It started with a chicken who found its fate too soon. Then, some fish. Now, two fan bases have been granted a rivalry that has made headlines around the country.
Anyone with an understanding of college hockey is probably aware of the rivalry between Cornell and Harvard. Fans pour into Lynah Rink with variations of scaled, sea-dwelling creatures — of the raw, smoked and even Swedish gummy variety — looking to create the most raucous of hockey environments in the country for a game against Cambridge rivals.
ESPN’s NHL analyst and former NHL player and head coach Barry Melrose has called Lynah Rink the best atmosphere in college hockey, partly due to the idiosyncrasies of Cornell fans. From pulling out newspapers when the opposing team’s lineup is being called, to the famed Harvard fish tradition, “[Lynah] is a real character building and a place where hockey is loved,” Melrose said.
“I can only imagine what it’ll be like out there,” sophomore defenseman Brendan Smith said, who has never before played in a Harvard home game.
“This game always lives up to the hype,” added head coach Mike Schafer ’86, who has almost three decades of experience against Harvard from his playing to coaching days.
Apart from Schafer, perhaps no one has as much experience, knowledge and connection to modern Cornell Hockey than Arthur Mintz ’71. Mintz enrolled at Cornell in the fall of 1967, a semester after Ken Dryden ’69 and Ned Harkness led the Red to the program’s first national championship.
Though he says it was not a factor in his decision to come to Ithaca, the lifelong hockey fan welcomed the jubilancy on campus following the historic 27-1-1 season that brought the national championship trophy to Lynah.
Since graduating, Mintz has held a plethora of positions within and surrounding Cornell hockey. He was the chief researcher for the book Cornell University Hockey and is currently working on a second book about the greatest moments of Cornell men’s hockey history.
Along with writing about and researching Cornell hockey, Mintz has been serving as the public address announcer for men’s hockey home games since 1987, including a stint as the official scorer from 1983 to 2006. During his early years working for Cornell, he moonlighted as a sports columnist for The Ithaca Times, focusing on — as one would have guessed — Cornell men’s hockey.
It is safe to say that Mintz is the person to go to for anything related to Cornell men’s hockey. Throughout these 30 plus years at Cornell, Mintz has also witnessed 30 plus years of Cornell-Harvard hockey.
But despite all the hype and all the fan attraction to the game, the historic rivalry is not quite as attractive to someone like Mintz. To him, it is just another game that counts in the standings.
“I don’t care about the Harvard rivalry. I want us to beat anyone we play,” Mintz said. “I actually think the way the students treat the Harvard game — the way the media treats the Harvard game — is not helping the program.”
While many fans may disagree with the sentiment Mintz expressed, his longevity in the program has exposed himself to the potentially negative impacts of the rivalry.
Too many fish thrown on the ice, and the referees could easily award Cornell a bench penalty for delay of game. It has happened several times before, and Mintz believes that if the fans truly care about the team winning, they would refrain from the traditional throwing of the fish.
“If you are an athlete … and the margin between victory and defeat is very slim, you don’t want your fans getting your team penalized,” he said. “Now it’s this whole pregame ritual waste of food event where you throw thousands of dollars of fish on the ice and it’s picked up and thrown away. What does it accomplish?”
One person who has displayed a complete opposite of Mintz’s opinion is Schafer, at least when he donned the Cornell uniform. In one of his most memorable moments as a Cornell athlete, Schafer skated to center ice when he was introduced as a starter in a 1983 edition of the rivalry — a home game for Cornell — carrying with him a stick that read “Harvard Sucks.” The former player snapped the stick over his head to the enjoyment of the Lynah Faithful, helping cement the rivalry between the two.
Since then, Mintz says he has observed the maturity and development of Schafer as one of the most respected coaches in collegiate hockey. Now, Schafer has taken a notably more measured approach to the Harvard rivalry. Sure, he still holds that desire to win, but his paycheck these days depends on coming out victorious day in and day out, not just against Harvard.
Throughout his time as coach, Schafer has consistently alluded to limiting distractions, and that attitude has not been more necessary than with Harvard on the docket and members of the 1967 team returning for their 50th anniversary of their championship. Not to mention, an equally formidable opponent in Dartmouth awaits the very next night.
It is very easy for the student body to be especially excited and rowdy at the game; winning would be fun, but a loss would not drastically change the day-to-day life of an average Cornell student. For the program, that is not the case with the hopes of postseason hockey on the horizon.
Another part of the reason Mintz attributes a more apathetic approach to Cornell-Harvard is that the Harvard rivalry was not as palpable when he was an undergraduate.
“Harvard was decent, but they were just another opponent,” he said.
“I have to treat every game the same,” he added. “As an announcer I have to prepare for the Harvard game the same way I have to prepare for an exhibition game in October or a playoff game in March.”
This year’s home game against Harvard comes at an intriguing point of the year for the program. Schafer was very critical with the student showing at last weekend’s game against Clarkson, so Harvard this weekend could present the perfect opportunity to reestablish fan engagement with a team that is trending upwards on all fronts.
“It’s nice to know the fans are behind you,” Mintz said, “but I would rather [hear] the fans screaming the way they do at the start of the Harvard game in the third period of a [close game] when we are scratching and clawing to hold on to a one goal lead and we really could use some energy from the fans.”
So while students, faculty and townspeople will be flooding to their local fish vendors for ammunition on Friday night, there will be a coalition opposing a tradition that they believe has grown to overshadow the very event it was meant to highlight.