Painting the Town Red
Cornell and Boston University Renew Historic Rivalry in Sold-Out MSG
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Perhaps the day has finally come when college hockey draws more excitement in New York City than the Knicks. And why not?
Saturday night, one of the most storied rivalries in college hockey history will be rekindled as Cornell and Boston University face off in front of over 18,000 red-and-white clad fans in a sold-out Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan. The game marks the 41st time the schools have played since their first meeting almost 83 years ago, with Cornell holding a 23-16-1 lead in the all-time series.
Of course, the vast majority of those games have been played in the teams' hometowns of Ithaca, N.Y. and Boston, Mass.
But now ... a sellout at "the world's most famous arena" for a hockey game not involving the New York Rangers? Well, considering the fact that MSG suffered poor attendance for holiday college tournaments in years past, it's fair to say that nobody quite expected anything like this.
"I thought we'd draw a lot of people, but I had no idea we'd draw what we are drawing," said BU head coach Jack Parker. "Selling Madison Square Garden out for a single college hockey game is pretty spectacular."
Cornell coach Mike Schafer agreed.
"I thought we could get up into the 11 to 12,000 range just based on how fanatical our fans are and how loyal our alumni are," said Schafer. "It's kind of taken off. And it's gotten to the point now where it's just phenomenal. Both schools have done a great job as far as marketing it, and the marketing people at both BU and Cornell deserve a lot of credit."
Indeed, plenty of BU and Cornell alumni will be in attendance. But two alums in particular will have a front row seat — Parker and Schafer themselves. Through the years, both Parker (Boston University '68) and Schafer (Cornell '86) have maintained a high level of success for their alma maters — programs whose jerseys are rich not just in their red color but in their illustrious history.
Now, adding to that history will be Saturday's game. So how exactly did this Thanksgiving weekend matchup come to fruition in the first place?
"Our director of athletics, Mike Lynch, had come to me," Parker explained. "He used to work in the development office at BU before becoming director of athletics, and he thought it would be a good idea to have some type of big splash athletically in New York City because we have so many alums in that area and because hockey has such a big following for our school. Mike ran it by [Boston University] President [Robert] Brown's office, and they thought it was a good idea.
"And I got involved with [Cornell coach] Mike Schafer because I thought that the only way this would work would be if BU played Cornell and if it was in Madison Square Garden."
Helping the game's cause in terms of ticket sales is that, really, this particular matchup needs no extra hype. It is, after all, BU against Cornell — and even though they have met only eight times since the Terriers left the ECAC prior to the 1984-85 season, their meetings through the years have been memorable.
Parker himself remembers vividly.
"My most memorable game as a player was the 1967 ECAC Championship game at the Boston Garden," said the legendary coach in a conference call last month. "We were ranked first, Cornell was second, and I think, to this day, that was the largest crowd ever at the old Boston Garden. There were people sitting in the aisles. It was a 4-3 Cornell win, and I think [Cornell goaltender and NHL Hall-of-Famer] Kenny Dryden made 21 saves in the first period."
The Big Red not only defeated BU in the 1967 ECAC final, but they toppled the Terriers in the 1967 NCAA championship game as well. Exactly five years to the day later, BU completed the same feat — beating Cornell for the ECAC crown and then again several days later for the national title.
In that six-year span, BU and Cornell combined to win four NCAA championships.
Then, in the fall of 1972, Parker began his storied tenure as coach of the Terriers, experiencing the rivalry with Cornell from behind the bench as well.
"There's no question — this was the biggest rivalry in college hockey for a long time," said Parker. "It was huge. If you look at the history of it, we were the two dominant eastern schools, the only two eastern schools to win national championships [in the 1960s and 1970s]. We were the kingpins of the east, and it seemed like we were always playing each other in huge games."
Certainly, the currently 3-7-2 Terriers and 4-3-0 Big Red seem far from kingpins of the east, but none of that will matter on Saturday night when scarlet-and-white clashes with carnellian-and-white in the city that never sleeps.
Said Schafer, "It will be a real measuring stick to see what we have, and I'm excited as a coach to see how our guys will respond in this kind of environment.
"With all the red and white in the building, this will be special."
The meeting will be the teams' first since the 2002-03 season, when Cornell swept BU in a two-game series at Lynah Rink in Ithaca. That year, the Big Red advanced to its only Frozen Four appearance in the last 27 years. Still, despite all the history, no players on these current Big Red and Terrier squads have ever experienced a Cornell/BU game first-hand.
So what does the rivalry mean to them?
"I think the people in the crowd are going to be able to relate to the rivalry a lot more than our players on the ice are going to be able to relate to it," said Schafer. "From the players' standpoint, I don't think they have that innate rivalry like, for instance, BU would have for Boston College or we would have for Harvard and other teams we play year in and year out. The rivalry has a lot to do with the alumni who were around when it was going on, so it's great to be able to rekindle it and bring it back. [Jack Parker] played it and lived it in the '60s and '70s, so I know that it has a special place in his heart."
Parker echoed Schafer's sentiments, saying, "Well I don't think [the players] have any idea, to tell you the truth. Cornell's been a great hockey team for a long, long time, but we haven't played them a lot. It's a big rivalry in the minds of the fans, and certainly for all the alums and former players, but it's a rivalry in the eyes of our players because they're a good team, we're a good team, and we both hope to be solid teams at the end of the year."
For BU to be a solid team at the end of the year, it certainly wouldn't hurt to knock off Cornell on such a grand stage. The Terriers have struggled out of the gate, dealing with two inexperienced goaltenders and an offense that, as Parker puts it, is "much more balanced" than last year's but is relying heavily on one scoring line featuring seniors Bryan Ewing and Pete MacArthur and junior Chris Higgins.
And earlier in the week, 40 shots on goal for BU were not enough as Harvard beat the Terriers by a 2-1 score, just four days after doing the same to Cornell.
Meanwhile, the Big Red — a team whose fight song fittingly mirrors the tune of "Give my Regards to Broadway" — hits Manhattan looking to take advantage of this game as a potential springboard for future success this season.
Said Schafer, "Any time you play in this type of environment where your kids get used to playing in front of such a large crowd, it just helps your confidence. And when you face [other similar situations later in the season], it's not as intimidating. So there's always a benefit from that standpoint."
Another benefit for the Big Red, to which Schafer also alluded, is that they can be assured they will have their usual large fan base in attendance for support.
Said Parker, "We'll be the home team as far as wearing the white sweaters, but we will not be the home team as far as the crowd is concerned.
"Cornell has a ton of fans coming."
Now, as Saturday night's game at Madison Square Garden approaches, it's time to eat turkey leftovers, another slice of pumpkin pie, and get ready for one of the hottest tickets in the Big Apple.
Well, red-hot, of course.