Cornell Heads to Europe

The Cornell men’s hockey team has made some pretty big road trips in recent years, but non quite as this one. In mid-August, when most college students were preparing to head back to school after a few months off between semesters, the Big Red made the trek across the pond for a 10-day trip to Europe. Cornell played three exhibition games against professional teams, they spent the rest of their time sight-seeing in Switzerland and Italy.

Cornell Men’s Hockey

“It was fun that all of our guy’s phones never worked for 10 days,” said Mike Schafer, the Jay R. Bloom ’77 Head Coach of Men’s Hockey, with a smile. “It was a throwback trip of watching our players sit back on the bus, playing cards, laughing, talking, hanging out, and walking around in a city and experiencing the culture instead of looking down at their phones. It was just a great way for them to touch base with each other as they’re coming into the season, and kind of already develop that core that usually doesn’t happen until they get back on campus.”

Incoming freshmen weren’t eligible for the trip, so the Big Red had a roster of 20 players for the games. It afforded an opportunity for three sophomores, goalie Ryan Coon and defensemen Eric Sade and Holden Anderson, to play a few games for the Big Red after seeing just a combined one game in 2013-2014. Just as the culture is different halfway around the world, so is the hockey. Whereas the North American style is the bruising, board-rattling affair with cycling and hard hitting, the European game has a different flavor to it – and not just the advertisement-laden uniforms and ice surfaces.

“The games were a lot different than what you would see in college hockey,” sophomore forward Jeff Kubiak said. “It’s a lot more tic-tac-toe hockey. A lot of guys are trying to make plays. They really just stayed out of the physical game. We had to change our game a little bit, because we couldn’t do the things we’re used to or we’d get called for a penalty.”

While the games provided a sneak preview of preseason evaluation for the coaches, the on-ice production wasn’t necessarily the purpose of the trip. Coach Mike Schafer said the idea came from watching other teams within ECAC Hockey – Colgate, Dartmouth and Quinnipiac – make similar ventures in recent years with Eurosportours. “It’s a great learning experience and cultural experience for teams to go to Europe,” Schafer said. “We talked to Colgate, Quinnipiac, and Dartmouth and they talked about how easy it was through this group, how well organized it was, and how good the hockey was. It kind of hit everything, so it fulfilled all of our expectations. We had three really good hockey games.”

All three games came in a stretch of four days against teams based in Switzerland playing in the second-tier of the professional hierarchy (National League B). The Big Red started off with a shootout victory over HC Red Ice after rallying from a three-goal deficit against the Martigny-based team. Junior forward John Knisley got Cornell on the board with a rebound goal, then Anderson pulled the visitors to within one on a power-play strike. Knisley tacked on his second goal of the game to force a three-round shootout. Sophomore goaltender Mitch Gillam stopped all three shots he faced, and sophomore defenseman Patrick McCarron scored to give the Big Red the victory. It was also an official reunion with Mike Knoepfli ’05 for HC Red Ice.

Two days later, Cornell defeated GCK Lions, 5-3, in a game in Zurich. Sophomores Anderson, McCarron, Jake Weidner and Matt Buckles scored the Big Red goals before senior captain John McCarron’s empty-netter clinched the victory. The Big Red then wrapped up the trip with a 2-2 tie with HC Ajoie in Porrentruy, followed by a loss in the ensuing shootout. Juniors Reece Willcox and Christian Hilbrich set up Knisley’s team-leading third goal of the trip to give Cornell a 1-0 lead. After HC Ajoie scored twice to take the lead, the Big Red tied it up on a Kubiak highlight-reel goal in which he toe-dragged around a defender before beating the goalie with a shot from the slot.

There were some fringe benefits from the trip, too. With a foreign tour, teams are allowed to practice earlier than would be the case otherwise. The Big Red convened on campus about three weeks earlier than other years. “It gives the coaches a quick look at how guys progressed over the summer and what they did to hopefully get better for the next season,” Kubiak said. “We won two games and went to a couple shootouts, which we don’t do over here, so that was another skill that guys liked to work on. It was a good early couple of games.”

By the fifth day of the trip, all of the hockey was done and tourism around Italy was the only thing remaining on itinerary. The team packed up from its base in Como and headed to Milan for a day and then Bassano Del Grappa. The next day was spent in Venice, then the trip concluded in Rome. “Viva La Ultimate Road Trip!”

“The culture out there is so much different than it is in the States or Canada,” Kubiak said. “Everyone’s a lot more laid back compared to us. It was nice to experience it and nice to be part of it for 10 days. Hockey was obviously a part of it, but it wasn’t the main reason we were going out there. Basically everything you’re doing is with your teammates and with your coaches as a team, whether it’s travelling or playing games or going out to eat or just walking around. We were doing everything together, so team camaraderie started early. I think one of the big things about the Europe trip was to build team chemistry right away before the start of the season, and obviously that carries over.