The setting: Ithaca, fall 2014.
Most of the men who donned the Cornell jersey for the 2014-15 season opener against Nebraska-Omaha have now graduated. From John McCarron, then team captain, who registered eight shots on goal without scoring in that inconspicuous 1-1 tie, to Mitch Gillam, who stopped 37 of 38 Omaha shots, these stalwarts now pursue careers after Cornell. Of the regularly playing seniors in 2018, only Jared Fiegl played in that first game. The others, including Alex Rauter, Trevor Yates, Dwyer Tschantz and Hayden Stewart, watched from the sidelines that night. They would get chances to play later that season and in many more games as they matured on East Hill.
Since that 11-14-6 campaign, replete with tough defeats and missed opportunities, there has been a major resurgence on East Hill. It is impossible to detail it completely, but it has two key tenets. Cornell’s ascendency to No. 1 in the nation in both major polls this week seems to have capped one phase of this multi-year resurrection, yet there is a permeating vibe amongst players and fans that this team is not finished yet.
Longtime Cornell hockey devotees will recognize that every successful player on this 2017-18 squad owes much to those who came before him in the previous four seasons. Even though the records of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 teams do not sparkle, those athletes re-established what it means to be a Cornell hockey player and ingrained it in the then-underclassmen. Pick your favorite player on this year’s team, and someone in one of those seasons paved the way for their success.
Impressed with Matt Galajda’s six shutouts and sensational goalkeeping as a freshman? Gillam tended the net for the majority of the prior three seasons, exemplifying the outstanding qualities of the typical Cornell hockey goalie. Smitten by the offensive success of freshmen forwards Kyle Betts, Morgan Barron and Cam Donaldson? Juniors Mitch Vanderlaan and Anthony Angello led the offense as freshmen two seasons ago, showing it can be done. Cherishing Cornell’s team ability to grind out conference wins on the road at Harvard, Quinnipiac and Dartmouth? Well, head coach Mike Schafer and the entire staff have built on strong efforts in years past and prepared the players to succeed on the road.
So how far can this 2017-18 team go? For a team like Cornell, success can be measured in four distinct ways. First is standing within the Ivy League, and the Red clinched the Ivy championship with the road sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth this past weekend.
The second is the Cleary Cup, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record in the ECAC. Cornell has not won this trophy in 13 years, but is currently in first place in the ECAC one point ahead of Clarkson. There are just eight conference games left on the docket; win them all, and the cup is Cornell’s. More importantly than the silverware, Cornell would have the No. 1 seed in the ECAC playoffs, and a home series with the lowest ranked remaining team for a berth in the semifinals at Lake Placid in March.
Third, an ECAC playoff championship for Cornell would see the team earn the Whitelaw Cup. Cornell has not won this trophy since 2010, despite an ECAC final appearance last season. After that, Cornell could earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament vying for a national championship, a feat the Red last achieved in 1970.
During the stretch run of this promising Cornell hockey season, take a step back and reflect. It wouldn’t be happening without the efforts of everyone associated with Cornell hockey over the last several seasons. They reestablished a winning culture in Ithaca. The team has come a long way since that Halloween tie with Omaha four years ago, and for the rest of the season and playoffs, the sky’s the limit.