This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 3, 2005

An Object Lesson in Five Minutes

Last weekend, Michigan State traveled to Ithaca, New York, to open Cornell’s D-I season in front of the Lynah faithful. By all accounts, this was a terrific, emotionally-charged series that provided up-and-down action, great goaltending, fierce competition.

The series also gave more than what was reported, and less perhaps than what some people think.

The two nationally-ranked teams split, with Cornell winning 4-2 Friday and MSU taking Saturday’s game, 4-3. The student section — notoriously spirited at Lynah — was even more enthusiastic than usual for this series.

Maybe it was the emotion of the opening weekend. Maybe it was the prospect of playing a ranked nonconference opponent. Maybe there were some cultural differences between the Spartans and their eastern cousins. Maybe it was Halloween.

Whatever it was translated into ugliness at the end of the second game as the final buzzer sounded, when bottles and other debris rained onto the ice from the direction of the student section.

The reports of what happened began to filter into my mailbox almost immediately. I’ve contacted both the Spartan and Big Red sports information offices, and this is what I’ve been able to piece together.

• Apparently unhappy with the officiating and definitely unhappy with the final score, Cornell fans began booing and throwing things onto the ice the moment the game ended.

• In the interest of all involved, Cornell head coach Mike Schafer immediately appealed to the fans to stop throwing debris.

• To celebrate a hard-fought victory, the Spartan players went to the corner section where their fans were sitting — mostly parents of the players — and saluted.

• With the best of intentions, Schafer went over to the Spartan players to urge them to leave the ice, for their own safety. There was contact between Schafer and Spartan player Corey Potter.

• After seeing this altercation between their coach and an MSU player, Cornell players mingled with Spartans.

I’m not trying to gloss over anything that happened. I wasn’t there, and everyone who was there was biased to some extent. Some Michigan State fans have written to express outrage over an “attack” on Potter. Some Cornell fans have written to express outrage over MSU’s “unsportsmanlike” behavior.

The whole thing reminds me of the last U.S. presidential election, and all of it makes me weary. In an effort to stop the spin of disinformation, let me relay to you what I’ve learned from the athletic departments of both schools.

Schafer immediately issued an apology to Michigan State on behalf of himself and the Cornell team. I do not know the wording of the apology, but both schools have verified that there was an apology.

Cornell’s director of athletic communications, Jeremy Hartigan, said Wednesday night that both Cornell and the ECACHL were conducting an investigation into what occurred. Thursday, ECACHL commissioner Steve Hagwell announced that Schafer has been suspended for one game.

Cornell director of athletics Andy Noel said in a statement that Schafer regrets “grabbing the jersey of an opposing player to guide the team safely off the ice.”

“There wasn’t any kind of shoving match,” said Hartigan. “At the same time, there is an understanding that a coach should never be touching an opposing player, period.”

When the Cornell players approached the Spartan players — spurred by this incident between Schafer and Potter — the Michigan State coaching staff immediately intervened, preventing anything else from happening.

Let me be clear here. From what I understand, the MSU coaching staff did not have to come between Schafer and Potter or break up any kind of fight. What the Spartan coaches did was get their players off the ice, and according the Spartan camp, there is no finger-pointing or animosity directed from East Lansing toward Ithaca. Hartigan said that the Cornell assistants may also have been helping to clear the ice.

I do not know whether or not the on-ice officials had left the ice or if they were still present, so I cannot comment on their involvement or non-involvement.

There are no choirboys in college hockey. Even though I wasn’t there, based on my years of experience as a reporter and what I know of each team, I am absolutely certain that the game was physical, punishing, and hotly contested, on every level.

From what I know of the Cornell student fans, Lynah is one of the toughest barns to play in the country. The fans are clever, vocal, and relentless. The pep band brilliantly taunted the Spartans with a rousing rendition of “Hail to the Victors.”

From what I know of fan behavior in recent years, I am not surprised by the hail of soda bottles and other materials, although it does sadden me.

And I cannot believe that Mike Schafer would ever physically threaten a hockey player. Schafer is as intense a coach as you’ll meet, but unless I see actual evidence of such alleged behavior, I will not believe it.

The Spartans felt put out all weekend, to be sure. Plagued by early-season injuries and playing their hearts out in a hostile environment, they wanted to give a little back to their fans — to their moms and dads — when they won. Saluting your fans is not uncommon in the CCHA, but Hartigan said that Cornell fans are not accustomed to visiting players doing this, and such action probably further inflamed the crowd.

Add to that the Cornell players had to go through the crowd of celebrating Spartan players, and Schafer probably saw a recipe for disaster.

What wearies me about this whole situation is the spin. Now, neither school seems to be attempting to say that it was anything other than it was, a big misunderstanding, but the damage that can be done by fan word of mouth in this insta-news world is potentially enormous.

It further wearies me that the state of fandom here in the U.S. has come to this, with fans at an Ivy League school throwing things onto the ice, potentially harming anyone within firing distance. It disillusions me, too; I have always held the non-profane wit of Cornell fans in high regard.

And what wearies me more than anything is having to write about something like this so early in the season, having to point out — yet again — that civility seems a lost cause in the arenas and rinks around the country, even at the college level, even in the Ivy League.

It’s a Rather Short Bench

Part of the reason the Spartans felt so triumphant after their road win against Cornell was the number of MSU injuries. Before the Spartans even traveled to Ithaca, they were without forwards David Booth (ribs), Tim Kennedy (broken hand), and Nick Sucharski (mono), as well as defensemen Chris Snavely (shoulder) and Brandon Gentile (pulled stomach muscle).

Forward Jim McKenzie (Charley horse) injured himself Friday and couldn’t play Saturday, and forward Chris Mueller (shoulder) was injured in the opening minutes of Saturday’s contest.

To add the proverbial insult to all of this injury, sophomore forward Peder Skinner left the team earlier in the week to play for Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League.

MSU head coach Rick Comley told the Lansing State Journal that Skinner wanted “to play and had become frustrated” by the amount of ice time he was seeing.

Skinner left the team having scored no goals in 23 games as a Spartan, earning four assists at MSU.

As for those injuries, McKenzie, Gentile, and Snavely are hopeful for this weekend’s series against Northern Michigan. Booth is out indefinitely, Mueller for up to three more weeks, Kennedy for up to four more weeks, and there’s no set time for Sucharski’s return, although he is skating.

It Couldn’t Last

With their 2-0 win over Princeton last weekend, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish finally ended a 22-game winless streak that dates back to a 2-1 win over Rensselaer on Jan. 2, 2005.

The win marked the first D-I victory at Notre Dame for head coach Jeff Jackson, and the first win and career shutout for freshman Irish goaltender Jordan Pearce, this week’s CCHA Rookie of the Week.

Schedule Confirms Tigers Breathe Sigh of Relief

This week, No. 1 Colorado College plays St. Cloud State, which is something to cheer about in Colorado Springs.

No disrespect intended to St. Cloud, but the Huskies are not the Nanooks.

Alaska-Fairbanks has a charming new hobby for 2005-06 — knocking off No. 1 teams.

We all cheered when the Nanooks went into Minneapolis and took three points from then-No. 1 Minnesota, and a fair number of CCHA fans probably did the same last week when UAF split with then-No. 1 Michigan.

The 3-2-1 Nanooks are scoring by committee, with 10 guys having registered one goal each, and two — Curtis Fraser and Lucas Burnett — each with two. In five games played, sophomore goaltender Wylie Rogers is out to a fast start, with a .925 save percentage, the third-highest in the league and second only to NMU’s Bill Zaniboni among goalies with as many as five games played.

After a 4-2 win to open the series against Michigan, Burnett told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that the win was “special.” “We’ve been playing some quality teams and we’ve been playing them well. It helps us keep our confidence high.”

And Dragon Slayers of a Different Sort

After a slow beginning to the season, including a loss to Robert Morris — Robert Morris! — the Western Michigan Broncos toppled then-No. 4 Ohio State, 5-1 and 5-4, in Lawson Arena last weekend.

It’s not unusual for WMU to score a lot of goals, but this scoring-and-winning thing is new this season.

In Saturday’s game, the Broncos took advantage of a spectacular OSU implosion, scoring four unanswered goals — including two power-play tallies less than a minute apart with less than two minutes to go in the second — to erase a 4-1 Buckeye lead.

The games must have been especially satisfying for sophomore goaltender Daniel Bellissimo, who was replaced by Eric Marvin during last season’s 7-0 Buckeye shutout of the Broncos in Columbus, after which Bellissimo sat on the Bronco bench with his back to the ice surface until the game was over.

The last time the Broncos beat a ranked opponent was Oct. 29, 2004, and guess what? It was the Buckeyes!

The last time WMU swept an opponent was Nov. 27-28, 2004, when the Broncos swept visiting Alabama-Huntsville.

The last time OSU was swept was Jan. 24-24, 2004, at home against MSU. The last time the Bucks lost two on the road was Jan. 9-10, 2004, against Michigan at Yost Arena.

That’s some pretty good company for the Broncos to be keeping.

The Buckeyes — just perhaps — are missing two sparkplugs from last year’s special teams: seniors JB Bittner and Lee Spector, both of whom were essential on OSU’s penalty kill last season. The Bucks allowed seven power-play goals against the Broncos last weekend, and one shorthander for good measure.

The Buckeyes scored no power-play goals last weekend. In fact, the once-mighty OSU special teams — among the best in the nation last year — are among the lowly so far this season; OSU’s power play is converting at 10.9 percent, while the penalty kill is effective 77.3 percent of the time.

“Our special teams need work,” said head coach John Markell after Saturday’s loss.

Blueliner of the Week

No nominees. Well, once again, that’s not true, strictly speaking. Matthew Gatesy, a long-time Ferris State fan, wrote to nominate Joe Van Cullin for FSU’s series against LSSU two weeks ago.

It was a sincere nomination, and one well deserved, I think. It was also too late.

Once again, I’d like to honor the stay-at-home defenders whose outstanding performances in specific games go unnoticed or ignored because such performances don’t necessarily translate into easily identifiable statistics.

Email me to nominate a great defenseman you see this weekend, and give me at least something of his performance in a specific game to merit attention.

Next Week

We’ll give a few well-deserved players more than a passing glance next week, including FSU’s Matt Verdone, UAF’s Kyle Greentree, and Miami’s Jeff Zatkoff, take a peek at Lake Superior State, and return to trivia. Like the Blueliner of the Week, no one bothered with trivia.

I’ll also return to the Games of the Week. Had there been world enough and time this week, I would have highlighted the NMU-MSU series, so I apologize to every NMU fan, everyone who knows an NMU fan, and every single living person in Marquette, Mich., for this obvious slight.