ALBANY, N.Y. — It is the dream of every Cornell hockey player to score the game-winning goal to beat Harvard.
For ECAC championship hero Sam Paolini, his big dream was to become a Cornell hockey player. Amidst the elation as his booming slapshot sailed into the back of the net, he remembered that entering his freshman season, Paolini wasn’t truly slated for the Big Red roster.
“I wanted to come to Cornell,” Paolini said. “Coach [Mike Schafer] said I had to persevere. I had to overcome a lot of things. To get the final goal my senior year, I knew I made the right choice coming here.”
Despite getting named to the All-England team his senior year of high school, Paolini was a raw recruit coming out of Choate Rosemary Hall. In fact, Schafer initially did not see much of a future for the 6-1 kid from Rochester, N.Y, evidenced by the fact that Paolini skated in just 12 games his rookie season.
In the eyes of the coaching staff, Paolini had an amalgam of problems. Some nights he lacked the physical presence to play at the Division I level, other times it was a lack of skill. About the only thing the men entrusted to run the Big Red could agree upon was that he was inconsistent.
“This is a dream come true for him,” said Schafer. “He had to talk his way onto the team. He pushed and he pushed himself into getting better.”
Paolini made a permanent impression his sophomore season. It turned out that what Paolini needed two things more than any others: a spot on the power play, and a game against Harvard.
Paolini’s first career point came on Feb. 4, 2000, against the Crimson. Over the course of his career, he has eight goals and eight assists versus his top rival. Meanwhile, he has become almost as much of a fixture on the power play as Doug Murray’s blasts from the point
In fact, Paolini was almost the hero of the championship game well before overtime. On Cornell’s first shot of the night, Paolini tipped a Stephen Baby point shot and the Big Red nearly made that lead stand up.
It was a microcosm of his career — a power-play goal against Harvard
“I told coach that I wish I could score against more teams,” Paolini said. “What better team to score your most points against than your top rival?”
His career statistics — 36 goals, 51 assists — may not rate with some of his more heralded teammates, but the 36th goal certainly did. Flying down the left wing, he deked around the Crimson defenseman at the blue line and leaned into a slapshot that sent the Pepsi Arena wild — with 8,296 seemingly all rooting for the tournament’s number-one seed.
“I just shot it as hard as I could,” he said.
Even before the game winner, Paolini was an integral part of the Cornell program. He is one of five finalists for the Hockey Humanitarian Award, nominated for his outstanding work with several local charities.
Paolini founded the Special Population Skate at Cornell, which pairs him and his mates with a group of physically and mentally handicapped children. He also devised a partnership between a local bank and the Breast Cancer Alliance, in which the bank donates $100 to breast cancer research for every Big Red power-play goal.
Paolini cost the bank another C-note Saturday.
“He’s done a great job off the ice, [so] it was really great to see unbelievable things happen to him on the ice,” Schafer said. “He’s been a big part of our power play for the last two years. It was great to see the goal go in the back of the net. I’m pretty excited for him.”
The journey from Rochester to Ithaca has been far longer than Paolini could have expected. Entering the final lap of his career, it sure seems worth it.
“I’m still elated,” Paolini said. “After I took that shot and all my teammates jumped on top of me. So many thoughts were rushing to my head.
“Even if I didn’t score that goal, I’m happy to be a Cornell hockey player.”
A Cornell hockey player who’s beaten Harvard.