"You’re the reason I wake up at 4 in the afternoon and pump iron until my chest is positively sick."
Jeff Vincent. Kevin Pettit. Mike Sancimino. Sam Paolini. Charlie Cook.
Those legends seized immortality for themselves the moment that they struck at the heart of Cornell’s nemesis for a game winner. Cornell and Harvard have met seven times in championship match-ups. Tonight, a tradition steeped in more than one century of lore takes center ice at the Olympic Center with the Whitelaw Cup on the line.
It has been 11 years since Crimson and Red collided with a trophy in the balance. The first championship meeting occurred 106 years ago. Jeff Vincent, a self-made hero of the Rust Belt, defeated Cornell University’s institutional foil in overtime for the 1911 Intercollegiate Hockey Association title. The last time that the class of the Ivy League and ECAC Hockey met for the Whitelaw Cup at the Olympic Center closed ECAC Hockey’s first tenure there.
The Crimson won that installment. It took two overtimes to mete out which team was superior. The benefit of retrospect makes it predictable that Cornell and Harvard are even in championship meetings in Lake Placid.
The melodically named Mike Sancimino put Coach Schafer and the hockey program of Cornell University back on top in the 1996 ECAC Hockey Final at the Olympic Center. The fortuitous arc of the puck after Sancimino’s release behind Harvard’s Tripp Tracy is one that the Lynah Faithful remember even if they have not the advantage of witnessing it. This writer lives that moment even though on that day his thoughts were far from Lake Placid.
This game is a rubber match for the foreseeable future. Cornell won the first meeting in Lake Placid. Harvard answered six years later. Lake Placid’s spellbook of magic is about to add a page.
The narratives of both programs differ slightly from the last time that the hockey programs of America’s oldest university and New York’s land-grant institution met in the shadow of the Adirondacks. The Crimson then derided the Red as “big and slow.” This lumbering giant evidently wielded a club large enough to slay the careers of two of Harvard’s bench bosses as the Crimson ceded its series lead against Cornell once Coach Schafer led the Red.
“Big and slow,” Cornell is no longer, if it ever was. Harvard’s inflated rationale for its victory over its rival in the 2002 ECAC Hockey Final, a moment archived on the walls of the Crimson’s renovated home in Cambridge, provides neither comfort nor excuse tonight. Speed and skill are as much a part of Cornell as they are of Harvard.
Ye of much Faith’, fear not the big sheet. Harvard’s victory over Cornell in November was the Crimson’s first such home victory in over seven years. Bill Cleary saw that his program’s home ice surface would be larger and more spacious so that Harvard’s finesse game could overcome the hard-hitting, honest tactics of Cornell’s Canadian-influenced brand of hockey. It has not worked. The team wearing carnelian recorded a 0.688 winning percentage and four wins on Cambridge’s nearly Olympic-sized ice since the 2009-10 season began.
Tonight, Cornell will be wearing carnelian and the sheet is Olympic-sized.
The frozen pitch of this contest unexpectedly may be exactly what gives the Red a key advantage in the most important meeting of these two rivals in over a decade. However, it is a cliché, but in this series, the previous records do not matter. All that matter is what each team can prove on the ice.
Cornell and Harvard have proven to be two of the best teams in the nation this season. It is the natural order of things. It is only fitting that these rivals who met in the first weekend of ECAC Hockey play this season will close the conference’s slate tonight. It is almost as if it were writ.
Harvard is one of three teams against which Cornell did not register a conference victory. The Red retired one of the other last weekend. It is time that the Red exacts the same treatment on the Crimson. A lesson in humility is due.
Partisans of the Crimson faction (yes, there are some) have been proclaiming that their team is bound for the Frozen Four. In a display of what constitutes modesty only in Cambridge, those same people predict that despite Harvard’s tying Union for the regular-season trophy, Harvard is the inevitable victor of the Whitelaw Cup. It falls to Cornell to teach Harvardians a lesson. As it so often does.
Earning and entitlement are what are on display. The purer Red of hard work and the sullied Crimson of privilege will battle for supremacy tonight at the Olympic Center. It is how college hockey has been since its 12th season. It is how it will remain. Ardor will be in one corner. Praise will be in the other.
The drama and narrative never changes. The times and players do. Cornell and Harvard are not dissimilar in one regard. They both are blessed with the talents of stars who know how to make their teams better. These distributors of pucks are both equally uncanny in their ability to create openings, sense opportunities, and trust in their teammates. Ryan Donato stands in that role for the Crimson. The Red calls upon Jeff Kubiak. Neither side should be shocked when magic happens on the ice and either player is present for the prestige.
The deadliest weapon that goes largely unnoticed because of the head of the team from along the Charles River is Merrick Madsen. His parents may have shortchanged him with a name that sounds taken from wadded parchment in the studio of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, but he rarely comes up short for Harvard. The Crimson goaltender looks solid against other non-carnelian teams. He looks unbeatable at times against Cornell. Cornell will need to find answers.
The test that Cornell will provide Harvard is an equally rigorous one. Mitch Gillam has proven to know where his playoff gear is and when to slip into it. The Red has played complementary hockey like few other teams in the nation this season. It has gotten only better in the post-season. Gillam needs not get a shutout if the floodgates have opened. Meanwhile, when scoring is at a premium, he delivers stellar efforts that neutralize opponents.
Harvard compared itself to Goliath early in the season. The Crimson can have that likeness. Perhaps more than a cursory skim of the tale’s wiki would serve their boosters well. It is only appropriate that the carnelian and white in this context become David. Cornell University always was more welcoming to the sons and daughters of David.
The Red, the more cunning, prepared, and savvier belligerent, looks to slay a Philistine tonight.
Tonight, we are privilege to the rarest of sporting events. An event that needs neither build-up nor superfluous adjectives. In academic or philosophical senses, it is viewed with varying perspectives. But, manifestly, it is a hockey game. It is so much more. Cornell University and Harvard College on a sheet of ice in Lake Placid.
The stakes are real. Harvard assumes that it will win. It also assumed that a neophyte university in Upstate New York never could rival its global and national reputation. Now, it scrambles to rival its relevance in science and emergent fields. The founder of American education faces off with its redeemer. We need each other.
Whether one turns to the maxims of The Lego Batman Movie or the Book of Proverbs, one realizes that Cornell and Harvard need each other. They make each other better. Cornell and Harvard are each other’s reason for waking, pumping iron, and preparing for the moment that their clashes mean just a little more than usual. Their sharpened iron crosses tonight. The stakes hardly could be higher.