Special Report: 1997 Cornell North Country Road Trip

by Joe Schlobotnik

The North Country road trip, venturing near the Canadian border to play the St. Lawrence Saints and the Golden Knights of Clarkson, is a critical point in the season of any ECAC hockey team. This year's was doubly so for the Cornell Big Red, as they entered the weekend tied with Princeton at 6-2-1 in league play, and returned injured forwards Matt Cooney and Vinnie Auger to the lineup after absences of three and four games, respectively.

Friday Night, 1997 January 3: St. Lawrence

special thanks to Scott Southard, Rich Hovorka and Barbara Whelan

(Canton, NY) Friday night's opponents, the Saints, were also at a critical juncture, with star goalie Clint Owen playing his first ECAC game since ending a two-month suspension imposed for violating an unspecified team rule. Without Owen, SLU lost their first four games and limped to a 4-8-1 start and a 3-3-1 record in league games. Following his return, they posted four straight wins in tournament games last weekend and earlier this week.

With the injured forwards returned to the lineup, Cornell was able to return Chad Wilson to defensive duty, and he started with his usual partner Steve Wilson (no relation). The Big Red's youth was evinced by the starting line of two freshmen, Doug Steinstra and Frank Kovac along with sophomore Jeff Oates. The returning Cooney and Auger were centered by UIC transfer Darren Tymchyshyn, and freshman sniper Ryan Moynihan remained in Kovac's former place on the checking line with seniors Tony Bergin and Jamie Papp. Ryan Smart, Mike Rutter and Kyle Knopp made up the fourth line. Sophomore Jean-Marc Pelletier, MVP of the Syracuse Invitational Tournament, started in net for the Red, as Mike Schafer continued to platoon his two goalies.

Cornell put on some offensive pressure early in the first, with Owen being run into by his own men a couple of times, but the Saints dominated much of the rest of the period. Pelletier was several times caught out of the net or slow to get back into position after going down to make a save, but still managed to play just well enough to turn away all 16 St. Lawrence shots. The only bright moments in the late part of the period for Cornell came when Moynihan just missed the net at around the 13-minute mark, and the Cooney/Auger line put together a nice flurry on the ensuing shift. With the two veterans returning to a line with the team's leading goal-scorer Tymchyshyn, this line's play was eagerly watched, but Cooney and Auger were still putting things together. Cooney has apparently returned from his injury stronger than before, however.

The second period saw the most offensive action, with a sequence of odd-man rushes back and forth for most of the period. One appeared to have been created by Cornell's Steve Wilson pulling down a St. Lawrence player to send Ryan Moynihan in with the puck. Owen managed to get a glove on it and it dribbled just wide of the net. The Saints finally lit the lamp at 9:32 when a shot from the left point was deflected in front, then ricocheted off of Pelletier's right skate and in. With the defensive lapses and adventuresome goaltending which had plagued Cornell up to this point in the game, things seemed in danger of falling apart, but the Bergin/Papp line came through again on a 3-on-1 at 12:42. Papp, skating down the left side, passed across to Bergin, who sent it in to tie the score at 1. Many of Cornell's passes throughout the night were just tipped away, but with the third man occupying the SLU defender, Papp's cross made it unmolested.

It was also in the second that what seems to be the new ECAC style of hands-off officiating came to a bit of a head. After a St. Lawrence hook went uncalled, tempers flared on the next stoppage, leading to a brief scuffle. No penalties were called until the third period. (In fact, Cornell has not had a power play in its last two games.) Strangely, the assistant referees seemed slow to whistle icing as well.

The third period saw numerous scoring opportunities, including a Cornell shot which landed on the back of the net, causing the goal judge to momentarily light the lamp upon seeing the twine snap. Jeff Oates, who scored an empty-net goal in Cornell's previous game, had one of several good opportunities for Cornell, but was ridden off the play and into Owen. Owen seemed physically uncomfortable since being run into by his own man in the first and was taking skates and adjusting his equipment throughout the game. Oates had another chance at the beginning of a good stretch for Cornell midway through the third, feeding Jeff Burgoyne from behind the net. St. Lawrence had one chance at the 8-minute mark when Jason Dailey got only a small piece of a fluttering puck with a high stick just outside his own blue line, and an SLU player, not called for being offsides, took the puck to the net alone, but was stymied by Pelletier. They also had the only power play of the game when Cooney was sent off at 8:47, but Cornell killed the penalty with only a few scary moments. St. Lawrence called its timeout at 14:15 during a 4-on-4, and had its best chance to go ahead immediately afterwards. The puck came across the blue line with a Skating Saint in hot pursuit, and Pelletier, who had come out to make a perfect sweep-check on a similar play in the second, hesitated too long, made a poor attempt at a poke-check at the last moment, and got incredibly lucky as the puck was shot across the goal-mouth.

Things heated up as regulation wound down; a clear trip was not called on St. Lawrence with about 2:30 to go, with the makeup non-call coming on a similar Cornell play moments later. At the 19-minute mark, Cornell benefitted from a rare quick whistle as SLU was about to make a transition on a rebound off Owen's glove. Finally, Cooney displayed his confidence in the refs' refusal to call anything by hauling down a Saints player on his way into the Cornell zone.

The overtime was almost all SLU, starting with a point-blank shot off Pelletier's mask 17 seconds into the period. Pelletier saved the game again 16 seconds later after Cooney turned the puck over in the faceoff circle. Cornell's best offensive chances came around the two-minute mark, and ended when a Red player was run into Owen and then cross-checked in the back of the head. Despite protests from the home crowd, no penalties were called either way. Somehow Pelletier managed to stop all seven St. Lawrence shots, and at the 4:56 mark they were whistled for icing. After Cooney and SLU's Thomas Cullen took double-minors for cross-checking and hitting after the whistle, Schafer made the bold move of pulling Pelletier (who was visibly upset) with four seconds on the clock. He called timeout to set up the play off the faceoff, running the risk of a long shot into the empty net. (Four seconds is a long time, especially on the road with the other team's timekeeper in charge.) Papp was on the left wing, presumably in case Kovac was kicked out of the faceoff circle, with Kyle Knopp as the last line of defense in case of a long try by the Saints. As it was, the puck slid harmlessly into the corner and time expired, leaving a 1-1 tie on the books. Steve Wilson gave the Cornell fans a scare by looking like he was about to get into a fight and miss the Clarkson game, but that situation was also defused.

On the whole, Cornell seemed lucky to escape with a tie. Pelletier, despite 37 saves (Owen also had 37) looked shaky early on, and all around, the Red looked like the young team they are. They'll need to play better against Clarkson (presumably with Jason Elliott taking his turn in the Cornell net) to come out of this road trip with two or three points. With Princeton beating RPI, Cornell drops a point back of the Tigers in the ECAC race. Up the road in Potsdam, Colgate pulled out a 3-2 overtime victory, which gave the visiting teams three of the four points in tonight's North Country action, and moved the Red Raiders into third place with 11 points, four behind Princeton and three back of Cornell.

Personal Perspective

I suppose I should skip over the more mundane aspects of my trip North with my mother, such as driving back and forth between Canton and Potsdam looking for our motel, and rearranging the furniture so that I had room to sleep on the floor, and go straight to SLU's Appleton Arena. This was my first trip to Appleton, and while I'd seen ice arenas which deserved the loving appellation "barn", this is the first I've come across with quite so much wood. US College Hockey Online's Jayson Moy had warned in his guide to ECAC roadtrips that the place could get noisy, and with the pre-game music blasting at mind-numbing levels, I believed him. Our nice usher, a member of the SLU women's basketball team, told us that with break on, there probably wouldn't be a Saints pep band. She also told us how to exchange the behind-the-goal seats Cornell had accidentally sold us for fabulous seats behind the Cornell bench. (Appleton is one of these old-style rinks where the benches are on opposite sides of the ice, with the home bench next to the penalty box. Not that the advantage really mattered given how few penalties were called.) We did so once we discovered that those seats were next to the Cornell band. Apparently, the six bandies in attendance decided to arrange a few pieces for a brass-only pep band (five trombones and a French horn).

So we had three sources of music: the 'bone-band, the rink's organ (fun to see one of those at a college game, although he could have played a bit better) and a DJ. In fact, the organist wanted the 'bones to play more often than they had the material for, and bandleader Scott Southard had to tell his charges to put down their instruments so the guy on the organ would get the idea. The pieces were a mixed bag, with the low point being the bizarre arrangement of the Cornell Alma Mater and the high being the existence of any arrangement of "Give My Regards to Davy". (And also that I got to hear their rendition of my ECAC theme music, the New World Symphony, after suggesting that they fall back on 'bone standards.)

The St. Lawrence fans themselves were a bit subdued until the end of the game, probably due to the fact that most of the students were away. I noted with chagrin that more people were doing the YMCA during the second intermission than had chanted "S-L-U" up to that point. The Cornell band and those sitting around them put on an effective display, although the nature of the game precluded many of the traditional goalie-mocking cheers. Owen was treated to a few choice speculations about his suspension, but I'll refrain from detailing them to protect those around me from claims of slander ;-).

Tomorrow's game figures to be an even better experience, with the livelier Clarkson crowd and the prospect that the home team will have a band.

Saturday Night, 1997 January 4: Clarkson

Note: This will be much more personal and less factual than the previous game's report, due in part to the fact that I was unable to take notes because of the way I watched the game.

(Potsdam, NY) There are reasons for dreading the North Country road trip that have nothing to do with the long drive, and Cornell and its supporters got a big helping of them Saturday night.

Mom and I, having run out of things to do in Potsdam, showed up at Cheel about 90 minutes before gametime, and thus had a long time to contemplate the place. I never saw a game at the old Walker Center, but Cheel seemed to have all of the advantages and disadvantages you'd expect from a new rink. Building a mini-student-union around a hockey rink is a nice idea, but of course the arena itself felt much less cozy than Appleton the night before, what with the individual numbered seats. But the Wall of Fame running around the top was nice. The worst thing about the arena to me was that the visitors' seats were split into two groups, one on the goal line and one behind the visitors' bench.

We did have the pleasant surprise of running into Greg Berge and his party, who, unbeknownst to me, had been the only three vocal Cornell fans to remain in their original seats behind the goal the night before. We all had a nice pre-game chat with Arthur Mintz (in which we learned that I was hoping for three points going into the weekend, Arthur wanted four, and Greg would be happy to escape with two). In the midst on the conversation, Clarkson fired off their blasted train whistle. Mom and I flinched as all other sound was drowned out, but Greg noted that it wasn't nearly so annoying as hearing it after a Clarkson goal.

Once the section began to fill in, we were unable to stay with Greg, Anne and Christine. Mom's and my seats were in the front row (note to myself--remember to ask for seats in the back of the section at away games), and the well-defined individual seats, along with the more stolid Cornell fans who insisted in sitting in their assigned seats, made it hard to just squeeze in as we usually do. Eventually, we convinced Cornell bandies and sometime HOCKEY-Lers Rich Hovorka and Scott Southard to fit us into the SRO row where the band was stationed, this night without their instruments. Of course, the prime standing spots were already cramped by then as well, but we managed it by having me look over Mom's head.

The game itself started well enough for Cornell when Matt Cooney scored his first goal since the injury in the first, seeding hopes that the Cooney-Tymchyshyn-Auger line would have a big night, and Elliott managed to keep the Knights off the board despite Clarkson having something like a 2-to-1 shot advantage.

When Kyle Knopp slid the puck through the five-hole of a kneeling Dan Murphy to give the Red a 2-0 lead midway through the second, the Cornell contingent went wild at the prospect of a three-point weekend (although with a bit of trepidation of the team's inability to hold two-goal leads in the past). The post-goal celebration, which had gotten a bit derailed after the first goal when the crowd drowned it out, was quite exuberant, with Scott and Rich running down the line to give high-fives. After the obligatory "Davy" and chants, the personalized taunts to Murphy began, led by "Dan-O, the goalie with the hole in the middle". I'm not sure what Rich said that made the old lady in front of him (the Cornell SRO ended up behind the adjacent Clarkson section) turn around and snap at him. Nothing I heard struck me as particularly "baaa-d".

Scott was just organizing a Goalie/Black Hole cheer against Murphy when a penalty intervened. Cornell's Steve Wilson went to the box, I speculated for just being himself. There was originally a matching penalty against Clarkson's Carl Drakensjo up on the board, but after Clarkson lobbied, it was taken off, leaving Clarkson on the power play. The penalty was two minutes for hitting after the whistle, or as it was promptly coined, "Wilsoning". This turned out to be the turning point of the game, as Clarkson converted to close the deficit to 2-1, and we got to hear the train whistle for real. Less than a minute later, Cornell's David Adler turned the puck over on Clarkson's right point and had to hold the Knight player to avoid a breakaway, drawing another penalty. The decline of Cornell's penalty kill continued as Clarkson scored again to make it 2-2.

After two games without a power play, Cornell did get a few, but didn't look particularly good on them. The officiating, in contrast with the consistently hands-off approach taken by the crew at St. Lawrence Friday, was another John Murphy head-scratcher. In the first, it seemed that any marginal call would be made. But then later on he seemed to be laying off, only to tighten up again at the end. But I suppose he is at least consistantly inconsistant.

Cornell's collapse continued with two more Clarkson goals in the first half of the third, and the Red were unable to put anything together despite spending much of the end of the game on the power play. The biggest missed opportunity came when Cornell was whistled for too many men early in a power play, only to regain a 4-on-3 shortly thereafter when another Clarkson player was sent off.

The turnaround was complete when the Clarkson band, now looking at a two-goal lead, informed Cornell goalie Jason Elliot (who ended up with 37 saves on 41 shots) that he was a black hole. Mike Schafer pulled Elliot while on the power play, with a minute and a half to go, and Cornell skated 6-on-4 and 6-on-5 for the rest of the game. Several Clarkson shots went wide of the empty net, and someone suggested that perhaps skating six was a good defensive strategy for the Red. But then Clarkson's Chris Clark, already with two goals to his credit, sent the puck the length of the ice with the last few seconds ticking off, and we all watched, Clarkson fans with elation and Cornell with dread, as it slid into the net with one second left on the clock to complete the hat trick and make the final score 5-2.

This was, obviously, a pretty disheartening loss for Cornell. It seemed that, like the young team they are, they panicked once Clarkson got on the board and never recovered. I wonder what motivational tools Schafer will turn to now; I'd expect that Captain Matt Cooney's all-senior line will be called upon to lead. The Red visit Michigan on Tuesday, and it seems that they couldn't have picked a worse time to play the defending National Champions. A week ago I would have thought they actually had an outside chance of beating the Wolverines, and would most likely leave with a confidence-boosting close loss. But now I'm afraid it will look more like last year's blowouts against Michigan State, BU and Colorado College. The goaltending is the one bit of good news, as both goalies played well again this weekend (Pelletier, who looked lucky early on in his last two games, seems to have gained confidence); when they're called upon to face 79 shots in two games, they can hardly be blamed for stopping only 74 of them.

Turning to the atmosphere at Cheel, the sellout crowd was certainly hostile, but most of the chanting seemed to be coming from the band. The most impressive was their post-goal "sieve" cheer, which I found not quite as devastating as BU's, but which does have a lot of variety. I presume that the relative lameness of the rest of the crowd. The most amusing event was probably late in the third, when the scoreboard display read "Stand up and cheer", which gave the impression that some in the crowd might have forgotten to do so otherwise. (Of course, that was when the mass movement towards the exits began as well, so I joked that the sign might have said "Beat the traffic".) The graphical scoreboard is really a mixed blessing, since when it read "Let's Go Tech" and the crowd didn't respond, it looked a little foolish. One surefire way to get a Clarkson cheer going was for the Cornell fans to chant "Let's Go Red", which would invariably get the Clarkson band to start a "Let's Go Tech" cheer which would drown us out. Unless they chose to reply "Better Dead than Red." While we were still winning, a few people could respond "Better Red than Dead." (The sellout provided an additional handicap against Cornell chants, since the noisiest fans were relegated to a single row in standing room and the back of one section, and couldn't form a cohesive block as at Syracuse or St. Lawrence.) The dopiest things about Cheel were those little 8 1/2" by 11" color signs that lined the glass, with assorted exhortations about beating the Little Red. Someone (I think it was Greg Berge) made up counter-signs for Cornell--the best was:



The Clarkson band itself made me realize why they're Cornell's competition for best pep band in the ECAC [I got to see both bands last March at Lake Placid, and did notice them while squinting through the glare of Cornell's brilliance. ;-)] I still think that they should lose the electric instruments, but I do like their rendition of "Caravan" and I admit that their post-goal tune is still rattling around my head a day later. I also regret that I didn't manage to bring a tape recorder and start my collection of New World Symphonies. (In contrast the the sped-up versions of the national anthems and "Caravan", they seem to play New World at a more languid pace than usual.) Of course, the best thing of all was that for the first time in six games I didn't have to hear "YMCA".

Then there's the train whistle. I find it kind of ironic that this is in arena where according the program, "No artificial noisemakers are alllowed [sic]." It is very impressive, though, as opposed to that silly air horn at St. Lawrence. I never saw the Bell in its heyday, but it would have been more impressive if they hadn't rung it at seemingly random times ("Yay, we completed a pass at the red line!"). The whole impression of the whistle and bell produces an image of the pep band as a locomotive about to roll onto the ice.

The North Country Experience

I liked the closeness of the two arenas; we met various people Friday night and Saturday who'd been at who'd been to the Colgate-Clarkson game and compared notes between that and Cornell-St. Lawrence. And the two towns were filled with partisans for all four teams, giving a nice mix of perspectives on the four games. I guess something like that could happen in Boston, but I can't think of where else in College Hockey. In fact, it's a bit of a shame that the Clarkson and St. Lawrence games happen at the same time so that one can't attend both of them. (Although I guess that would make Clarkson tickets even harder come by.)

I had actually been to Potsdam a couple of times, once ten years ago visiting Clarkson as a high school senior, and once in 1993 for my sister's graduation from Potsdam. My mother had made the trip rather more times, but that still didn't help us find activities to fill the eight hours between our motel checkout Saturday morning and the start of the Cornell-Clarkson game. As an example of the dearth of stimulation, Greg and his crew spent the day exploring nearby Massena. We were comparing the situation to going straight from breakfast to the 1pm ECAC consolation game at Lake Placid, and Arthur Mintz pointed out that in Placid, there were things to do, if not time to do them. This time, we wound up in the lounge at the Best Western watching the Packers-49ers game, where we learned that their definition of "free refills" meant that you got one free 7-ounce glass of soda for every one you bought. Presumably this was not the reason that the teams now stay at the Comfort Inn. Speaking of hotels, I would be remiss if I did not mention Mrs. Smalling of the Smalling Motel, who let me use the phone in her kitchen to post my report on Friday's game. The rooms may be small there, but you can't beat service like that.

Finally, the five-hour drive home after Saturday's game was not as difficult as I'd been dreading (even if it did keep me from writing this until I got back to Utah). I didn't get the benefit of the adrenaline rush I had after the game Friday at St. Lawrence, but stumbling onto a shortcut back to 56 made up for the three roundtrips between Potsdam and Canton on the weekend.

Despite watching our team take only one point on the weekend, Mom and I did enjoy going on the ECAC's most legendary roadtrip. I'm sure I would have preferred the experience of the Colgate fans, who saw their team sweep, but losing a bad game in hostile territory hundreds of miles from home is a very real part of the experience of a sports fan, and what makes sports the purest form of entertainment. Happy endings are not guaranteed, which makes the ones that happen much better.

With the North Country road trip report, this is Joe Schlobotnik.

Last Modified: 1998 August 25

Joe Schlobotnik / joe@amurgsval.org

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