Cameron Pollack | Sun Senior Photographer

Senior forward John Knisley is the second shortest player on the tallest team in the country.

February 10, 2016

LINSEY | On John Knisley, Mitch Vanderlaan and Reaching New Heights for Cornell Men’s Hockey

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Randy Johnson, Peter Crouch and Shaquille O’Neal. What do these three men have in common? All three were extremely tall professional athletes. Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-10 pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, used his giant stride to generate more momentum for his fastball. Crouch, the ironically named 6-foot-8 striker for Stoke City, has scored the most headed goals in British soccer history. 7-foot-1 O’Neal famously dominated in the paint in the NBA. Clearly, in baseball, soccer and basketball, height can be a significant strategic advantage.

Extrapolating this conclusion to hockey presents some logical roadblocks. The simple premise of hockey, putting the puck in the net, does not seem to favor a height advantage. For example, Johnson’s stride advantage would not apply to hockey, as small, quick skaters usually outpace their taller counterparts. Crouch’s talent for heading the ball is a skill that is not part of hockey, and the same applies to O’Neal. One can conclude that height is independent of success in hockey.

Cornell coach Mike Schafer ’86 surely believes otherwise, however. Year after year, his team is one of the largest and heaviest in the country. (For those curious, this year Cornell is the tallest and second heaviest out of 60 Division I college hockey teams.) The Red averages a height of 6-foot-2 and features very few players under six feet tall. Simply put, Schafer believes that height contributes to hockey skill.

Two of these players under six feet tall are John Knisley, a senior forward and captain, and freshman forward Mitch Vanderlaan. Not only are they short, but they are far shorter than their teammates, with Vanderlaan listed at 5-foot-5 and Knisley only two inches taller. At first glance, they seem like odd recruits for Cornell given the Red’s history of height. Cornell hockey has a characteristic culture of physical board play, which obviously is designed for the taller players. The logical question is this: does Schafer impress this culture upon his smaller recruits? Or, does Schafer allow the smaller players more freedom to skate through the center of the ice and create opportunities?

Schafer clearly has these two skaters playing the same style as the rest of the team. Whether this is beneficial or not is up for debate; to me, it helps the team for several reasons. First, when everyone is playing the same strategy, the result is a more cohesive team. Second, it keeps with the long-standing tradition of hard-nosed Cornell hockey. Third, Schafer recruited these players to play his style of hockey. While most of the players he wants for his strategy are logically tall, some are not; Vanderlaan especially is a typical Schaferian player, despite his height. Schafer is only interested in those smaller players that play his defensive style.

Much of my articles this year have focused on how to help Cornell hockey improve, not just this year, but in the years to come. To Schafer, the strategy is non-negotiable; if Cornell is going to significantly improve as a team, it will not be through a style change. Schafer will keep employing a hard-nosed, defensive scheme. He will mostly recruit tall players and just a few smaller players, like Knisley and Vanderlaan, who fit the system. There is no proven connection between height and success in hockey. Yet, for the foreseeable future, Cornell will use height to reach new heights.