Anthony Corrales/Sun Staff Photographer

Head coach Mike Schafer hoists the Whitelaw Cup for the sixth time after Cornell's 3-1 defeat of St. Lawrence on March 23.

March 28, 2024

Schafer Won Five ECAC Titles in 15 Years. It Took Him 14 to Get the Next One.

Print More

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 story was published in College Hockey News.

LAKE PLACID, NY — In 1996, Cornell hockey threw its hands in the air in jubilation.

Sticks went flying, as did gloves, as players swarmed its goaltender, Jason Elliott ’98.

It was newly-minted head coach Mike Schafer ’86’s first title in his first year of coaching his alma mater, staring into the bright lights of Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid.

Schafer’s first title as Cornell’s head coach was undoubtedly special. The Red did it again in 1997. But little did 35-year-old Schafer know how grueling it is to endure a run to the ECAC title game, much less hoisting the Whiteclaw Cup at the end of it all.

“I was young and foolish back then,” Schafer said. “That was only the first one in the first two years, and I thought, ‘Man, [I] keep getting good recruits and keep going back out [to the championship game]. It’s not that hard.’ And then I hit 2010 [and] it was like, ‘Man … I was foolish, and it’s so hard to get here.’ Things got to go right.”

In 2024, Cornell hockey threw its hands in the air in jubilation.

Sticks went flying, as did gloves, as players swarmed its goaltender, junior Ian Shane.

It was the long-tenured coach’s sixth ECAC Tournament championship in his 29th year of coaching his alma mater, staring into the bright lights of Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid. But after also winning in 2003 and 2005, this was the first — as a coach — since 2010. It was also Cornell’s 13th ECAC tournament title as a program, the most of any ECAC team.

“I’m on the back nine here,” Schafer said. “And I look at tonight [and] there’s a comfort. … The only people that are going to really, truly believe in us all –– at all times –– will be in the locker room. The belief within the locker never, ever wavered once throughout the course of the year.”

This season has been tumultuous for Schafer’s young squad, just as Schafer’s tenure has been. The blips along the road to Cornell’s 13th Whitelaw Cup — which it clinched on Saturday after a 3-1 defeat of St. Lawrence — are emblematic of bumps along the long road of Schafer’s career.

Cornell’s early defeat of Boston University at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 25 perhaps mirrors Schafer’s first ECAC title in 1996, a season that didn’t start so well before the Red made a huge second-half run and nearly won an NCAA tournament game against then-mighty Laker Superior State.

Cornell’s crushing loss to Union on March 1 at Lynah Rink perhaps symbolizes the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down then-No. 1 Cornell’s history-making team that was poised to beat everyone in its path, in 2020.

It’s taken 27 years to get another at Lake Placid, and 14 years to get another ECAC championship, and Schafer has learned some things.

“My first couple years [were] a blur. I mean, [I had] three young kids, and I don’t even think I got a chance to celebrate with them,” Schafer said. “To be here and be with a family — with my wife — and be able to celebrate, actually celebrate, … I enjoyed it.”

The world has in turn learned much about Schafer over the years.

“The announcer [in 1997] called me Ric Schafer. [I was] long ways away from establishing a career here,” Schafer said.

The hockey world has also learned much about the 2023-24 Cornell squad, which will now contend for a national championship after an at-large tournament bid was out of the cards. The hockey world saw freshman Jonathan Castagna pot two goals on the biggest of stages, including the game-winner.

“A true freshman — how many times do you see that nowadays in college hockey, an ’05 walk in and contribute?” Schafer said.

St. Lawrence made a push in the final 20 minutes and halved the game, 2-1, but Shane stood tall down the stretch to deter all the Saints threw his way.

The hockey world is still learning about Shane, whose goals against average has led the country nearly all season but who still fights for national recognition. The 2024 ECAC Goaltender of the Year batted away 31 pucks on Saturday night to clinch the title, a mere few days after being omitted from the Mike Richter Award top-three.

“[I don’t know] how he doesn’t get to be one of the top-three goaltenders in the country for the Mike Richter [Award]. I just don’t think that people have enough respect for him,” Schafer said. “And I don’t think he really cares, and he keeps plugging away. He’s been there for us all year. He was there again tonight and made big saves.”

Junior forward Jack O’Leary notched the empty-netter for Cornell to seal the game, and as the final buzzer sounded, Schafer embraced his staff, and they stayed just like that for a long moment.

The little things are far more noticeable after 29 years of coaching, and far more precious.

“I really enjoyed watch[ing] [junior defenseman] Michael Suda say a little prayer at the end of the game at center ice — really special,” Schafer said.

Next, Schafer’s rag-tag group will skate on to the NCAA Tournament, where it will face Maine in the regional semifinal in Springfield, MA.

“We’ve got to catch our breath. It’s a little bit of a sprint here, … but we’ll be ready. It’ll take a little bit, but it’ll be fun,” Schafer said.