The quarterfinals of the ECAC Hockey tournament were played. The semifinals occurred during the ECAC Hockey championship weekend. Harvard hoisted the Whitelaw Cup for the ninth time on the ice of Herb Brooks Arena. Pucks dropped on the regional semifinals and finals of the NCAA tournament. Boston reunited with the Frozen Four. A national champion was crowned. All unfolded without Cornell's involvement.
More than eight weeks have passed since Cornell began the playoffs with much hope, and ended them with far greater disappointment. The passage of time and its associated waiting tamed the perturbed passions of the hours and days after last season ended. Now, with a clearer mind and a voice no longer hoarse from catharsis, this writer will try to understand not what went wrong last season, but how the institution of Cornell hockey can avoid a repeat and who is best suited to lead such an aversion.
Cornell athletics, with the complicity of the regional media, spare Mike Schafer the indignity of facing the press after abysmal seasons. Schafer retreats away with few comments until the NHL draft approaches. This is neither to mock this approach nor champion a change to a model that resembles those of the large sports universities. Part of the charm of Cornell hockey is that it is one of the few élite programs in college hockey that commercialism and quasi-professionalism do not taint. In this quaintness, there is unkindness.
The unkindness of neglecting the Lynah Faithful, college hockey's most loyal fanbase, creates its own problems. The Faithful demand answers and no one is there to give them. Introspection is needed after every season. It is insufficient after a season so bleak. Self-criticism of the sternest order is necessary now.
Self-critical analysis spares no one. The perpetuity, success, and values of the institution as a whole become paramount for they are jeopardized. The watchful shepherd of this program is its head coach. When guidance or consolation is needed, eyes are cast in his direction. Those eyes were once oceans of admiration of the kind that our friends at Without a Peer so often enjoyed to mock or that this writer would pastiche. Beliefs of infallibility, if they were ever appropriate or encouraged, are now ill-conceived.
Mike Schafer, head coach of Cornell hockey, is charged with giving direction to this program. The hockey team seemed lost in a daze last season. It was blind. Vision is what this team needs. The leader of this program has to give it. As "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end," the last statements of one season become the first of the next.
What course did Schafer plot? What were the first lines of the script for the 2015-16 season? What were the directives and ambitions? Where one would hope to find specificity, clarity, and audacity, one finds inconsistency and abrogation.
Coach Schafer held his last official press conference after the 7-0 humbling that Union bestowed at Lynah Rink and issued his last expected game notes to the Cornell Hockey Association. The two combine for the sum total of Schafer's reflections on last season and the only thing that may pass as a crude blueprint for how he expects to avoid the pitfalls of last season. His undirected and internally contradictory remedies laid bare follow.
The identified culprit of last season corroborates across the two media. When Mike Schafer was asked how his assistant coaches and he would rectify the ills that plagued his team last season, he answered:
We will work hard and get back to the drawing board with recruiting a commitment to work ethic.
We need to get back to the drawing board to work on recruiting and improving our work ethic.
It's hard, the last game of the year, you just don't want that for your group of seniors, a group that committed themselves so much.
It was very disappointing, especially for our seniors who gave us their all for four seasons.
A non sequitur praises highly the unwavering commitment of the senior class, describes the ownership its members took of their development for the unselfish maintenance of the program, and concludes that an absence of work ethic grounded the trajectory of the 2014-15 season. A reflective listener is left wondering if Mike Schafer is scrambling for excuses or unaware of when the season became lost. Neither is befitting of a coach who will need to get a program out of a sizable rut.
A retrospective lens did not limit Schafer's criticism of work ethic. Yes, he may have intended otherwise, but the connotations of his statement extend far beyond last season and the Class of 2015. The Big Red's bench boss referenced a need to "get back to the drawing board" in both of his statements. This need implicates the current framework of recruiting, whether it is the network of scouts or the traits which Schafer's assistant coaches have been directed to seek, in bringing to East Hill players who lack "work ethic."
This statement is very damaging for countless reasons. However, first, in line with the previous argument, indulge this writer in comparing it to another statement that Schafer made. Disappointing doublespeak and contradiction rear their ugly heads as he continues in his official statements.
We have an excellent group coming in next year but we will still be out recruiting to improve the incoming class.
Topher Scott and Ben Syer were mere feet away when he made this statement. It is not as if in moments his assistants recruited an entirely new class and dispensed with the old commits whom were recruited under the old system that needed to be reduced to dust on the chalkboard. This is probably the most upsetting, complicated, and harmful statement that Coach Schafer makes in either release.
A frontal assault on a coach's recruiting tack impugns not only the past, it assails the future. Mike Schafer and his staff have received commitments from players who are not expected to take the ice of Lynah Rink until at least two complete seasons expire. What of them? What are they or their preceding classes not yet in Ithaca supposed to think of Coach Schafer's condemnation of the Big Red's recent recruiting model and the fruits that it bore? How are they not supposed to take these comments personally?
The treacherous grounds that Schafer has staked out are obvious. Implying that all incoming recruits lack the work ethic to thrive in the supercharged and ultracompetitive environment that is Cornell hockey is no formula for success or team building. This writer does not believe that this implication was the intent of Cornell's head coach. Lack of intent does not erase the fact that he ill-advisedly did such. Oversight of this magnitude manifests a dangerous lack of vision from a coach who carried Cornell back to the mountaintop of college hockey.
Commitments in college hockey are precarious things. Will commits waver at the sound of their future head coach seemingly deriding their character? Coach Schafer remains one of the best developers, if not the best developer, of talent in college hockey. Will enduring perceived beratement be worth the uncertain promise of even the best development path in college hockey? We hope that none of the commits to Cornell finds himself engaged in this calculus.
A lack of harvesting work ethic through the coaching and recruiting process was not the only failure of the 2014-15 season according to the former two-season captain. The systems and tactics on the ice were at the tip of his secondary assault. If it was not the way the players approached life, it was the way that he led them to play the game, Mike Schafer maintained. His statements on this matter do not internally contradict themselves, but they nonetheless contradict reality.
We tried to make some changes this year. I thought that they failed miserably in the sense of some of our systematic things. We've got to go back to the drawing board. I did things one way for 19 years, and I made a change, go back to what I did for the previous 19 years. We've got to start this whole thing all over again...We've changed some things this year. I've got to go back to what I really believe in.
I tried to make some changes this year and it failed miserably. I’ve done things a certain way for 19 years then changed this year but I'm going back to my original philosophy.
Schafer is not inaccurate in his statement that Cornell hockey "ma[de] some changes this year." The decorated coach pointed to the forechecking scheme of the 2014-15 season. That is the most apparent change that any fan familiar with Cornell hockey over the last several seasons would have noticed.
The error lies in Schafer's insistence that he "did things one way for 19 years," this season was not what he "did for the previous 19 years," and he has "done things a certain way for 19 years then changed this year." This is patently untrue. Diehard fans recognized this immediately. Heck, even fans who have followed Cornell hockey for more than two seasons would realize that.
No coach invokes the tried-and-true mantra that he coaches the same way each season and results vary on what effort a given assemblage of players inputs in a season more than does Mike Schafer. This statement, as Schafer intended it in years past, dealt with theories of the game and effort, not stratagems and tactics. The latter considerations can change between even games, let alone seasons, while the former aspects do not deviate across eras. Schafer's election to state that the game that he has coached has remained unchanged does a disservice to one of the positives of his tenure to date.
The philosophy of Mike Schafer remains consistent. His strategies are dynamic. In many ways, he was one of the forefathers who pushed hockey into its current defensive paradigm. Want a bigger net for more goals? You may have Mike Schafer partially to blame. Schafer's approach to winning has never been stagnant.
The game evolves. It moves. Great coaches find a way to forestall the inevitable phenomenon of the game passing them by. Coach Schafer has done that in past seasons. Creativity and speed took root in Ithaca under Schafer more in the mid-2000s through the present than they did from the late-1990s and early-2000s when force and size ruled. The game changes, whether rule changes or strategic migration cause it. Good coaches navigate those changes.
For 19 years, Coach Schafer proved that he could do that. His statement after the 2014-15 season erases one of his legacy's greatest attributes and misleads the unwitting to wield an easy excuse. Its contradiction is found just mere seasons ago.
The 2012-13 season was disappointing. Cornell finished below 0.500 for the first time in 14 years. The Big Red missed ECAC Hockey's championship weekend for the first time in five seasons. When the next preseason arrived, Mike Schafer bursted back into the spotlight stating that he had studied tape of every goal scored and allowed from the 2012-13 season. He fine tuned his system to optimize what worked and remove what failed.
Schafer said as much. He bragged, as he should have. The season began at Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks were the first victim of reinvigorated and reimagined special-teams play. Cornell's power play led the nation in lethality for most of the season. The Big Red's penalty kill was again among the best. The penalty kill's trajectory carried even into the 2014-15 season. A reimagining of this magnitude proves the fallacy of any claims that Schafer has "do[ne] things a certain way for 19 years."
Having disproven that Coach Schafer's style has never changed at all, one is left to wonder why the Cornell head coach would promise to revert. Mike Schafer goes on to apologize to the Class of 2015 for trying something new in its senior season. What of the Class of 2016?
The members of the Class of 2016 will have played under at least three, perhaps four, different systems during their tenure. Their freshman season was the 2012-13 season. Their sophomore season was the year after the postseason tape-watching. Their junior season was the aberrational year of experimentation, as Schafer would have us believe. What will their senior year be?
If we assume that Mike Schafer reverts to the system of either their freshman or sophomore seasons, that is still three styles of play that they will have been forced to attempt in four seasons. If experimenting during the senior campaign of the Class of 2015 was inappropriate, why is it suddenly acceptable to make the Class of 2016 endure it?
The problem appears not to be Coach Schafer's experimenting. It appears to be his need to reify some image, public or self-conceived, of monotonous consistency. If he believes that the forechecking regime of last season eventually will yield astronomically increased offensive production, why quit on it now? Systems take seasons (plural, not singular) to take root.
The axiom of giving a coach no fewer than four seasons to judge his work product is just as much a product of implementing systems as it is of recruiting. If Mike Schafer thinks a change of this kind will yield long-term benefits for the program with the incoming offensive juggernauts of the next few recruiting classes, he should have the gall to scoff at criticism and disappointment whether they push for change or reversion.
A lack of strength of conviction is not a virtue in a head coach, especially when it pales in comparison to his persona from successful seasons past. No one is questioning Coach Schafer's competence, but his inability to articulate a clear and consistent vision for the program, publicly or otherwise, and stay the course will become a liability if it is not already. Cornell hockey's head coach appears to have lost his edge. It needs to be whetted.
Instead, perhaps somewhat comically, rather than unequivocation, Mike Schafer gave one platitude not realizing that his current course denies the Lynah Faithful exactly for what they yearn. The pledge? Coach Schafer promised in broad, sweeping, and vague terms a return to some sense of institutional self for next season.
We will be back with the type of Big Red hockey that you’ve come to enjoy in the past.
All the things that have been staples in our program that we need to get back to.
Confidence is the attitude of Cornell hockey, not of the type that decays into hubris or arrogance that overtly disparages opponents or fanbases in poor humor, but the type that respects opponents while still having a deep-seeded belief that superior history will prevail. Begrudgingly, most opponents concede that such confidence is earned. Mike Schafer was brazen. Is he any longer?
Whether fairly or unfairly, the Lynah Faithful demand that their coach is a larger-than-life figure. Before Lynah Rink even was constructed, Talbot Hunter and Nicky Bawlf were icons of the game and celebrated heroes of the Cornell community. Ned Harkness' reputation rivaled those of deities. Dick Bertrand and Lou Reycroft may not have risen to the stature of Harkness, but each found a way to stoke the fires of players and fans.
Coach Schafer was up to that paradoxically humbling task for over a decade and a half. In recent seasons, timidity crept into his style. Schafer's self-assured brand of leadership from 1995 until 2012 was far from timid as it drove five Whitelaw Cup runs, eight NCAA tournament victories, and the toppling of Boston College, Boston University, Michigan, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Now, he scrambles for excuses that placate extemporaneous questions from the media after devastating playoff losses.
Waffling on whether his systems have changed over time and doubting his initial judgment that he should experiment with new offensive schemes proves that he is not delivering the visionary leadership that he once was. The same leadership that Cornell hockey requires. The leadership from Schafer that won.
The Cornell head coach likes to analogize a hockey team to the rowers on a crew team. Each rower must be in sync for the boat to be propelled most efficiently through the water. A failure of rhythm or timing of even an infinitesimal nature can be damning. To outsiders, Schafer may now appear as a blind-folded, rhythmically challenged coxswain.
Leadership, whether it is in the athletic, political, or professional realm, is governed by sets of clichés. The most famous of which was immortalized with a sign that President Truman placed on the Resolute desk. "The buck stops here," it read. For better and certainly worse, great leaders shoulder the credit and blame. Lesser leaders are found trying to define "here" as elsewhere. Coach Schafer divvies blame in two comments.
It's not the players's fault. I apologized to the seniors that I couldn't get this hockey team to play the way I wanted them to play. When that happens with a hockey team, everyone shares in that responsibility. But, as a coach, you share in the responsibility.
It's not our goaltending's fault. We all share in the responsibility.
Absolving the players, as inconsistent as it may be after criticizing their work ethic, is one thing. Phrases like "everyone shares in that responsibility," "as a coach, you share in the responsibility," or "we all share in the responsibility" stop short of what fans expect from Mike Schafer's leadership.
Coach Schafer neither would have shied away from nor should he have deflected all credit if his team had brought him a record-setting sixth Whitelaw Cup. With the season ending quite oppositely, there should be no difference in his role for taking the inverse credit. Dilution of personal responsibility with comments of "sharing" responsibility is a wholesale abrogation of the head coach's duty to shield his teenage and 20-something student-athletes, and assistant coaches from the criticism that will encircle a championship-expecting program.
You may think that this is semantic. Perhaps, you are right. If "everyone shares in...responsibility," Mike Schafer is a necessary constituent of "everyone," right? The choice to deflect and dilute shows a fissure in leadership that once was not there. Through good and bad, Coach Schafer was the man to blame or credit in great deal.
Last season was lost in semantics. Cornell ended the first half of the season with a win against one of the three programs in college hockey that is the Big Red's superior. The result was Cornell's first winning effort against Denver since Mike Schafer's senior season. The second half of the season ended with a team that barely clawed its way above 0.500 and failed to make Lake Placid outscoring Cornell by over five to one while ending the Big Red's season.
A sliver's width separated success from failure. Very little separated defeating Denver from falling to Union in terms of effort. Semantics matter, especially in the speech of a leader. The difference between "sharing" responsibility and "taking" responsibility could have been the difference between the Denver and Union series.
One glowing aside, not some contrived contradictory statement, proved that despite some internal uncertainties, Mike Schafer still gets it.
It's not the way they envisioned nor any Cornell hockey player envisions going out their last game.
Sorry to the fans. Even as a senior to watch that game as your last Cornell hockey game here on campus.
The second comment, a complete aside, was what preserved the greatest trust in this writer. Cornell hockey is so intertwined with the social experience at Cornell University that the complexion of one's senior season affects one's relationship with the University.
It is no coincidence that most of the classes engaged in major alumni events, purchasing large blocks of seats at Madison Square Garden or hosting alumni events before Red Hot Hockey and the Frozen Apple, have senior years that coincide with NCAA or ECAC Hockey championship runs. The Cornell Alumni Magazine did not satirize the feelings of students and alumni when it said more were concerned with the possible departure of Mike Schafer to a major sports university than the certain resignation of Jeff Lehman, the president of the University, in 2005.
The performance of the hockey programs affects the morale of campus. Hockey fan or not, Cornellians know whether the carnelian and white are having a good or poor season. Cornell is far more than hockey, but it is hockey that is the University's communal and unifying escape of frivolity. The disappointment of the worst season in the 21st Century to date soured not the experiences of only those in the locker room or the stands on March 7 but an entire class of alumni.
Think that is hyperbolic? Schafer does not. The head coach is right.
It is difficult to question a coach who has done so much and still understands things that few outside of East Hill will ever as Mike Schafer does. Generally, it is difficult to criticize a coach. It may be necessary, but it is not easy.
The task grows even more difficult when the coach is an alumnus. The simple us-vs-them dichotomy no longer applies when interceding, as this writer did, to defend future recruits who have worked tirelessly to earn admission to and represent Cornell University. The coach who is an alumnus is both us and them.
The case of Mike Schafer grows more challenging. Not only is Mike Schafer an alumnus, he is a legend within the program from his playing career. He is the breaker of the stick. He is a championship-winning captain.
Instinctively, this writer still finds himself in the corner of incoming players like Anthony Angello, Corey Hoffman, Yanni Kaldis, Alec McCrea, Matt Nuttle, Donovan Ott, Trent Shore, Brendan Smith, Beau Starrett, and Mitchell Vanderlaan than that of Cornell's head coach. It could be Where Angels Fear to Tread's founding principle never to place blame on specific student-athletes. It could be because all incoming recruits deserve an assumption of talent and work ethic before they arrive on campus to bolster or refute it.
It may be also because Mike Schafer's insult of Cornell's recruiting approach places blame on him, not the players whom he recruited who will be arriving in mere months to pull the iconic sweater over their heads. Insulting the way that a roster is filled has a place in professional athletics. Unlike the NHL, no general manager has the option to populate Coach Schafer's locker room without his involvement.
Mike Schafer is both head coach and general manager of his program. Every commitment bears his imprimatur. Insulting recruitment is to blame himself without obvious self-effacement. There is no recruiting problem. Coach Schafer should have taken direct responsibility rather than diluting and misdirecting it.
Claiming that Topher Scott and Ben Syer have failed to marshal players of work ethic to Lynah Rink creates problems of loyalty. How will Angello, Hoffman, Kaldis, Nuttle, Ott, Shore, Smith, Starrett, and Vanderlaan or even the freshman through junior classes rally around a coach who sacrificed their reputations as a shield from blame? Is a real problem of congealing on the horizon for next season? The Lynah Faithful hope not, but directly or indirectly insulting players who will don the carnelian and white sets the development of camaraderie and loyalty back.
Ah, I can sense it, reader, you think that this is making too much out of meaningless coachspeak. This dissection of Coach Schafer's only words on last season is pedantry at its worst. The opposite is true. His words at the end of the season are one of the few lenses, obscured as it is, that the Lynah Faithful have into how Mike Schafer is running our program.
When discussing running his program in this context, this writer is talking only about the hockey side of Mike Schafer's role in the lives of his players. Schafer is a great teacher of young men. His program produces responsible and civic-minded people. There is absolutely no reason to challenge that. He is a great credit to Cornell University because of that. On the hockey side of things, there is little reason to pry when things are good. They are no longer.
Cornell is in a rut of historic proportions. Cornell does not lose games at Lynah Rink in the playoffs. In the near six decades of the Rink's existence, Cornell has played 37 playoff series on that hallowed ice. The Big Red has lost just five of those series. Three of those lost series have occurred within the last 11 years. Mike Schafer owns 60% of those home playoff series losses now. He has coached for just more than 30% of the history of Lynah Rink.
Cornell has found itself below 0.500 two out of the last three seasons for the first time since Mike Schafer's third and fourth seasons rounded out such an era. The 2012-13 team finished with a below-0.500 record. That team had a triumphant three-game run in the playoffs. The 2014-15 season gave fans no such second life. It provided some extreme highs, but when the time of proving arrived, when Cornell usually shines, the lights went out. Cornell did not have a single win in the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
Questions should be swirling in the air above the northern end of Campus Road. Cornell has spent nearly as many seasons with a losing record as it has a winning one since Mike Schafer last led Cornell to playoff glory in 2010. Has he lost it? This writer is not sure. What is a more crucial question is whether he can find it. Schafer's saving grace is the very one from his post-game comment.
Perhaps better than any coach at Cornell University, Mike Schafer understands Cornell; not just Cornell hockey, but Cornell University. The veteran coach describes his alma mater as a place where all seek excellence in every pursuit. Reciprocally, students and alumni hold Schafer and his hockey program to no standards to which they do not hold themselves in their academic or professional lives.
Last season was not excellent. Mike Schafer knows that. He needs to demonstrate to the Lynah Faithful that he is still the leader that kept a team late at Tate Rink to teach them the importance of winning. He inspired the most dominant performance in the history of the ECAC Hockey tournament just years ago. It was not that long ago, could he have lost it in such a short amount of time? Fans wonder.
Flatly, Coach Schafer needs to lead his team and its fanbase like he has not in years. No more shirking responsibility or understatements will be tolerated. It is unbecoming of a coach who for over a decade epitomized confidence, conviction, and discipline. That is the coach Cornell needs again. Cornell hockey has lost its self-assuredness because its coach has lost his edge.
Mike Schafer reflected during the 2012-13 season that he may be growing softer on his teams because the ages of his players approach those of his children. Softening does a disservice to the players who want to play professionally, offends the program whose history demands tribute, and tarnishes Schafer's legacy. Coach Schafer needs to rediscover his edge in bold, brazen, and resolute leadership.
How bold? How brazen? How resolute? The rebound needs to be in proportion to the depths to which the program has fallen. Considerable elasticity is in order.
This writer is discussing the leadership style of a coach who led such a programmatic about-face in attitude that its 1996-97 media guide, one season removed from the program's first Whitelaw Cup in a decade, boldly predicted a repeat with the words "upholding the tradition." Schafer inspired that narrative at the close of the 1995-96 season, "[w]e have eight young freshmen coming into the lineup next year. But we're not going to use that as an excuse to say it's a building year. Our players now expect to win."
Mike Schafer and that team delivered. It is time that he proves that he can do it again.
What form will this brazenness take ideally? The best example is one drawn from the NHL. The Guarantee. Everyone knows it. After a disappointing Game 6 in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Mark Messier boldly predicts that the Rangers will win the decisive Game 7. Three simple words. We. Will. Win.
Messier knew that his team was talented enough, like Cornell in the upcoming season. The confidence of the Rangers had been jarred. Sound familiar? A more perfect model for a pledge from Mike Schafer cannot be found. Heck, use the same words. The Lynah Faithful need to be promised a bright end to next season.
Schafer must leave no doubts. His next team must be a contender. Yes, even for the regular-season title. Why? Last season proves that no stone can remain unturned. Yeah, I know that tradition dictates that Cornell neither touches nor celebrates with the regular-season trophy. Maybe Jess Brown's cats can make good use of it. Then, follow this ritual with the fulfillment of the real promise, the Whitelaw Cup.
There are few if any other ways that Mike Schafer can show early and emphatically the resolution to redeem his program. It needs to be done. Media or other fanbases might shudder or laugh, but it is what the Lynah Faithful need.
It's not arrogance, call it carnelian confidence.
The Teflon of Mike Schafer's tenure is no more. For most of his career, pockets of fans who criticized every one of his acts were the primary source of criticism. This writer is not using his PayPal account just yet to order a screened t-shirt from that faction despite how some may receive this piece.
The Union series this season proved that things will stick. Several voices from the Cornell Hockey Association section, the generous boosters of Cornell hockey, began to heckle Coach Schafer on the bench. The calls questioned his judgment. It was then that this writer realized that Schafer's coaching career was never really Teflon.
His career resembles another fine DuPont product: Corian. Corian is a high-density polymer used in home settings, usually on countertops or vanities. It is known for its luster and impervious finish. Extreme abrasives, caustics, or explosives can mar the fine surface.
One of the greatest traits of Corian is that its finish is of such a hardness that even those things that damage it do so only minutely. An attentive owner can buff out the marred finish with strength and dedication. Mike Schafer's legacy is Corian. A son of a lumberjack should be able to muster the elbow grease to make unnoticeable recent scuffs.
If he is unable to buff out those scars and adds new ones instead, his continued toiling risks defacing the entire surface so that all any visitors will see are its imperfections. One may argue that such a development would render Mike Schafer a victim of his own success. This is a cruel but fair tragedy of sports. Great coaches raise the bar. Loyal fans refuse to lower it. Mike Schafer made the Lynah Faithful believe in their program's greatness again.
The first lasting moment when Mike Schafer made the Lynah Faithful believe raced through my mind weeks ago in Lake Placid. After watching Harvard win its ninth Whitelaw Cup, this writer watched the snow fall around Herb Brooks Arena. I could hear faintly the chants of "thank you, Schafer" from March 16, 1996.
I wondered aloud if those moments would return. I was too young to be there in person. I can assure you that college was not even a distant thought on that day. Nevertheless, I felt that moment as the magic of Lake Placid, Cornell hockey, and praise for Mike Schafer's leadership in that season transcended.
Coach, we want that magic back. We would be happiest if you gave it to us. We will find a way to regain it.