Anthony Corrales/Sun Staff Photographer

Ben Robertson '27 against Toronto Metropolitan University on Oct 14, 2023.

March 28, 2024

Bolstering the Blueline: Despite Growing Pains, Men’s Hockey D-Corps Holds Strong

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This story is part of The Sun’s 2024 NCAA Hockey supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article was published in College Hockey News.

Attend a practice at the old Lynah Rink in Ithaca, N.Y., and you might hear a whole lot of this:

“Details, details, details!”

If you arrive a half-hour before practice begins, don’t fret — you’ll see some action. Odds are, you’ll see a defenseman or two. Some will be coming from a video session, often with the likes of their defensive partner, while others will get some extra reps in on the ice before the rest of the team joins them.

The top defensive corps in the nation doesn’t take its craft lightly — allowing just 1.88 goals per game all year, Cornell prides itself on its hard-nosed, pesky defense, marquee to its style of play.

So, what’s the philosophy behind Cornell’s defensive prowess?

“Great attention to details and our habits, and a responsibility to our expectations for our d-partners and our d-corps,” said Cornell associate head coach Ben Syer. 

In his 13th season with the Red, Syer leads the defensive group that has flourished and produced pro-caliber defensemen over the past decade. 

“Much like our program is, we try to make our d-corps like its own entity,” Syer said. “We always reference our d-partners as our lifelines, like best buddies. You know, like, ‘I got to take care of my best buddy the same way that I would hope he would take care of me.’ So we try to build a little bit of camaraderie in that regard, as well.”

The walls of the Cornell hockey locker room are full of phrases that players strive to embody every day: “attention to details,” “personal accountability” and “collective sacrifice,” among many others.

Cornell lost 10 seniors to graduation in 2023, including half of its defensive group. Notably, they lost the stellar play and leadership of captains Travis Mitchell ’23 and Sam Malinski ’23, who has recently made a name for himself with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. This year, the Red introduced 10 freshmen and five new defensemen to fill the void left by the strong senior class. 

There have been some growing pains — while Cornell’s defense has climbed up the ranks and sits atop the NCAA after an ECAC championship, there have been some uncharacteristic lapses, including an 8-4 nightmare-fuel loss to Quinnipiac in Hamden, CT, as well as a disappointing 4-2 defeat to Colgate at Lynah Rink.

Things even looked dodgy in the first two periods against Dartmouth in the ECAC tournament semifinals, when the Red at one point trailed 3-1 to the Big Green due to a lack of poise in its defensive zone and blips that ended up in the back of Cornell’s net.

“It can be challenging,” Syer admitted when asked about the transition from mainstays like Mitchell and Malinski and the hard-hitting Sebastian Dirven ’23 to a youthful first-year class learning the system for the first time.

But, as Syer added, “it can be a lot of fun.”

Fresh Face

Perhaps the player you’ll see most enjoying himself at the rink — arriving extra early for video sessions, treatment and skates — is freshman defenseman Ben Robertson. The true freshman has quickly hoisted himself up to the top defensive pairing with junior defenseman Tim Rego, posting 23 points in 33 games played, which included a historic seven-game point streak to start the season, the longest by a Cornell freshman to open a season dating back to 1975-76.

Robertson collected a handful of postseason accolades, including being named to the ECAC All-Rookie team, the All-ECAC second team and the All-Ivy League second team.  

“He’s a rink rat,” Syer said. “He loves being around the rink. He’s got a high IQ.”

Robertson’s silky play on the backend, as well as his seamless transition to manning the point on the power play, has cemented his status as a top defenseman for Cornell. 

“I’m always trying to find that balance of being an offensive defenseman but also playing defense,” Robertson reflected on his style of play. His creative offensive abilities, complemented by hard-nosed defense, mirror that of the graduated Malinski.

“When I visited here last August, I got to talk to him a little bit then. And I tried to watch as many of his games as I could,” Robertson said of Malinski. “Definitely someone I try to emulate my game after.”

Malinski is just a fraction of the support Cornell hockey gets from its alumni.

“Oh, they’re still very involved,” Syer said of the alumni. “We’ve had Sammy [Malinski] talk to the guys. Mitchy [Mitchell] sent some things in for our corps dinner. … Even guys that I didn’t coach, like Jeremy Downs and Charlie Cook, who were a part of that (2003) Frozen Four team, have become very good friends of mine in working here, and they’re very involved in giving their two cents or their insight that’s really invaluable.”

The rich tradition of Cornell hockey is imperative to its success — while Cornell adjusts to a new-look defensive group, upperclassmen leadership is critical. The likes of junior defensemen Hank Kempf, Michael Suda and Tim Rego have been imperative in adjusting the freshmen — many of whom are just 18 or 19 — to the aggressive defensive system Syer upholds.

“The younger guys that come in, they’re used to playing 60-70 games a year,” Syer said. “They have a tough game on a Sunday. Kind of stinks for a day or two. But they might play on a Wednesday night, or then they have three again the next weekend. So, it’s easily forgotten or doesn’t have a real significant impact. When you play 29 regular season games, everything is magnified.”

Entering Cornell after a strong year with the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL, Robertson quickly unearthed the importance of every game, every shift and every play.

“Every single play really matters since you don’t have that many games,” Robertson said. “You may think you’re making a simple play, but if the puck ends up in the back of your net, and you end up losing, that’s a game you’re not going to get back.”

Safety Net

When the puck does get through the defense, it’s nice to have a goaltender to bail you out.

“His attention to his craft and wanting to get better is second to none,” Syer said.

Junior goaltenderIan Shane hails from Manhattan Beach, California, nearly 3,000 miles from Cornell. A year before arriving in Ithaca, his season was tumultuous. He spent time between the pipes with the Chicago Steel in the USHL before relocating to Bismarck, ND, to play in the NAHL. 

In his third season with the Red, Shane has quietly amassed a .924 save percentage and averages 1.71 goals against in his 82 career decisions. Shane was named a top-10 finalist for the Mike Richter award, was nominated for the Hobey Baker Memorial award and took home the Ken Dryden Goaltender of the Year title.

“I don’t think there’s anything that I necessarily want to prove individually,” Shane said. “I think the goal for everyone is to win a championship — Ivy, ECAC, National championship.”

They’ve got two of those down.

Be in the presence of Shane, and you’ll probably be a bit intimidated — he composes himself exceptionally professionally and takes his play seriously. He is quick to deflect the conversation from himself and instead attribute his accolades to the group around him. 

“He’s certainly an intellect of the game,” Syer said. “You’ll see him watch video on his own. He’ll want to have different discussions. He knows the details of the team that we’re playing — like, he’ll want to know who has the most shots on the other team. Which way did they shoot? Where are they on the power play?”

Robertson attributes much of his confidence on the backend to Shane. “He makes it easier for us, having someone back there to rely on. You know, if you aren’t on your guy, he’ll definitely let you know, and it just makes the game a lot easier.”

Shane first got his shot in early 2022, as a first-year, when Cornell was in North Dakota, preparing to take on the then-No. 1 Fighting Hawks.

Nearly two years later, with a near-totally different defensive group in front of him, Shane has blossomed into a top goaltender in the ECAC and rivals many across the country.

Perhaps a telling reason for Shane’s going unnoticed is the low shot volume he faces — this season, Cornell has allowed the fewest shots in the NCAA at 744, 65 fewer than the next closest team, going into the NCAA tournament. The Red have blocked an additional 411 shots and asserted themselves as known shot-blockers, making it a crucial part of the game plan. Yet despite seeing fewer shots, Shane flourishes.

Shane had five shutouts last year, including an impressive 2-0 shutout victory over the then-reigning national champion Denver, which he largely attributed to the guys in front of him. With much of that group gone, Shane has played a prominent role in anchoring the new-look corps to success.

“He’s a calming presence,” Syer said of his goaltender.

“Obviously, there’s a little bit of an adjustment when you bring in a lot of underclassmen and 10 freshmen, but some younger guys are stepping into those roles, and I think they’ve been doing a great job,” Shane said. “Ben Robertson comes to mind. You see him in pretty much every situation on the ice.” 

The rag-tag group has clinched an NCAA tournament berth for the second straight year, where, in 2023, the Red was one win short of a Frozen Four last season. At the very least, Cornell is setting itself up again for a strong next couple of years.

“Some guys are like, ‘Okay, that’s happened 1,000 times — why is that a big deal?’” Syer said. “Well, you know what? One goal, because I don’t go blade on blade and deflect a puck into the netting, could be the difference between 0-0 and 1-0. And 1-0 can win a game.”