Head Coach Mike Schafer Hits Reset
The beginning of last season was full of hope and excitement for the Big Red men’s hockey team. In 2014, they had lost in the semifinals of the ECAC Tournament in Lake Placid to eventual NCAA champion Union, but were coming back with very high expectations. They had a seemingly strong team filled with confident senior leadership, yet they could not get it done, as the squad recorded one of their shortest seasons in recent history, getting brutally eliminated from the tournament in the first round by Union once again.
However, the team was plagued by injuries, losses, and inconsistency in everything from goal scoring to the question of which goalie would start each game. As the 2015-16 season kicks off, Head Coach Mike Schafer looks to “hit the reset button” on the culture surrounding Cornell hockey. He is prepared to take on the challenges this new season has to offer in an attempt to reestablish Big Red dominance in the ECAC.
This year has already looked different than last from a spectator standpoint. One difference is the noticeable lack of captains and assistant captains. The past two seasons were assertively led by John McCarron, who was selected as the captain two years ago in a very interesting move by Coach Schafer to pick a junior to lead his team. Aside from McCarron, Schafer selected team stars Cole Bardreau and Joakim Ryan to assist last winter. This year, Schafer has made the bold move to not name any captains. Although there were a few players many thought would be an obvious choice, that is not how Coach Schafer saw this season.
“Our four seniors have done a tremendous job in the fall, we seem to have great team chemistry, and I think the leaders do that,” explained Schafer. The seniors — Christian Hilbrich, John Knisley, Teemu Tiitinen, and Reece Wilcox — will work together, along with the rest of the team, to rebuild the culture that Coach Schafer wants restored.
While altering the leadership is one way he will start this desired change, Coach Schafer and his staff also have other ideas, which involve changing the way that they think about the team and creating lineups on a game-to-game basis. “Nobody’s got any money in the bank,” said Schafer. “We haven’t won a championship. We haven’t won consistently. Our mentality, as a coaching staff, is that guys have to prove themselves day in and day out, and if that means juggling lines and sitting guys out in games and kicking guys off the ice in practice because they have poor practice habits, we’ll do it.”
Along those same lines, the number one goalie job is still up for grabs. Last season, both Mitch Gillam and Hayden Stewart battled it out, and, once it appeared as though Gillam had it in the bag, he sometimes made fans doubt this conclusion. This time around, there should be a display of similar tactics to last year with split weekends and no real decision. “It’s still wide open, neither one of them really stepped up and claimed the job. If both are playing well, they’ll both get opportunities. If someone starts to run with it, we’ll give them the opportunity to be number one,” described Coach Schafer.
There are numerous freshmen itching to make their way onto the ice, and they may just get the chance. Coach Schafer has made it clear that he will not hesitate to scratch what is not working and stick with what is. Veterans may see limited ice time, while young or breakout players could steal the spotlight. Either way, that so-called “spotlight” will not shine too bright, as Cornell’s culture restoration is not focused on big stars because that’s not what they have. Schafer does not want to “highlight individuals” and, instead, wants to “focus on playing for [themselves].”
The Big Red will rely on everyone to produce since, unlike past teams, Cornell does not have one go-to guy on offense, and Schafer is alright with that. When asked who he is looking for to be big producers, he emphasized, “The production has to come from everybody. We don’t have that guy that walks in and you point to and say, ‘that guy is our guy.’ As a coaching staff we’re not sitting back and saying, ‘okay this guy has got to do it or we’re in trouble.’” Instead, the focus will be on the team’s success as a whole — whatever is best for the team is what will be done, and that is the feeling Coach Schafer wants around the locker room.
The Big Red has the potential to have a huge season. The revamped approach and mentality bring the team a fresh feel, while actually going back to the “grass roots” of Cornell Hockey. With Coach Schafer coming off his 20th year with the Big Red, this could be the time and the team that he’s been waiting for.