This story previously appeared in our 2016-17 winter sports supplement. To view the supplement, click here.
The Cornell men’s hockey program prides itself on tradition.
And why not? When Ken Dryden ’69, Joe Nieuwendyk ’88 and many more notable alumni have passed through your program, it usually means you’re doing something right.
Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 has become one of the country’s most respected coaches; that feat is due in part to his ability to establish what many around the rink refer to as the “Cornell hockey culture.”
So when each freshman class enters the hallowed Lynah Rink for the first time, they also enter into the legacy of success and extensive history that has become synonymous with Cornell hockey.
One does not have to look any further than sophomore defenseman Alec McCrea to see the tradition of Cornell hockey take form in one of the team’s premier blueliners.
While managing several injuries to the defensive core this season, Schafer has dressed just one upperclassman on his blueline night-in and night-out: senior defenseman Patrick McCarron. Yet McCrea, as just a sophomore, has established himself as one of Schafer’s most dependable players, and the head coach says that boils down to his work ethic.
“He plays hard day in and day out. Game in and game out,” Schafer said. “For him he doesn’t take many days off during the course of the week. It’s the same with him in games. If you see him make a mistake it’s surprising and he just plays hard and plays consistent at all times.”
Another testament to McCrea’s buy-in to the Schafer system is exemplified by his willingness to block shots. As a program, Cornell is often playing at its best when it is suppressing shots, maintaining low scoring chances and controlling the flow of the game, in part by blocking shots.
Cornell is currently ranked first in the country with the least amount of shots allowed — granted the Red has played fewer games than other teams — but also ranks eighth in shots allowed per game.
McCrea is a big reason for that.
His points per game is slightly down from last season, but McCrea has already surpassed his blocked shots total from last year with nine less games played. At one point, he was ranked as high as seventh in the country in blocked shots per game, now slipping slightly to the 13th spot at 2.27.
“He gets down there and eats [shots] up for us. Things like that are really contagious,” McCarron said. “It kind of brings everyone else along and sets a high standard for the team. It’s something that you’re used to doing and something that’s a part of our culture and Alec has done a great job leading the way in that regard.”
So far this year, Cornell has upped its blocked shots per game by almost three, letting far fewer shots find their way to senior goalie Mitch Gillam.
McCarron, McCrea and freshman defenseman Yanni Kaldis are the only three blueliners to have appeared in each and every game this season, but sophomores Brendan Smith and Matt Nuttle — once struggling to stay in the lineup — have found their way to starting 22 out of 23 nights this season.
No one has taken on a bigger role in their first year than Kaldis has. He’s been the key to the Red’s power play unit, able to keep the puck moving and find the pass. His nine assists on the year rank second only to McCarron, his defensive partner.
On the offensive side of the puck, too, the young talent has helped lead the charge and help the Red build the record it holds today.
Sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan has been the most dependable scorer for Cornell this year, leading the team with nine goals. Schafer was hopeful that the JAM line of Vanderlaan, classmate Anthony Angello and senior center Jeff Kubiak could pick up where they had left off last season and return as a force to be reckoned with whenever stepping on the ice.
But Kubiak’s injury in the first game of the season at Merrimack forced senior forward Jake Weidner into the Kubiak slot, and Wediner says he got a good feeling about what makes the wing pairing of Vanderlaan and Angello so lethal.
“[They] make it a lot easier on my part,” Weidner said. “So for them it’s just trying to get them the puck a little bit more and take care of our end of the ice and hopefully good things will come.”
As of late, that line has not found the scoring touch it once commanded. Schafer has swapped in players into Vanderlaan’s spot, such as sophomore forward Beau Starrett and freshman forward Noah Bauld, looking to reignite the top trio.
“We haven’t really had that chance to have that chemistry on the ice so we are really focusing on our practices to make sure we are doing the right things and playoff each other and reading off each other so that it can translate to the game,” Kubiak said of the JAM line shortly after his return from injury in January.
Some of the young guys have been forced to battle injury as well. Freshman forward Jeff Malott, who has often been characterized as “snake-bitten,” recorded his first goals in hat trick fashion in one period against Princeton.
In that same game, he left due to injury and missed the next several. Now, he is back, and as the tallest member of his class he has risen to a bruising body, but also “a big guy with good hands,” according to senior forward Eric Freschi.
Regardless, Schafer can rest easy knowing that his program at its current moment — and for years to come — is in good hands. The current freshmen and sophomores, despite their little tiemin a Cornell jersey, have made themselves known, thanks in part to their buy-in of the Cornell hockey culture.