If the whole hockey thing doesn’t pan out for Kyle Betts, salesperson should probably be the next item on his list of careers.
Sure, he’s technically enrolled in Cornell’s College of Engineering, but as any job recruiter will tell you, the most sought-after bullet point for an entry-level position is real-world experience in the field. Betts has plenty of that in sales.
That experience began in April 2015. Betts had just become the first of four from the British Columbia Hockey League’s Powell River Kings to commit to play for Cornell men’s hockey. With his future locked up, Betts looked to add some firepower to his eventual freshman class.
What ultimately came about is four former Kings now part of nationally-ranked Cornell’s 10-member sophomore class.
Betts, Tristan Mullin, Cam Donaldson — all forwards — and defenseman Matt Cairns are all nightly members of Cornell’s lineup, and the quartet has brought to Ithaca a close bond built by long ferry rides from the island-hopping life of Powell River, runs in the BCHL playoffs and friendly rivalries with current Cornell teammates whom they once faced off against in the junior leagues.
“The coolest thing was knowing that … me and Tristan will have six years together,” Betts said in an interview last season alongside the three other Powell River products. “I’ll have four and a half with Matt and five with Cam, so it’s pretty neat to have relationships that are going to be strong after our senior year here.”
Four paths, one destination
To get Mullin to come to Cornell, Betts, like any good salesperson, knew he had to pull at the heartstrings of his client to close the sale.
Mullin hails from Cartwright, Manitoba, a small farming town by the Canadian border with North Dakota whose population in 2011 was 308. Cornell’s prestigious College of Agriculture and Life Sciences seemed like a good selling point, Betts thought.
“For Tristan, I kind of sold him because I knew he was from a farming small town in Manitoba,” Betts said. “My main push for Cornell was the agriculture program we have here. Obviously, the hockey program is a big interest too, but I think I really pushed him that way — the fact that you can get a good degree at the same time.”
Betts and Mullin played two years together for the Kings after each played a year in the minor junior league of their respective home provinces (Betts in Ontario, Mullin in Manitoba). Not long after the two first linked up in the 2015-16 campaign, they were joined at the start of the following season by Donaldson.
A small, high-flying winger, Donaldson has spent his life traversing the North American hockey landscape. A North Carolina native, Donaldson spent a year playing minor midget hockey in Dallas with the Dallas Stars Elite Hockey Club program before enrolling in a Connecticut prep school.
At least for now, Cornell is what he’s decided to call home.
“For Cam, it was mostly that I thought it was going to help the fact that he had spent a year with us,” Betts said of enticing Donaldson, who was the BCHL rookie of the year for the 2016-17 season. “Two guys going to the same place, so maybe [it would] help the transition.”
Cairns, who joined the trio on the Kings in the middle of the 2016-17 season for a “change of scenery” from the United States Hockey League, didn’t need much outside help.
“Matty, I actually didn’t do any recruiting of him,” Betts said. “He made that choice on his own.”
“I just tagged along,” Cairns joked.
“[But] we’re happy to have him,” Betts laughed.
No matter the methods nor paths, four former Kings have brought to Cornell a cohesion and that was built by the unique circumstances life in Powell River can bring. Located on the northern part of the Strait of Georgia just northwest of Vancouver and part of the Island Division of the BCHL, much of the Kings’ travel comes on ferries across the strait.
Donaldson said the team’s closest trip was four hours away, and sometimes, late arrivals at the ferry depot or poor conditions on the water handed some rough living conditions for the Powell River squad.
“We sometimes slept on the bus overnight,” Donaldson said. “Sometimes we wouldn’t make the ferry or there would be terrible weather out on the ocean, so we wouldn’t be able to get to the game on time. We’d have to get there like 20 minutes before.”
It was on these chilled nights sprawled across bus seats in Western Canada that bonds were solidified. No matter the obstacles, the future Cornellians helped power the Kings to consecutive second-place finishes in the Island Division from 2015-17.
Friend or foe?
Betts and Cornell’s now-sophomore goalie Matt Galajda first met when the duo was selected to the Canada West U19 team in the 2016-17 World Junior A Challenge — an annual tournament for skaters under the age of 20 that takes place among a rotating six countries.
The pair had already been familiar with one another prior to the tournament, but the familiarity was from a distance. The two had faced off numerous times as Galajda was the starting goalie for the Victoria Grizzlies, a rival of the Kings located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
Galajda and the Grizzlies had a rough season in 2015-16, finishing last in the Island Division while Betts, Mullin and the Kings finished second. Betts and Mullin ran into another future Cornellian when they met current Cornell junior defenseman Yanni Kaldis and the Nanaimo Clippers in the Island championship.
Fast forward to a year later and Betts and Mullin were joined by Donaldson and Cairns to fight right back into the Island championship. This time against a resurgent Grizzlies squad and Galajda, who was selected as the Island Division MVP for 2016-17.
With four future Cornellians pitted against one, it was the lone wolf in Galajda who came out victorious. A double-overtime goal in a decisive game seven sent the quartet packing and Galajda and the Grizzlies onto the league semifinals.
“That is a tough one for them to have the bragging rights,” Mullin said of Galajda and Kaldis. “But they’re great teammates, and they’re obviously tough to play against but [also] good to have them on our team now.”
In nearly every contest between them, all future Cornellians facing off knew the other would one day be a teammate on East Hill. That did not lessen the on-ice rivalry, however.
“We would always say hi to each other and make a little conversation on the ice,” Donaldson said. “But nothing too much. Still opponents at that point.”
Do the past rivalries mean the quartet of Kings put a little more gusto behind every shot on Galajda or more finesse in their moves against Kaldis now in Lynah Rink practice?
“I don’t think so. We’ve turned the page on that one,” Mullin said with a laugh.
“We try to score on every goalie we face,” Betts reassured.
But Galajda and Cornell associate head coach Ben Syer have slightly different viewpoints.
“I honestly never bring it up. Kyle brings it up sometimes,” Galajda said recently with a smile. “He’s always watching the highlights from [game seven], and he always says our overtime winning goal was offsides. I even watched the video, and I think it was offsides. He always brings that up, but the refs didn’t see it and we won the series. No coach’s challenge.”
“They still kid each other [about that],” Syer said recently. “Don’t kid yourself, those guys from Powell River — they don’t forget they lost that game, and Matty’s not afraid to rub it in.”
Four minds, one mindset
The cohort of Powell River graduates on East Hill will grow one larger next season when Ben Berard, a Cornell commit currently in his third season with the Kings, enrolls as a freshman.
When he does arrive, he’ll not only be welcomed by a self-described close-knit Cornell team but also a quartet of former Kings who have been in his exact shoes. A quartet that was at the forefront of Cornell’s success last year and so far this up-and-down 2018-19 campaign.
“Although you come with four guys you already know, with all the freshmen I think it’s really good to know everyone, there’s always a nice little security having four guys you can always lean on when going through tough stuff, whether it’s in school or on the ice,” Betts said last year.
“[Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86] said this at the start of [last] year to our parents,” Cairns said. “He mentioned how much our parents are going to see us grow as people outside of the rink. The biggest thing I’ve seen so far with us four and will continue to see is that we’ve grown so much as men and will continue to grow outside the rink just from helping each other out from interacting with older guys, younger guys and just learning new things every day.”
Mullin said Schafer and his staff kept close tabs on the quartet as it fought its way through the season and into the BCHL playoffs. Any sign of weakness, a note from the staff in Ithaca would offer a suggested tweak in their respective games to make them as ready as possible by the time they land on East Hill.
That communal development toward a hoped-for championship in Powell River was elevated by operating under the knowledge that the next four years would be shared together in a quest for yet another championship.
“We are kind of our own support system,” Mullin said. “We help each other out. Before we got here, coach Schafer would talk about our weaknesses and we would help each other out. Mine was skating, so Kyle gave me some help with that and his was shooting, so we’d help each other out … [and] really push each other day-to-day.”
But now that they have a drove of games together in the carnelian and white, any prior chemistry has now melded into one goal with all their other current teammates: an NCAA championship.
“For us, we were pretty excited because you have players that we liked as recruits,” Syer said recently. “But the other piece of it, now they are [again] playing for something meaningful and competing for something.”