Cornell stumbled. McCutcheon's tenure has been regarded as a veritable dark age in the history of Cornell hockey. Cornell had returned to the ECAC Championship game only once since the 1986 postseason. Cornell's lackluster performance in the playoffs over that span included missing the ten-team ECAC Tournament field in 1993 and suffering a sweep in 1994 at the hands of Harvard.
The one glimmer in an otherwise bleak era was Cornell's berth to the 1991 NCAA Tournament. Yost Ice Arena hosted the Big Red and the Wolverines in a three-game series. Cornell silenced the then-meek Children of Yost in the first game with a spectacular effort that resulted in Trent Andison's overtime-winning goal. In a manner representative of the era, Cornell would drop the next two decisions to lose the series.
Cornell's dominance in the East was in peril. Harvard had won a national title in 1989. The skaters of East Hill had no rebuttal. Cornell increased its advantage of total numbers of ECAC Championships won relative to Harvard to four in 1986. Harvard had eroded that advantage to two with the Crimson winning the historic prize of the East in 1987 and 1994 by the time the 1995-96 season began. Cornell had produced an abysmal 25-51-10 record from 1992 through 1995. A former Cornell assistant coach who had further honed his craft at Western Michigan University could not conscience watching his alma mater flounder any longer.
The former Cornell assistant was the same son of a lumberjack whose charisma and mania had catapulted Cornell to its seventh and then last ECAC Championship. Mike Schafer became Cornell's 12th head coach for the outset of the 1995-96 campaign. His previous reputation as a skilled defenseman at Cornell had given way to a possibly more esteemed reputation as a great defensively minded tactician and skilled recruiter. His first season as bench boss at Cornell forced him to lead players whom he did not recruit to play within his system.
The 1994-95 season for Cornell ended with the Golden Knights of Clarkson sweeping the visiting Big Red at Cheel Arena. That roster, like most of those from the same era, was talented but plagued with underperformance. Cornell returned nine of its top ten scorers for the 1995-96 campaign. Among those returning top scorers was captain Brad Chartrand.
Cornell platooned goaltenders during the 1994-95 season. Eddy Skazyk and Jason Elliott produced save percentages of 0.893 and 0.883, and goals-against averages of 3.53 and 4.08 respectively during that season. Cornell surrendered 34.5 shots and 3.83 goals per game on average. These numbers did not represent championship-calibre performances.
Brad Chartrand would don the captain's C during his senior campaign. He would be the first captain in the Schafer Era. The schedule that laid before the two-time captain and first-year head coach included seven out-of-conference challenges. The first game afforded Schafer the opportunity to venture back into CCHA territory.
The Big Red crossed swords with the Spartans of Michigan State in the first game of the 1995-96 season. Cornell would leave Munn Ice Arena dissatisfied. Cornell fell to the East Lansing natives, 6-2. This loss was certainly a setback. Cornell found some solace in the fact that the Spartans had made two consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
The trajectory of the 1995-96 team could be gleaned better from the third game of the season. Schafer had given his first team three objectives. First, he wanted Cornell to defeat Harvard. The Crimson had held the Big Red winless over the previous 20 regular-season meetings of the archrivals. This would be no small task. Second, Schafer wanted to reinvigorate the Lynah Faithful who had been moribund during the veritable dark age. The legendary defenseman believed that the best means to achieve this goal was for Cornell to earn home ice in the 1996 ECAC Tournament. Third, Cornell needed to begin its climb back to national prominence. Schafer believed a berth into the 1996 NCAA Tournament would begin this ascent.
Cornell serendipitously would host Harvard at Lynah Rink for the first weekend of intraleague play. Cornell was focused and motivated to beat the Crimson for the first time since March 1990. Harvard would have to prepare to do battle with Colgate the night before it challenged Cornell. Colgate's fourth-year head coach Don Vaughan was expected to lead a squad that was the class of the ECAC six seasons removed from the Raiders's national-finalist status. Harvard's trip to Central New York would not be easy.
Harvard head coach Ronn Tomassoni braced for the unexpected against Cornell. A new head coach at a program rich in history always presents uncertainty for rivals. Tomassoni was particularly aware of the effect that Schafer could have upon a Cornell team as the then-Harvard bench boss had served as an assistant to Cleary during Schafer's time as a defenseman at Cornell. Tomassoni intimated to The Harvard Crimson that Schafer would have the effect that "[Cornell] would be pumped to play Harvard" in a "tremendous rivalry between Cornell and Harvard."
Cornell made immediate headway toward realizing one of Schafer's goals. Cornell rose to the challenge of breaking a drought against its rival. Captain Brad Chartrand led the Big Red's charge with four points including a hat trick against the Cantabs. Chartrand also notched the game winner in a contest that broke a five-season winless era against Harvard. Cornell's margin of victory was five goals to three goals.
Cornell followed its four-point opening weekend in ECAC play with a three-point weekend against Vermont and Dartmouth on the road. The next adversary that Cornell would confront was historic nemesis, Boston University. The Big Red had earned only one win to the Terriers's two wins in the series between the former intraconference rivals since The Divorce.
Walter Brown Arena welcomed Cornell back for one game. The Terriers dominated Cornell. Boston University would score three goals in the first and third periods while adding a lone tally in the second period. The skaters from East Hill would be held scoreless until less than eight minutes remained. The result was no more pleasant. The Terriers bested Cornell by a 7-1 margin.
Cornell would face another throttling at the hands of Colorado College. That 11-0 loss was sandwiched between victories over Massachusetts and Air Force. Cornell's penultimate out-of-conference game of the season was at West Point's Tate Rink. The Black Knights had defected from the ECAC in 1991 after being perennially uncompetitive in the league. Cornell had lost to the Black Knights only three times during their membership in the Conference.
Army bettered Cornell with a final score of 4-1. As the game unfolded, Schafer began to realize that what he once viewed as possibly insubstantial cracks in the foundation of his first season were fundamental flaws in the way his team was approaching the season and its opponents. It was January 12. Drastic action was required.
Schafer did not allow his team to depart from the Hudson Valley. The team learned his expectations for a Cornell hockey team. He required the team to run laps up and down the stands at Tate Rink after the loss while still wearing their equipment. Then, after he believed that the 1995-96 team appreciated the level of discipline required of a championship-calibre Cornell team, he did not allow the players to remove their equipment on the ride back to Ithaca.
The lesson was learned. The next weekend Cornell earned a split against Colgate. The team earned five wins and a tie as it braced for the regular season's second installment of the Cornell-Harvard series. Harvard wanted vengeance. The game at Bright Hockey Center would be unlike that played at Lynah Rink earlier in the season.
Harvard returned several key and injured players to its lineup before the February 16, 1996 game. Cornell and Harvard both had climbed to the top of ECAC statistical rankings as the best power-play unit and best penalty killing unit in the Conference respectively. The second regular-season game would devolve into a special-teams battle of an unexpected variety.
Harvard returned key personnel to its power-play unit from its injury list. Those returning were no match for a dominant Red performance. The Crimson allowed Cornell's power-play unit to take the ice numerous time during the 60-minute game. Cornell would score four power-play goals on seven Harvard infractions.
Cornell hazed freshman goaltender Pete Zakowich to the ways of the Cornell-Harvard rivalry in the Schafer Era early. The Big Red found the back of the net on its first two shots. The netminders who began the game for Cornell and Harvard did not finish the game. Schafer pulled Eddy Skazyk for Jason Elliott.
Schafer remarked somewhat modestly after the game that "it was a game settled on special teams, and that's been a strength for us this year." A hallmark of Schafer-coached Cornell squads began to emerge early. Two weekends remained before the 1996 ECAC Tournament. The ECAC had bifurcated distinctly between the elite and the basement of the Conference that season. Clarkson, Colgate, Cornell, Harvard, St. Lawrence, and Vermont occupied the top perch.
The regular season ended with the top four seeds hosting quarterfinal series. Vermont had displaced Clarkson as the holder of the first seed. The Golden Knights settled for the second seed. The Saints of the North Country were the third seed. The skaters from East Hill? They had righted course and finished the season as the fourth seed in the 1996 ECAC Tournament.
The Big Red had achieved another of Schafer's first-season goals. It was not satisfied. As the fourth seed, Cornell would face the most evenly matched quarterfinal series as it would host the fifth seed. Don Vaughan's Colgate, a team that began the season expected to dominate the East, had been humbled with the fifth seed in the playoffs. The 1996 ECAC Quarterfinals were a rivalry of sorts.
The dynamic of the would-be Colgate-Cornell rivalry is one highly dependent upon the competitiveness of the Raiders. Colgate is invested in each Colgate-Cornell clash. Cornell is only if Colgate has given it reason to be. Colgate's lofty expectations for the 1995-96 season, Lynah Rink's hosting of a playoff series for the first time in five years, and the angst incumbent in an unrequited rivalry contributed volatility to the first stage of Cornell's playoff quest.
Cornell never allowed the series to be in question. Cornell scored two goals during the opening stanza. Then, the Big Red added three goals in each of the remaining two periods of the first game. Brad Chartrand, Jamie Papp, Mike Sancimino, Ryan Smart, and Chad Wilson each contributed to the final eight goals to three goals decision. Colgate drew first blood in game two, but it was futile. The Raiders provided the only goal in the first period, but Cornell piled on eight goals evenly divided over the last two frames that stood unanswered. Six members of the Big Red provided the eight goals with P.C. Drouin, Geoff Lopatka, Mark Scollan, and Steve Wilson joining Cornell's goal rush.
The writing was on the wall. Times had changed. Cornell's commanding 16 goals to Colgate's four goals put others on notice. Lynah Rink gave way to absolute bedlam as the Lynah Faithful rushed the ice after Cornell completed the sweep of a very good Raider squad.
Cornell punched its ticket to Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, NY. Clarkson would greet them. The Golden Knights had ridden high all season as the assumed winner of the regular-season title until the closing weeks of the regular season. Defeating them would be no small task. However, Schafer's squad continued to make it seem as though it were.
Cornell put its trust in netminder Jason Elliott who had delivered the previous two victories. He would better his previous performance. Cornell delivered an even performance scoring one goal in each period. Clarkson was unable to solve Elliott. Cornell would advance to the 1996 ECAC Championship Final on the back of a 3-0 victory over the Golden Knights.
Could it have ended any other way? Cornell remained. The lone challenger that stood between the Big Red and its first Whitelaw Cup in a decade was Harvard. Cornell had completed a regular-season sweep of the Cantabs. It stood as a spectacular feat considering the recent history of the series, but a feat that nonetheless made it all the more challenging to best them in the ultimate game of the ECAC Tournament.
Tomassoni was determined not to allow a freshman, upstart coach from East Hill to erode further Harvard's 46-42-5 advantage in the all-time series between the most successful programs of the ECAC. Harvard let its intentions be known with the Crimson's Holmes putting to rest any chance of Elliott delivering back-to-back shutouts with a goal 36 seconds into the game. The Red skaters quickly informed Harvard that its contempt for Crimson far exceeded that for maroon.
Harvard would not score again. Cornell would resort to shut-down defense. The Big Red killed off two penalties in the first period. Cornell's efforts were so effective that Schafer remarked after the game that "they didn't get a chance to get a 2-0 lead."
The game shifted abruptly. The shift was in Cornell's favor. Cornell's Matt Cooney put a shot on net. Harvard's Tracy redirected the puck away from the goal line. The rebound off of the redirection struck a Harvard defenseman and careened past Tracy. Cooney was given credit for the goal and Cornell was on the board midway through the first period. The Crimson were deflated.
The teams returned from their locker rooms for the second period. Mike Sancimino would not wait long to put Cornell on top. Sancimino collected the puck on a scramble in front of the net. He elevated the puck. It bounced beautifully off of the inside of the crossbar of the net, struck the Crimson keeper, and rested placidly behind the blue paint. Cornell had taken the lead. The Big Red led 2-1. The Harvard bench was infuriated believing that luck had robbed them of yet another goal despite the well-directed efforts of Cornell. The Harvard Crimson remarked after the game "it appeared that Lady Luck was wearing a Cornell jersey."
Cornell struck again before the second period expired. Official review removed the tally. The on-ice officials determined that a Cornell player had prevented Harvard's Tracy from having a legitimate opportunity to stop the puck. Cornell took the 2-1 lead into the second intermission.
The Big Red was determined to make that difference stand for the last 20 minutes. Cornell and Harvard began to show signs of fatigue from the physicality of the contest late in the game. Despite fatigue, Cornell's defense managed to play its positions and ward off each Harvard challenge. The final 30 seconds of the game witnessed Cornell hemmed into its own end. The Big Red's defense was as dominant as ever. The Crimson would not even send a challenge to Elliott in that time.
Cornell won its eighth ECAC Championship on March 16, 1996 at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, NY. First-year head coach Mike Schafer had done what no other Cornell coach before him had. He had won a tournament championship in his first season behind the bench at East Hill. Schafer's first season as head coach and his senior campaign as captain at Cornell bookended the decade-long drought of championships on East Hill. Credit for the revitalization of Cornell hockey belongs to his ability to inspire his players even in his first season as well as the players who worked tirelessly to achieve his lofty goals.
Cornell outscored its opponents 21 goals to five goals during the 1996 ECAC Tournament. Mike Sancimino bested Harvard's Tripp Tracy during the second period for Cornell's championship-winning goal against the Crimson. Jason Elliott produced a goals-against average of 1.25 and a save percentage of 0.954 during 1996 ECAC Tournament. A new era of Cornell hockey had begun in spectacular fashion.
Vinnie Auger, Tony Bergin, Jeff Burgoyne, Brad Chartrand (C), Matt Cooney, Jason Dailey, Andre Doll, P.C. Drouin,
Dan Dufresne, Jason Elliott (G), Bill Holowatiuk, Jason Kendall, Kyle Knopp, Geoff Lopatka, Jeff Maxwell, Jeff Oates, Jamie Papp, Keith Peach, Jean-Marc Pelletier, Jesse Sampair, Mike Sancimino, Mark Scollan, Eddy Skazyk (G),
Ryan Smart, Chad Wilson, Steve Wilson, Jason Zubkus
- Navigate the Rafters -