Racker Rivals

I recall walking around the Cornell campus one sultry July day about 20 years ago, when my two oldest daughters, who were four and seven at the time, stared wide-eyed at the huge mound of snow outside Lynah Rink. 

“Dad,” they said, “why is there snow here in July?” I told them that Cornell was so high on the hill that it snowed year ‘round. That might have cost me the Father of the Year Award that year.

Of course, the pile of snow was there because the ice at Lynah Rink can be removed and reinstalled any time of the year, and on Saturday, July 13, the famed venue will be packed once again for one of Ithaca’s favorite summer extravaganzas. The fifth annual Racker Rivals Big Red will give locals something fun to do, and as always, hockey fans of all ages will love seeing this convergence or skills, personalities and generosity. 

Truth be told, I am not the biggest hockey fan, but I love going to this event. I am, however, a big fan of the relationship that Cornell Hockey has cultivated with our community for 50-plus years, and I love the fact that local hockey fans can attend this event and interact with Stanley Cup winners, current NHL players and even NHL Hall of Famers. Head coach Mike Schafer and the folks at Racker are well aware of the bond between the program and the community, and Schafer, having played in Lynah Rink as a popular Big Red captain, knows how much it means to fans to be able to experience that bond first-hand. For example, Joe Nieuwendyk, the Cornell alum and NHL Hall of Famer, has not skated in a Big Red uniform in over 30 years, but still gets a thunderous ovation every time he makes an appearance. (Joe will not lace up the skates this year, but will serve as an honorary coach.)  

I asked Coach Schafer what he will expect from his Big Red teammate in the coaching box, and he said he hopes Nieuwendyk handles his line changes well.  I said, “I can imagine it would be quite the mismatch if Greg Hartz [the top dog at the Tompkins Trust Company] was out there with Dustin Brown [the Ithaca native and two-time Stanley Cup winner with the LA Kings.]” 

Schafer replied, “Hartz could be matched up against the Big Red Bear, and he’d still have a tough time.” 

While the older fans love seeing players like Nieuwendyk and Schafer and many other alums of a similar vintage, younger fans are stoked (speaking their language) to see players like Dustin Brown. Dustin is still putting up serious numbers as an NHL star in his 14th season with the Kings, and fellow NHL players Cole Bardreau (who is a Fairport, NY native, a Big Red alum and plays for the Philadelphia Flyers) and Alex Tuch (Vegas Golden Knights player) will join him on the ice, as will AHL player Anthony Angello. 

There are quite a few other people who suit up for the game, and when people like Tompkins Financial’s Greg Hartz and meteorologist Wayne Mahar put on the skates, it is only fair to remember that they are playing with and against some of the best hockey players in the world. While the non-pros can’t quite match up with the elites, a closer, honest look conveys that they are nonetheless pretty damn good skaters and hockey players, and they do not embarrass themselves out there. 

The festivities will get underway at 3:30 p.m. with the Cargill Friends and Family Open Skate, a free event that enables locals to skate on the famed surface. The puck drops for the main event at 5:30 (tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door and kids under 7 get in free), and the Ithaca Mites youth hockey teams will play an exhibition at the half. 

Again, this is a great event for many reasons. Cornell hockey tickets are a hot commodity, and many games are sold out. There are many people in our community who would love to get to a game and be a part of it all, but cannot do so. Racker Rivals Big Red gives many such fans an opportunity to see some of these “larger than life” players up close, perhaps meet some of them, and come away with some autographs. We can grow a little numb to some amazing things, such as the fact that Dustin Brown was born in Ithaca, came up through Ithaca Youth Hockey, led Ithaca High to a state championship, and is now a 14-year NHL veteran with two Stanley Cups. That’s still a big deal.

It is also a great event because Racker is a local treasure, and the agency has provided support and opportunities for individuals with disabilities (and their families) for over 50 years. 

“It’s fun for us to get the NHL guys back here, and it’s nice to do it during the summer, when we have a break,” Schafer said. “It’s a fun event and it benefits a great organization, so that’s a plus.” 

For updates on who will be playing in the Racker Rivals Big Red, and for information on how to donate, visit www.racker.org/hockey.


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