After more than a year and a half of without competition, Cornell hockey is finally back. The Red (0-0, 0-0 ECAC Hockey, 0-0 Ivy League) kicks off its season this weekend against the University of Alaska Fairbanks (1-5), who is competing as an independent for the first time since the 1993-94 season, at Lynah Rink on Friday and Saturday at 7 PM.
The games will be both broadcasted on ESPN+, featuring the call of Grady Whittenburg and can be heard on WHCU (870 AM, 97.7 FM) with Jason Weinstein on play-by-play and Tony Eisenhut ‘88 on color commentary.
Having fans back at Lynah Rink after 594 games should have a notable impact on the success of the Red this season.
“It’s really important that we as a department push the game and get our fans there early,” said Head Coach Mike Schafer ‘86. “The most intimidating part of the game is when the visiting team comes out and the crowd is right there.”
The Red returns to action for the first time since the 2019-20 season, where the team was ranked first nationally with a record of 23-2-4 (18-2-2 ECAC Hockey, 8-1-1 Ivy League) before the season was cancelled. In that season, Schafer was named the Ivy League and ECAC Hockey coach of the year, and was also named the recipient of the Spencer Penrose Award for National Coach of the Year.
Cornell is ranked 16th in the current NCAA USCHO.com poll, a befitting honor considering the team’s excellent performance in their two preseason matches. In exhibition matches, the Red beat Princeton University (0-0, 0-0 ECAC Hockey, 0-0 Ivy League) 5-0 on October 16 and notched another victory on October 23, beating the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 Team 4-2.
Although Alaska Fairbanks also was unable to play during a cancelled 2020-21 season, they have already played six official collegiate matches this year. The Nanooks split a pair of 2-1 contests in Fairbanks against Clarkson University before traveling to Omaha, Nebraska, where they lost their next two games against the University of Nebraska at Omaha 2-3 in OT and 1-5 in regulation. The Nanooks then played another two-game stretch against Clarkson, losing 1-5 and 2-4.
Cornell and Alaska Fairbanks have only played once before, on Jan. 3, 1987 in the championship game of the Phoenix Mutual Hockey Classic at what is now the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. The Red scored five unanswered goals en route to a 5-2 victory over the Nanooks. Freshman Casey Jones ’90, who is now the head coach at Clarkson, scored a goal and added two assists in the game, for which he was named tournament MVP.
Like the Red, the Alaska Fairbanks team looks a lot different than it did two years ago.
The Nanooks have a pair of defensemen among their trio of leading scorers — Roberts Kaļķis (2 goals, 2 assists, –3 +/-) and Antti Virtanen (1 goals, 3 assists, +2 +/-). Left wing Brady Risk (2 goals, 2 assists, 0 +/-) is the leading producer among forwards so far with a team-high 17 shots on goal.
As of last weekend, Jakob Breault (2 goals, 0 assists, -2 +/-) is the center of the Nanooks’ top line with Filip Fornåå Svensson (1 goals, 2 assists, 0 +/-) and Didrik Henbrant ( 0 goals, 1 assist, –1 +/-) on the wings. Junior goaltender Gustavs David Gringals (1-4, 2.92 average goals, .896 save%), who returns from the 2019-20 team, is the Nanooks’ primary man in the net.
Although Alaska Fairbanks seems like a young team — with over half of their roster listed as freshmen — they are a squad full of experience.
“They’ve got some guys that have played professional hockey in Russia and Latvia, they have about seven Latvians and five Swedes… They’re freshmen, but you look at their age and they’ve already got a lot of experience,” Schafer said. “These guys have played a lot of hockey internationally… They’re well-coached, they’re strong, and they’re older.”
Power plays and penalty kills have been a struggle for Alaska in the early going, with the power play clicking at just 8.6 percent and the penalty kill at 69.7 percent. Although it’s early in the season, the Red may be able to exploit these weaknesses with aggressive play.
“I think it’s all about speed and physicality,” said freshman forward Justin Ertel. “Those are the two main parts of our success within our game. If we bring those two things I think they don’t have a chance against us.”
After this weekend’s matches, the Red will open its ECAC Hockey schedule with an Ivy League road trip to take on Harvard on Friday, Nov. 5 and Dartmouth on Saturday, Nov. 6.