After a Friday night win to start the ECAC quarterfinals last March, men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86 seemed poised for a triumphant weekend.
Schafer returned to the bench for the first time in months and picked up the 499th win of his career in front of a Lynah crowd that was at full capacity for the first time in two years. The win gave the team two chances to secure Schafer’s 500th win in front of a home crowd and clinch a spot in the ECAC Semifinals in Lake Placid.
The night also seemed to be a symbolic return to normal for the program after two years of pandemic disruptions. Cornell had just announced the end of its indoor mask mandate. Lynah was full. It was the team’s first playoff game since 2019 after the 2020 playoffs were canceled days before they began while the team was ranked No. 1 and the 2020-2021 season was canceled altogether. Schafer was finally back on the bench after complications from his own battle with COVID-19 caused him to miss two months.
But the celebratory sendoff never came. Cornell lost a penalty-riddled game two on Saturday night. Schafer, sensing that his health would not allow him to coach game three, criticized the officiating after the game and was suspended for game three. Cornell’s season came to an abrupt end on Sunday afternoon in a game three loss.
Schafer had to wait until the second weekend of this season to reach the milestone. The team’s 3-1 win over Princeton last Friday made Schafer the 15th head coach in Division I to reach 500 wins.
“It’s a testament to our coaches, and they’ve done a great job. We haven’t had any lags in recruiting where I get myself fired,” Schafer said. “And our players have done a great job continuing the tradition of excellence around here… I’m fortunate, those two things — great players and great assistant coaches – have allowed me to have this longevity.”
Schafer, who had just contracted COVID-19 for a second time, was forced to watch from home.
“It was frustrating… but when you look at it from a different lens, it’s a team effort… from the whole team, the whole program, rather than just myself,” Schafer said. “It was kind of neat to be with my wife when they won and to get a chance to FaceTime the guys after the game.
Reaching the milestone from home gave Schafer occasion to reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on the program and on himself.
“I feel like COVID, from our program and myself personally, has taken a lot from us,” Schafer said. “The 2020 season, the ’21 season. Selfishly, the Coach of the Year [Award] back in ’20 couldn’t be celebrated. I would’ve liked to be there with our team to celebrate the 500th win.”
One of the pandemic’s lingering impacts is disruptions to Cornell’s schedule. Cornell was supposed to host North Dakota to open the 2020-2021 season, but that series was canceled and could not be rescheduled this year. As a result, Cornell opened on the road at Minnesota Duluth. That change, and the conference’s scheduling, resulted in Cornell opening its season with six road games, five against teams that started their seasons weeks earlier than Cornell.
Schafer feels that Cornell’s tough schedule will ultimately benefit the team, but that the Ivy League rules that prevent Cornell and the other five Ivies from starting their seasons at the same time as the rest of the country are a competitive disadvantage.
“It’ll make us better,” Schafer said. “I feel for our athletes. It’s what we have to deal with right now. We’re fighting right now to get up to speed.”
Schafer argues that the Ivy League’s rules are outdated because they were made before student-athletes could easily bring school work with them on road trips.
“I just wish the Ivy League would change the rules. It’s crazy that in this day and age, they’re worried about our players having to go over to the stacks in Warren Library,” Schafer said. “That’s when the rules were made. Everybody’s got access to that stuff now and our kids are great students. I wish that the Ivy League presidents would wake up and [realize] that our athletes are no different except they have to pay for their education as opposed to a scholarship, so put them on an even playing field.”
The rules, Schafer says, reflect the league’s philosophy about athletics.
“It’s not Cornell’s battle, it’s an Ivy League battle. It is one of the biggest frustrations I’ve had as a coach over the last 28 years… We have to have extra rules for our student athletes for whatever reason. We know athletics here isn’t as important as it is at Michigan – we don’t give scholarships.”
Two weekends into the season, Cornell has played three non-Ivy opponents, Dartmouth and Princeton have played one and Harvard, Yale and Brown have only played Ivy opponents.
“I look at some of our Ivy brethren, they’ve played all Ivy games. That’s totally different for us,” Schafer said. “It’s kind of a quirk of the schedule. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, they’re all close to each other so they get the advantage of scheduling each other [to start the season]. It kind of sucks for us.”
Cornell will finish its six game road trip this weekend against St. Lawrence and Clarkson before returning to Lynah for its home opener against Yale and Brown next weekend.