Edem Dzodzomenyo / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Mitch Vanderlaan is the only men's Division I college hockey player from New Brunswick.

October 24, 2018

The Road Not Taken: Mitch Vanderlaan’s Journey to Captain of an Elite NCAA Program

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Read all about the upcoming Cornell men’s hockey season in The Sun’s 2018-19 Men’s Hockey Preview Supplement.

Where Mitch Vanderlaan comes from, people don’t play college hockey. Now, the senior forward is captain of a nationally ranked NCAA team for the second year in a row.

Vanderlaan is the only current Division I men’s hockey player to hail from New Brunswick. While most of the people he played hockey with in his youth joined the pro teams straight out of the junior leagues, Vanderlaan made the decision to take the college route, a choice that has benefited him immensely. At Cornell, his understated leadership style has propelled the team to success and provided unwavering support to the program.

“I got my mind set on [going to college],” Vanderlaan said. “Some other guys … get drafted before they actually get talked to by a school and so the decision gets made that way.”

Vanderlaan’s genuineness comes across easily in conversation. He is not known as an especially outspoken or loud member of the team. Instead, his steadfast dependability earned him the ‘C’ on the front of his jersey for the second consecutive year.

Aside from speaking highly of the other players at Cornell, Vanderlaan went beyond his experience on East Hill to elaborate on how hockey has afforded him many different opportunities. Vanderlaan admitted that one of the greatest gifts hockey has given him is the people it has allowed him to meet throughout his life. He has traveled throughout both Canada and America to places that he might not have otherwise visited, and he has made connections that he knows he will use for years to come.

“One of the biggest impacts is just the travel I’ve had,” Vanderlaan said. “You get to go to a lot of different places and meet a lot of different people. … If I were to go end up in Pennsylvania or Ontario next year, I have buddies I can just call and get connected and know people that way.”

Among players returning for 2018-19, Vanderlaan led the Red in goals last season.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Among players returning for 2018-19, Vanderlaan led the Red in goals last season.

Even while Vanderlaan knows how to appreciate the opportunities hockey affords him, it is apparent that he remains focused on the game itself and on his main goal: winning. Vanderlaan’s resolve and goal-driven nature surely contribute to his ability to lead the team.

As exemplified by his decision to play college hockey even when nobody around him did, Vanderlaan is someone who knows what he wants and will work toward a goal. His ability to zero in on specific objectives also permits him to focus on things one day at a time while still not forgetting about the bigger picture.

“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. One of the biggest things we’ve talked about is the need to focus on the right now and getting better … after the success we had last year, it’s easy to forget just how much work we did to get there,” Vanderlaan said.

The detail-oriented Vanderlaan looks to continue Cornell hockey’s tradition of excellence in his final year. Since last season ended, he’s worked on the accuracy of his shots and recognizing scoring opportunities in order to improve his game. He is pragmatic in his approach to bettering himself and the team, and his level-headedness is a vital quality in the leader of a team with expectations that are sky-high.

“He’s really, really driven on and off the ice,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “He leaves nothing to chance as far as detail.”

Indeed, Vanderlaan does not possess the “rah-rah” attitude so commonly attributed to team captains. Rather, he gives the impression of a professional at work, albeit doing a job he loves. This demeanor benefits the team in its own way; Vanderlaan does not plan on changing anything about himself in order to fit a certain role.

“I think I did [act differently] at the start of last year and it wasn’t necessarily as beneficial,” he said. “I just need to keep true to who I am.”

Vanderlaan doesn’t need to adopt a new attitude in order to lead his team to glory — his coach believes he can become the best captain just by staying the same.

“All we need him to do is just to be himself,” Schafer said. “He’s a great teammate. We just need to get him to continue doing that, and guys will follow him.

Despite leading the team in points over the last three seasons, it does not seem that Vanderlaan has let anything go to his head. He is unwilling to claim the spotlight, even while being the lone team captain. He gave high praise to the two alternate captains, senior defensemen Alec McCrea and Matt Nuttle, and other members of the team for stepping up into leadership roles.

“There are guys throughout the lineup who can be leaned on,” he said.

The fact that Vanderlaan doesn’t want to be the center of attention heightens the sense of authenticity that he exudes. He at once seems slightly uncomfortable when asked about himself but remains completely candid. It is not hard to see why his teammates view him as a supportive leader and why Schafer considers him a capable and positive influence.

Vanderlaan isn't a "rah-rah" leader, but

Edem Dzodzomenyo / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Vanderlaan isn’t a “rah-rah” leader, but leads by being “himself.”

But last year, Vanderlaan found himself the one in need of support. Leading up to last season’s conference playoffs, Vanderlaan missed six games due to a lower-body injury before returning for the playoffs. Being sidelined was something new to the captain, who had missed only one game until that point.

While Vanderlaan certainly does not look back fondly on the experience of only being able to watch his team play, it’s now in the past. What he won’t forget is the way his teammates treated him during his time off the ice.

“It’s tough … but it’s nice when you have 20 guys who really support you and help you get back whenever you need it,” he said.

This off-ice bond certainly contributes to the chemistry fans see during games. No team that attains the level of success of Cornell men’s hockey can get there without a bond created by mutual dependence and trust.

“He’s been a key contributor on our team … he’s really good at leading by example, he’s always doing the right things, and that’s worked out really well for him,” Nuttle said of the captain.

As for the upcoming season, Vanderlaan is prepared to start over as Cornell begins another quest for a national title. Vanderlaan’s wisdom and experience will add balance to the eight-person freshman class’ fresh perspective and vigor, allowing the team to embrace these differences in order to every player to achieve his potential.

Vanderlaan looks forward to working with the younger players and incorporating them into the team culture. He makes sure that every player gets to know one another in order to promote unity on the team. This fresh start will help the Red move past last year’s first-round loss in the playoffs.

But beyond Vanderlaan’s practical, one-day-at-a-time mentality, he is still a competitor at heart.

“It’s a long, long, hard season,” he said. “We want to win.”

Vanderlaan shares the hopes of a championship with Cornell hockey fans everywhere. He is calm, collected and, above all, driven. But his composure does not lead one to believe that he is unenthusiastic about his team and the upcoming season. His passion for the sport shines through and his hopes are high.

“I’m just really happy I get to play hockey and go in the rink every day,” he said.