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Nine questions with Cornell men's hockey coach Mike Schafer

Andrew Legare
Ithaca Journal

Mike Schafer is among the most successful NCAA men's hockey coaches in the country. Schafer was set to begin his 26th season as head coach at Cornell University before the Ivy League canceled winter sports for all of its teams because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Schafer, 58, has a career record of 481-261-99 since taking over at Cornell in 1995. He guided the Big Red to the NCAA Frozen Four in 2002-03 and last season Cornell finished atop the USCHO.com and USA TODAY/USA Hockey final polls after the postseason was canceled because of the virus. He was named ECAC Hockey Coach of the Year for the fifth time and was one of two winners of the 2020 Spencer T. Penrose Award as national coach of the year.

Cornell men’s hockey coach Mike Schafer will enter his 21st season behind the bench at his alma mater this fall, and will welcome nine freshmen — five forwards, four defensemen — to the squad as it aims for its record 13th ECAC Hockey title and first since 2010.

The native of Ontario played his college hockey at Cornell from 1982-83 to 1985-86. Schafer and his wife, Diane, have three children: sons Luke and John, and daughter Michelle.

He talked about the impact the pandemic has had on him and his team, along with what's next for Cornell men's hockey.

Q: What has your message been to the players?

A: There's no message. There's no words that anybody can say to take that sting, take away the disappointment and frustration. Our message is that right now we've got to use working out and practice as a release from stress and school and everything else. Just kind of break things down or take a little bit of a break right now because they have been training pretty hard anticipating a season.

Q: What have you been able to do in terms of workouts and practices?

A: We haven’t been able to do much. In September there was hardly anything we were able to do. Then we started to be able to really start in small pods and work out. Then we were able to get into a little more skill drills and drills in our pods. It was limiting. The guys were starting to get a workout, we were starting to make some progress.

So we were in kind of phase two, where phase three would have been we could have held regular practices. Never quite got there into phase three, but as you see now, cases in Tompkins County are starting to spike. That’s what everybody thought was going to happen when it started getting closer to winter time.

Q: Are you in position to hold workouts in the next couple of months?

A: We still aren’t clear about what we can do after Thanksgiving until school ends on Dec. 18. We haven’t found that out yet. Just like everybody else, we can’t come back to campus until Feb. 1. Then we begin the process all over again. A lot of decisions that need to be made right now with regards to what guys are doing, where they’re going, how they’re going to train and so on and so forth.

Cornell men's hockey coach Mike Schafer.

Q: Some of these guys have pro careers ahead. Have you tried to give them any advice in terms of their path forward?

A: A couple of the guys have signed pro who were drafted in Alex Green (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Morgan Barron (New York Rangers). For the rest of them, it’s a logjam out there. You look at pro hockey at all different levels, from the NHL to the American League to the East Coast League, to go into pro hockey right now is extremely difficult because of the logjam. Some of (the leagues) aren’t even playing, cutting costs, cutting jobs. They’re just like anything else.

Tough on the seniors. Tough on the seniors last year. The job market right now isn’t the best. I think for a lot of these guys, just like everywhere else in the country, hope that this thing changes and we get to the point where everything does start to open up and jobs start to become more available, pro sports get back to more normality and we just keep our fingers crossed because those opportunities just don’t exist right now in pro sports in hockey in North America or in Europe.

Q: For the freshmen, how difficult has it been?

A: There’s only four of them and they’ve handled it very, very well. They’re really mature kids and I’ve been really impressed just seeing them at the rink and having limited interaction with those guys. They’ve had limited interaction with their teammates. Any freshmen, not just athletes, but any freshmen who come to campus and being in the situation they’re in. Everybody says the new norm, but nothing close to normal.

Just for them to be where they are and how they can interact and all the restrictions on them, for our four guys I’ve been very, very pleased with them. I’ve been pleased with our whole team. Knock on wood here, we haven’t had any COVID cases this fall and I’ve been really proud of how our guys have committed themselves and were disciplined. That speaks volumes of our athletes.

Q: How difficult was it to see those who were done last season head off without any closure?

A: We kept in touch with those guys. Yanni Kaldis is over in Europe playing. Jeff (Malott) is waiting to play and Noah Bauld is trying to get into his real job. Those guys are adjusting. I keep thinking, when are we going to have all these guys back here to have some closeout? It might be a couple years from now or a year from now. Who knows? But at some point in time we will be bringing those guys back and their families back, and gathering at least one point in time, whether it’s next summer or next fall. We definitely want some closure on that season. And that will happen. Just like anything else, who knows when it’s going to happen.

Q: Do you celebrate last season's accomplishments, including a No. 1 ranking, down the road?

A: Definitely. We didn’t get a chance to have our banquet, we haven’t even had a chance to present those guys the team awards from that year. I’m sitting here surrounded by all their ECAC awards. They haven’t even got those yet.

Q: How much do you miss being around the players and the journey together a season brings?

A: Coaching is all about interaction and relationships. The fact you don’t have those on a day-to-day basis, it’s difficult. It’s difficult in recruiting, it’s difficult to develop relationships with the new guys, sustain relationships with your existing players and the guys who are returning that you knew. All those face-to-face relationships and the day-to-day camaraderie, that’s what athletes love and that’s what coaches love. It’s been difficult not to have that as part of your daily life and it’s something that is going to continue to be difficult for the next five or six months.

Q: What's the approach going forward?

A: To really look at your whole program. We did it once already in the springtime where we looked at everything in our program. Now it is getting right down to bare bones, doing things like better alumni relations, revamp how we communicate. Look at every detail of our program like we were walking in. We had all this time to make changes. Physical changes with what we do in the locker room and just everything. Analyze all that.

The recruiting aspect just continues. It’s all by video, which is quite time-consuming. There’s a lot of things that go on and we’ll continue to have those conversations and watch a lot of video on recruits and slowly build and try to keep our players as motivated and as happy as possible over the next five or six months.

Follow Andrew Legare on Twitter: @SGAndrewLegare. You can also reach him at alegare@gannett.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.