The forgiving final buzzer thankfully blared at SNHU Arena. It was a welcome sound to relieve the seemingly relentless hardship of the past 60 minutes. A 5-0 loss to UMass-Lowell last March ended Cornell’s impressive and expectation-surpassing 2016-17 run in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
On any given day and for any given team, the scoreboard likely would have resulted in an ensuing practice of grueling suicides and an on-ice scolding. The mood for Cornell after the game, however, was positive; the outlook bright.
Cornell was just getting started.
“We’re still in that transition [period],” head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said after the season finale. “I thought these guys had a great year, one of the best years we’ve had here at Cornell.”
Cornell, a team picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the ECAC last season, made it to the conference finals and the NCAA tournament, surpassing the expectations of nearly every onlooker.
But even if few outside the locker room expected the trip to the NCAA tournament, the men of Cornell hockey knew all year long that they were meant to be there. And they know the ceiling this year is even higher.
“We just set the standard last year,” senior forward and alternate captain Trevor Yates said before the 2017-18 season began. “We need to go further this year.”
So far this season, the Red is 10-2 through the de facto first half of the season, including a seven-game winning streak to open the year. It is Cornell’s best start in nearly half a century, far surpassing any hopes the coaching staff and fan base had for a team with several question marks entering the year.
“At the start of the year, with 10 freshmen, if you told me we were going to be 9-1, I would have signed up for that faster than the New York lotto,” Schafer, now 10-2, said after a statement-making Madison Square Garden victory over Boston University.
With a new attitude of self-improvement and a refreshed mindset, this year’s squad is doing things no Cornell team has done in 50 years.
And the best could still be yet to come.
In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor of psychology, writes that “those with the growth mindset [find] setbacks motivating. They’re informative. They’re a wake-up call.”
That’s just one of many lessons that were seared into the minds of Cornell men’s hockey this past summer. For his annual offseason reading assignment, Schafer had his team read Mindset, hoping to instill his 27 players with Dweck’s idea of the growth mindset — a mentality that never ceases the desire to improve, to better oneself.
“Every day is an opportunity to get better,” Schafer said before the season. “When you wake up and you relax on your laurels from the day before, or you think you did pretty well on that test and you rest on it, all of a sudden the guy that didn’t do so well, he’s going to study a lot harder.
“So you better wake up the next day and you better get after it.”
In the team’s quest for daily improvement, senior forward and alternate captain Jared Fiegl attributed Mindset to helping the team gather itself to go through the motions of the season with the right mentality.
“Reading that book was definitely that kind of mindset necessary to take us to the next level,” he said. “We’ve always had our goals be that we make it to the national championship, we win the ECAC, but [this book allowed us to] put a name to the tool for what it takes to achieve those next level goals. It just comes down to having the right mindset that every second of every game or practice, you need to continue to grow — both mentally and physically.”
While the sentiment after the season-ending loss to UML was positive, it did leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth for the Red by going so far and falling so hard. As Cornell’s first NCAA appearance since 2012, it also gave returning players their first experience with the Big Dance.
They want more.
“My freshman year, I never got to experience what that was like,” said junior defenseman Alec McCrea. “But having that experience last year and being so close makes you just really want to get back there.”
Cornell’s record so far this year exudes dominance, but its path to 10 first-half wins has not been easy. Six of Cornell’s 12 games have been separated by one goal, and the Red has lost just one of those contests. In three such games, Cornell had to surmount a comeback for the win. By the midway point of games against both Princeton and Niagara, Cornell faced a multi-goal deficit but regrouped and refocused to come out on top for wins against a pair of quality teams.
While potentially worrisome, these close games, which some players have described as playoff-esque in regards to atmosphere, can prove to be learning moments to set the team up for success in similar situations later down the line.
“It’s so easy to be up and rah-rah when things are going well, but when the character will really rear its head is when you’re facing adversity,” Schafer said after the win over Niagara.
Along with gaining playoff-like experience at the early onset and using it to fuel the team going forward, McCrea added that Mindset has also taught the team how to pace itself, playing every game like it’s do-or-die but also keeping the long-term goals in the back of the mind.
“This offseason, collectively as a team and individually, it was about improving our mental state of mind and building confidence through mental training,” he said. “A lot of visualization has helped us [along with] having clear set goals that we can work towards.”
Part of Cornell’s mental recipe to better itself is not being afraid to take a risk, pushing the norms of what might have been done in the past and doing what didn’t push the team over the edge last year.
After all, “safe teams don’t win championships,” Schafer said.
Putting the mindset to the test, Cornell has flourished thus far. Until its first loss to Clarkson on Nov. 18, the Red was the last remaining undefeated team in the country and still owns the NCAA’s highest win percentage, tied with No. 1 St. Cloud State at .833.
More surprising about the start is how Cornell has done it while facing several question marks relating to experience, health and goaltending to open the year.
Rest assured, these questions have, in bits and pieces, been answered thus far. And no single component of the team gives a more clear indication of the mindset taking form than the freshman class.
After graduating eight seniors last year, almost all of whom were integral contributors night-in and night-out, Cornell needed to replace the production with its developing returners and 10 freshmen — the biggest class on the team which is tied for fourth-biggest in the country.
For the class as a whole, it has been less the quantity of production and more the timing. Of the Red’s 10 wins, four of the game-winning goals have come off the sticks of freshmen — twice from the class’ leading scorer Morgan Barron and once from both Brenden Locke and Tristan Mullin.
On the defensive side, Alex Green and Cody Haiskanen, who was injured in preseason, have excelled in their first years. Without the on-ice leadership of senior Ryan Bliss, who is still sidelined with an injury sustained in the 2015-16 season, and just one upperclassman on the blueline in McCrea, Cornell’s defense is second in the country behind Clarkson when it comes to goals allowed per game.
All of this freshman production would be impressive on its own, but it fails to highlight that the weight of nearly every minute of goaltending has also been on the shoulders of a rookie.
As early as his first career start shutting out Alabama-Huntsville, Matt Galajda has stepped into the role of starting goalie with grace. Senior Hayden Stewart, the presumptive starter at last season’s close, was injured to start the year, which opened the door for Galajda to take the starting job.
The sense is that Galajda, who has started every game but one, still could have taken the starting job even if Stewart was healthy, and outside of a recent rough stretch of allowing multiple goals in four straight starts, the winningest rookie goalie in the country has proved why he’s earned that position.
“As a freshman goaltender, I kind of feel for him,” Schafer said after the MSG win, in which Galajda gave up a soft goal late to give BU new life. “He’s had to carry the load for us all the way [and] he’s risen to the occasion after he’s had a bad outing. … He’s got that kind of warrior mentality that he doesn’t let things bother him and he doesn’t drop his head.”
Despite some holes in the lineup, there were various components for Cornell to be confident about coming into the year, such as returning its top three goal scorers from last year. But it has been Galajda and the rest of his freshman class who have serves as crucial members in propelling the team as top-five in the national rankings and Pairwise and giving a peek at what’s to come even past this season.
Cornell will resume play after a four-week exam and holiday break this Saturday when it plays host to a strong No. 20 Canisius squad.
Heading into the mid-season stretch, the Red has already put its newly formed mindset on display, and it has paid heavy dividends. Cornell knows, however, that nothing in the second half of the season is guaranteed. Any potential for additional hardware has to come one step at a time.
“There is a process of getting there and that’s what we want our guys — not to worry about the next day or the next shift,” Schafer said. “Just enjoy what [you] are doing right now on a daily basis.”
Delving into the second half of the season, the men of Cornell hockey have a particular swagger amongst themselves. It’s a confidence derived from an offseason with an optimistic but dissatisfied taste in the mouths after walking off the SNHU Arena ice sheet, knowing the brightest days lie ahead.
The NCAA tournament was a nice accomplishment. But a national title?
“That’s why you come here,” senior captain Alex Rauter said before the season. “Every year you’re going to be on a good team and have a chance to win a national championship and an ECAC championship. When our team’s fully healthy, we’re hard to stop.”