly from most top college hockey programs. Coach Mike Schafer’s ‘85 system emphasizes physicality, strong defensive play in the neutral zone and winning the puck back on the forecheck. Schafer’s teams, therefore, often play low-scoring games. Last season, Cornell scored the second-fewest goals in the NCAA, but still won nine of 22 conference games. This season, Cornell has been scoring often, but this should be treated as an outlier. In 21 years of Mike Schafer teams, it’s clear that his dominant and preferred style breeds low-scoring games. Many top programs prefer an end-to-end, offensive style of hockey. Schafer has always employed a defense-first system, which makes Cornell tricky to compare with offensive-focused teams.

Another element of the Cornell program also distances it from other Division 1 schools; Cornell has always focused its recruiting on Canadian players. In the 5-1 win versus Colgate on Friday, five different players scored goals for the Red and all were Canadians. The Red has players from provinces as far west as British Columbia and as far east as New Brunswick. Cornell’s Canadian tradition was symbolized by the Harvard-Cornell rivalry in the 1970s, which was widely seen as America versus Canada, respectively. It’s no wonder the Cornell Big Red Pep Band has a tradition of playing “Oh, Canada” every game, even when the opposition doesn’t hail from the Great White North.

Many members of the college hockey media are from the Minnesota or Massachusetts areas. They rarely, if ever, get the chance to see Cornell in action. Furthermore, Cornell is located far from major metropolitan areas and plays a different style of hockey than many other schools. Cornell hockey and other teams are incompatible because of the Red’s isolated state. A final word of advice to the Lynah Faithful: take Cornell’s national ranking with several grains of salt.