Traditions of Excellence
When Cornell and Michigan State Collided This Past Weekend, it Represented Two Storied Programs With High Hopes
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
ITHACA, N.Y. Are this season's highly-regarded Cornell and Michigan State teams a trick or a treat?
It has been 20 years since the Michigan State Spartans celebrated a national championship in ice hockey. For Cornell, the wait has been even longer; 35 years have passed since the Big Red's legendary undefeated (29-0-0) season in 1970. Despite their agonizing waits and their many close calls over the years, each team hopes that this year will be "the year" again — and has legitimate reason to believe it's possible.
This past weekend, Cornell and Michigan State collided in an early season matchup of two of college hockey's most consistently proficient teams. And on this Halloween weekend on the campus of Cornell University, the players skated in Lynah Rink with their typical costumes — their jerseys, their face masks, and their wooden weapons — and looked to treat themselves to an early season step towards their shared aspiration of once again winning a national championship.
Year after year, despite the increasing parity in college hockey, the expectation for each team is excellence.
"At Michigan State, Ron Mason was there 23 years," said Spartans coach Rick Comley, referring to college hockey's winningest coach. "He took it from nothing and became the all-time win leader. Just great stability and tradition."
Cornell coach Mike Schafer, coaching at his alma mater, knows all about tradition, even requiring his players to learn about former Big Red stars. His appreciation for the past is as much a part of his success as his preparation for the future.
"It takes great assistant coaches," said Schafer. "They have to continue to bring players in, and our guys have done a great job of it. It takes an awful lot of hard work, and you can't let your foot off the pedal at all the way that college hockey is right now."
During his 10-year tenure as head coach, Schafer has posted a .643 winning percentage and has led the Big Red to six Ivy League titles and four ECAC tournament championships. Because of his sustained success, the expectations from the media and fans are high each year. This season, the Big Red ranked No. 1 in the preseason conference polls and was ranked No. 2 in the nation before they had even played a game.
Still, Schafer maintains his focus on the goal every night: to play hard and to win.
"You get used to it," said Schafer. "Our expectations are very limited in the sense that our expectation is to work hard for 60 minutes and let the chips fall where they may.
"You deal with the expectations by living up to your own expectations and your own standards, things you set forth for your team or that players set forth for themselves. That's all you can control. You can't control the media, you can't control what people think."
Intelligence. Talent. Achievement. Triumph. These are mere intangibles, but to the coaching staffs of the Cornell Big Red and the Michigan State Spartans, they are expectations and certainties. Over the past several seasons, Michigan State and Cornell have developed a reputation for reliably producing strong, formidable teams backed by resilient defenses.
And that's an understatement.
In the past five seasons, each team has set a handful of NCAA records for defensive supremacy. In 2001, Spartan goaltender and Hobey Baker winner Ryan Miller set an NCAA record for shutouts in a season, with 10. Michigan State's current goaltender, junior Dominic Vicari, already ranks second all-time on the school's shutout list.
As for Cornell, Big Red netminder David LeNeveu led the nation in 2003 with a 1.20 goals-against average, a mark that at the time broke a 45-year-old record held by North Dakota's Bob Peters. And in 2005, the Cornell defense, backed by Hobey Baker finalist David McKee, set an NCAA record by allowing only 45 goals in 35 games, with McKee also setting the school record for shutouts in a career, surpassing NHL great Ken Dryden.
In the past four seasons, Cornell has reached the NCAA tournament three times while Michigan State has reached the NCAAs twice.
"I didn't know what Cornell was all about until I came out here," said Comley. "It's a beautiful campus, a beautiful area. They don't have scholarships, so that's a disadvantage for them. [Their success], I think, is a combination of a great academic school, tremendous hockey support, and an outstanding coaching staff. They recruit good kids."
Comley, of course, is no stranger to success himself. He ranks sixth all-time on the NCAA hockey coaches wins list, with 666. During his storied career, he has coached nine Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalists, most of whom played for Comley while he coached the Northern Michigan Wildcats for 26 years. In 1991, Comley led the Wildcats to a national championship, culminating in a dramatic 8-7 triple overtime triumph over Boston University.
What separates a national championship team from every other team? Perhaps not that much at all.
"Today in college hockey, I don't know how much difference there is among the top 15 schools," said Comley. "Obviously, Cornell last year was more than good enough to get to the Frozen Four, but you have to get there, and that takes some really good fortune. College hockey has more parity and balance now than it's ever had."
Now that the early season showdown between the Big Red and the Spartans is in the books, each team will look to dominate their conference and continue their quest to return to the Frozen Four.
In the mean time, Comley offered a premonition.
"These are two very even teams," said Comley, "and I think there's a good chance that they could meet again."
And perhaps in Milwaukee next April, one of them will fulfill their expectations by finally raising the national championship trophy once again.