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Cornell Hockey, The Ivy League, and the Survival of the Student Athlete

The term student athlete is usually said with cynicism. There’s a perception that the *student* athlete is a myth. Gone. Extinct like the Dodo. Maybe you have a more nuanced understanding that only Division III or small time programs can support full time students and athletes. But certainly not one that a third of its players are headed to the pros, and a big four sport at that. After all, Northwestern (not exactly a football factory at that) football players won a petition to unionize on the basis that they are employees of the university. Well then, welcome to the Ivy League. Welcome to Cornell hockey.

John McCarron is the captain of the Big Red. He’s also a 2012 draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers. And a student athlete. His twitter handle says so, and the “STUDENT” in student athlete is capitalized. Can’t blame him. In the NCAA, the perception is big time student athletes aren’t students. This isn’t the case for the Ivy League sports. Student athlete is a descriptive term. It’s a way of life, not just an empty phrase. Student athletes still have to contend with exams, work, and class just like everyone else. Plus three or four hours of practice a day. For players whose rights are protected by an NHL draft pick, it makes for a dichotomy of achieving success on the ice and showing potential while balancing rigorous academic demands.

Ice hockey is the only sport the Ivy League that can claim success in the big four pro sports and back it up. Cornell is an elite school, known more for producing current NHL commissioner Gary Bettman than NHL players. Yes, Jeremy Lin made it from Harvard and there are a handful Ivy League players in the NFL (mostly linemen). But they’re exceptions to the rule. The NHL, as of 2013, featured 19 active Ivy League players hailing from all six teams in the ECAC. Cornell has five players on NHL active rosters this year, and one alum, Sean Collins, that has bounced around. The 2013-2014 Big Red features seven players whose rights are owned by NHL teams.

The Ivy League endowment, spanning all eight schools, is close to $100 billion. And while one tenth of a trillion dollars is an impressively large sum of money to be sure, it’s not one that seems to seep into its sports very easily. Ivy League coaches aren’t rich men. Its facilities are sustained by donations from wealthy alums. And yes, the Ivy League does get its fair share of wealthy student athlete alumni. The facilities are certainly good, but nothing special. It gets the job done.

The Eastern College Athletic Conference, or ECAC, is home to six Ivy League colleges – every one save for Penn and Columbia. But the Ivy League still exists, even if you can’t find it in the standings. There is still an Ivy League Player of the Year and an Ivy League Champion crowned based on play within the conference. It’s an Ivy thing.

The Ivy League members in the ECAC still play by Ivy League rules. The six teams play less games than everyone else, and don’t offer athletic scholarships. As a result, Ivy League recruiting is very different. It has to be. Cornell, like its compatriots in the Ivy League, have to sell their recruits on getting an Ivy League degree and being set for life. It’s a cliche, but the value of the degree is actually the Ivy League’s most powerful recruiting tool. It’s not exactly Ray Allen’s recruitment in “He Got Game.” While the debate surrounding pro prospects in basketball is whether or not they should be paid, these are pro prospects who aren’t on athletic scholarships as the norm. Cornell has to compete with teams like Union, Colgate, and Quinnipiac, their combatants in the ECAC semifinals in Lake Placid, without athletic scholarships. It’s just a way of life. If you’re an Ivy League coach, a fact of life is losing out on a recruit because their academic index isn’t high enough to get admitted. Or maybe the lack of anything but need based financial aid was a problem. In turn, Ivy League sports are built upon the richest recruits who don’t need any financial support, and poorest recruits that get the most need based aid.

The other non-Ivy members of the ECAC, while none of them are exactly slouches academically, can offer a much different college experience and lifestyle, much more like the stereotypical college athlete experience. So it can be tough to sell young men, many of whom are teenagers, on the merits on an Ivy League degree.

“It’s a family. It’s hard to explain to a recruit what the culture, what the relationship is with our fans, faculty, townspeople, our students,” explains head coach Mike Schafer. A Cornell alum and head coach since ’95, he knows as well as anyone. “It’s just a very close knit group. Our kids give so much back to the program, to Ithaca and the community in general with the tons of things they’re involved in. They’re tied to this town and tied to the university. And our players appreciate the fan support they get. You see that senior night; you see that relationship that exists. It’s really difficult to explain to a recruit and really difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t first hand seen it. I think its really, really unique and Cornell is a special place.”

The fact that Cornell is never short on talent is a testament to Schafer’s recruiting message and what a unique place it is. Men’s ice hockey has the fortune of being the most supported at Cornell, and probably the most consistently well supported program in the Ivy League. It’s tradition rich, strongly supported, and an Ivy League member. Part of its uniqueness is owed to historic Lynah Rink, a stadium that holds less than 5,000 people, but features a student section that rivals and surpasses that of any other in college hockey. The constant chants and harassing of opposing goaltenders spouted by perpetually standing student sections make it a tough place to come into and play but a great place to call home ice.

Even after the games are done being played, the battle with the school work never stops. After a hard fought tie with Colgate to end the fall semester, the Big Red have to face another daunting challenge. Afterwards, there’s a surprising topic in the post game. Finals. The semester ends and now the team can focus on their finals. Welcome to Ivy League hockey.  “Now its the grind of exams,” explains Coach Schafer. “You’re surviving,” Schafer says without a hint of dramatism when asked about preparation for the latter half of the season. “Walk around campus and you see everybody else that are zombies and glued to their academics. Our athletes are the same way. That’s why I’ve always had the utmost respect for the lacrosse team. For most difficult part of the year they end up smack dab in the middle of exams. I don’t know how they do it. It’s a tough time to balance the school and get a workout in as a student athlete, and more so at an Ivy League school.” So how do they do it?

“It’s definitely hard, but I think especially you need to make sure you stay on top of your work in the classroom and get it done when you can so you’re not kind of scrambling to try and get it done when you’re getting ready for a game,” explains Forward and LA Kings draft pick Joel Lowry. I’ve seen players make the most of any free seconds they have after practice to read over notes or study. Lowry adds, “You want to try and get some sleep later on in the week and make sure you’re rested up for the games. Just time management and staying on top of things is the biggest thing.”

“I would say hockey is first, but I don’t know how many people would agree with me,” explains defenseman Jacob MacDonald with a laugh before the ECAC semifinals, adding “It’s tough. A lot of guys are going through exams and stuff but other than that I think for the most part we’re all on board and all focused on what we have to do this weekend.”

Exam season is tough. Especially on the hockey players. Finals means practice schedules get altered and having to adjust. Ivy league exams and staying in hockey shape, but also offer a chance to get healed. Former all American wrestler Mike Nevinger told me he had to think of his school work as a mental break from his physical demands. It’s something that I’ve heard echoed many times, by athletes in all sports. During the season time management is key. Unlike pro players, who just have to worry about their craft, the student athletes have to balance hockey, school, and everything else. Alum Greg Miller explains, “For our class[es] in particular it was like having six brothers as we did almost everything together.”

When the Big Red fights for a first round bye for the ECAC playoffs, they have extra motivation. They need it so they have more time to study for prelims. “We need that week,” senior Andy Iles explains, “[The bye lets us] take a little bit of a mental break. It’s right in the middle of the semester so guys are getting hammered with exams. It’s tough pulling off being in the library late, up early to go to class and then practice the next day. It’s nice to rest the body a little bit, rest the mind a little bit, focus on the academic side of things, and fire up back up the following weekend.” Everyone is being hammered by work. Even I’m happy Cornell secures a bye, so I can get a respite from covering the team. No matter how hard you try, you can’t take the Ivy League out of the ECAC.

Classes and off the ice responsibilities take up a lot of time. Some students have trouble enough adjusting Cornell, even without dozens of hours of practice against some of the best amateur hockey players in the world. Three to four hours of practice plus top ten academics. A student athlete might have to expend all of his physical strength playing hockey, then expend his brain to take on a prelim or a paper in the same night. It might be easier to play professional hockey. Just ask Greg Miller ’13, a Cornell alum who was key contributor on the Big Red’s tourney run, and pursuing his pro career in the ECHL and AHL. “There is definitely more time available during the day. It’s different, your day isn’t filled with classes and homework.”

After finals it isn’t much of a break. A week off and then it’s tournament time in sunny Florida. Guys can skate and stay sharp at their local rinks but some guys don’t. And then it’s like starting a new.

Cornell takes obvious pride in its academics. So do their student athletes. There’s the 400 Club, which honors students athletes who achieve 4.0 GPAs, or better, in any given semester they play a D-I sport. Only five members of men’s ice hockey have ever achieved the feat since the club’s inception in ’97, and one member, Colin Greening, is playing hockey in the NHL for the Ottawa Senators. This is a departure from other programs, where “student athlete” is only a term thrown around to avoid NCAA investigation. A Cornell coach who spent years playing and coaching at Oklahoma (granted, playing tennis not hockey) told me he didn’t know what an internship was until he arrived at Cornell. He notes all the student athletes are very vested in their education. It’s a little different here.

Maybe the best summary of Ivy League sports comes from a man who never went near an Ivy program and made millions in the NFL – Tim Tebow. When explaining the difference between adrenaline and passion, he offers, “Passion is when you don’t want to wake up early in the morning. Passion is when you don’t want to stay up late studying but you do. Passion is something that comes from deep down inside. … Passion is all the nights you can’t see me working… Passion is when you’re tired and still doing what you know is right and what needs to be done.” If that’s passion, its hard to find more passion than in the student athletes of Cornell and the Ivy League.

Once, as I waited for head coach Mike Schafer to file in and address the media, I discovered a Union College quarter card promoting one their players for college hockey’s top individual prize: “Ghost for Hobey.” Union’s history doesn’t compare to Cornell’s.* Union has only been DI since the 90s, and hasn’t produced any NHL players. Cornell has produced two NHL Hall of Fame players — Ken Dryden and Joe Nieuwendyk, the former of which is one the most erudite greats in hockey history who followed up his career by writing one the greatest books on sports ever penned. Cornell has won two national championships. It’s the only team in NCAA history to have an undefeated and untied season. But Cornell would never make quarter cards saying “Joaky for Hobey.” There’s no Cornell propaganda with catchy phrases. There’s more campaigning for awards in college hockey than you’d like. It’s not an Ivy thing, though.

Yale’s national title, even though it received less attention than Harvard’s March Madness win at the NCAA tournament, validates the Ivy League competitiveness at the highest level. Ivy League teams can still compete at the highest level and win national titles. And that’s what Cornell is trying to do each year.

Now at the the risk of editorializing, this is what college sports is all about. It should be shocked by student athletes. Otherwise it’s just not college sports. And yes, the Ivy League may not be the best conference in college athletics but it’s probably closer than you might think. After all ESPN College Gameday did go to Harvard Yale. Yale beat Connecticut in basketball. Cornell always contends in wrestling and men’s lacrosse. Harvard beat New Mexico in the NCAA tournament, and Cornell isn’t so far removed from their run to the sweet sixteen, up ending Temple and Wisconsin in the process before losing to a stacked Kentucky team. There is no national success to speak of in football but several good NFL players did originate in the Ivy League, including Ryan Fitzpatrick. This isn’t impossible. I’m not asking for anything crazy, just a term to live up to its name.


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