I have been interviewing Mike Schafer since he became head coach of the men’s hockey team at Cornell in 1995. I got to know him 12 years prior to that when he was a stellar defenseman for the Big Red, and never in the proverbial million years would I have imagined that we would be having a conversation in late March, with me congratulating him on his fifth ECAC Hockey Tim Taylor Coach of the Year award, his team’s #1 national ranking, and then extending my condolences…
Schafer was nice enough to speak with me about the whirlwind of events that culminated in the cancellation of the remainder of the Big Red’s season, and while it was very clear that Mike feels a real sense of personal loss and disappointment, it was also obvious that he embraces his role as a roel model for his athletes. Much like their female counterparts on the women’s team, the young men are experiencing loss on several levels—the loss of the opportunity to win a national title, the loss of their social connections, and for some, the potential loss of the opportunity to graduate with their class.
“Initially, we were thinking on a small scale,” Schafer said of his team’s initial reaction when told that there would be a disruption. “We were still thinking there was a possibility we would play, but then it all escalated so quickly.”
The coach took notice when the Ivy League cancelled its men’s and women’s basketball tournament. “That,” he offered, “was just a snapshot of what was to come. “
When asked what he told his players in regard to coping with such a big disappointment, Schafer said, “I told them that this is without precedent, that nobody has ever gone through this before. The only time I have ever seen this scale of disruption was right after September 11th, when things started to unravel like they did.” He added, “They’re a mature group of kids. They put things in perspective. When you see people dying, people losing their jobs, it totally changes.”
There has been a lot of discussion about the NCAA possibly extending eligibility to athletes who have had the rug pulled out from under them, and I asked Schafer about that. He replied, “This is my opinion: The NCAA will probably do something like that with spring sports, but it’s unlikely that they will for winter sports. Some winter sports teams were already done, and some, like us, just had a small portion of our season left to play. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.”
According to Schafer, some of the Big Red’s senior players will “have an opportunity to play pro hockey, either in Europe or here in the States.” He added, “When this situation clears up, they will start that process of taking the next step, and both Yanni Kaldis and Noah Bauld both have a really good chance.”
Drawing on our 35-year friendship, I turned the discussion to Schafer’s personal perspective. I pointed out that, while his players had been dreaming about a national championship since they first laced up a pair of skates 15 years ago, his dream started 45 years ago. When asked how he was dealing with this turn of events he said, “Honestly, it’s tough to answer all the emails and do these interviews. As a coach, you see seasons end for a lot of reasons—an injury, a loss, a disappointing season that didn’t go the way you thought it would. Having a season end when you are ranked number one doesn’t happen often.”
As for his fifth Coach of the Year award (the Big Red was 23-2-4), Schafer said, “It’s a team award. These guys were so consistent, they played great, and when they do such a great job, it reflects on the coaching staff.”
The Cornell women’s hockey team was also ranked #1, and was scheduled to face #10 Mercyhurst when the word came that the tournament was cancelled. A victory in that game would have sent the 28-2-3 Big Red to the Frozen Four. Congratulations to head coach Doug Derraugh and his staff on yet another great season.