When players arrive at Cornell University, part of their initiation into the program involves a history project.
Eighth-year head coach Mike Schafer requires his players to research the history of Cornell hockey when they arrive on the Ithaca, N.Y. campus. Part of the project is not only to learn about the past but also to tell their new mentor how they’re going to change the future.
Finally, that project paid dividends. When senior Matt McRae fired a hard wrist shot over the left shoulder of Boston College netminder Matti Kaltiainen, the Big Red had written the newest chapter in the history of Cornell hockey. Cornell advanced to its first Frozen Four in 23 years with a 2-1 double-overtime victory over BC Sunday in the East Regional Final in Providence.
As well as Schafer has led his club on the ice — evident in being named ECAC Coach of the Year the past two seasons — he may have missed his calling as a history teacher.
“It’s the responsibility of every player when they step onto the ice to realize that when they see things like the number 25 [hanging in Cornell’s Lynah Rink] it’s Joe Nieuwendyk who was in that jersey,” said Schafer. “They have to play to match those standards.”
On Sunday, the Big Red certainly matched the standards and by many accounts might have far surpassed them. Heck, even Nieuwendyk never did what the 20-plus players who wear the jersey for the Red did this year. Nieuwendyk never saw a Frozen Four. Nieuwendyk never captured a national championship.
After Sunday, the first is complete. The Big Red — a program with as storied a tradition as any and fans more faithful than imaginable — are advancing to the Frozen Four and the chance for the school’s first national championship since 1970 remains alive.
The road to a national championship won’t be easy. With New Hampshire looming in the semi-finals and a tough western opponent on deck after that, saying the order is tall is likely an understatement. But when comparing it to the road already traveled, it seems only a hop, skip and a jump.
What Schafer’s players learned from their research wasn’t only of the greatness of Nieuwendyk and greats like Ken Dryden, and it wasn’t only of the classic national champion clubs of 1967 and 1970.
No, those players also learned of tough times. There were years like 1981 and 1986, when the Big Red split two-game series with Michigan and Denver respectively, only to lose on the old and often maligned “total goals” format, keeping them from the Frozen Four.
They also learned of the 1996 East Regional game, in Schafer’s first season, when P.C. Drouin hit the crossbar in the closing minutes against Lake Superior, just missing a chance to tie.
And besides the freshmen, no one on the team had to become familiar with last year’s regional final. The Big Red last year hung shot for shot with New Hampshire only to see UNH’s Jim Abbott break a 3-3 tie late in regulation, dashing the hopes of the Big Red faithful.
“We’ve said it how many times to the media this year that these guys have been driven,” said Schafer. “We were real disappointed losing. The game against UNH was a devastating loss.
“But it’s come full circle for us. It’s been exactly 365 days since these guys lost to UNH and they set a goal for themselves of giving themselves the opportunity to win a national championship.”
“This is the crowning achievement,” said game hero and East Regional Most Outstanding Player Matt McRae. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been to the Frozen Four. It’s a place that we’ve been preparing to be and a place that we expected to be.”
Now with a near-perfect season, an ECAC championship and an emotional, thrilling double-overtime win in the regional final in the rear-view mirror, the road to the national championship can become the sole focus. As happy as the Big Red can be with ending a 23-year Frozen Four drought, the 33-year national championship drought still looms over every player’s head.
“It feels great to go to the Frozen Four because we’ve been working for this for a long time,” said senior co-captain Stephen Baby. “But at the same time we’re not satisfied with just getting to the Frozen Four. From the beginning of our season our goal has been to win the national championship.
“We’re excited about this right now. It was a great game in a hard-fought battle. But we’re looking to Buffalo now.”
And with two more victories, this will be the team that future Cornell freshmen will write about and aspire to be in their history projects.