Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of the Big Red Sports Network, which provides excellent Cornell sports coverage throughout the year for alumni, parents, students and fans everywhere.
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In the corner of Lynah Rink stands head coach Mike Schafer. He’s in a familiar position, although he’s never had to replace Andy Iles before.
He’s replaced All-Americans and NHL starters, so there is calm. It’s Schafer’s 20th year on the job, so nothing is going to phase him.
But he’s never had to replace Andy Iles. Cornell has never had to replace Andy Iles.
For the first time in three years, Cornell has a question mark at the goalie position. Three goalies are on the roster, two freshmen and a sophomore. But who will start? Does Mitch Gillam, the only other goalie to start the last two seasons, have an inside track over the freshmen Hayden Stewart?
“You gotta earn your ice time,” Gillam says. “Anything is game right now.”
Through the early part of the season, the numbers are pretty similar. Each goalie allowed two goals in 3-2 victories in preseason exhibitions. In regular season play, Gillam allowed one goal on 39 shots, earning a hard fought tie with some spectacular saves. Stewart allowed two goals on 23 shots, and showed flashes, but was stuck with a loss.
Both received rave reviews from their coach, with Schafer calling his goalie play “outstanding” (even as Gillam only rated his own play as “alright”).
Allowing three goals over two home games is conducive to winning, even if the offense was disappointing. In college hockey, goalie rotations are workable. If both goalies are producing, you have to play both.
With the stat lines being similar, you have to dig a little deeper to uncover the differences between the goalies. Hayden Stewart has the prototypical goalie size at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than his competition, but he’s a just freshman. And all freshmen have to undergo an adjustment period.
Gillam, a sophomore, has already begun his transition to college hockey, with a start and a win last year against Niagara. “The Niagara game was great. It allowed me to see the NCAA caliber shots,” Gillam said.
Gillam and Stewart both appear comfortable patrolling the blue patch of ice at Lynah rink. Gillam said playing in front of the Lynah faithful was, “exciting,” and that “it just felt natural.” Stewart shared that sentiment. “I don’t know how to describe it,” the Illinois native said.
And both seem comfortable with each other, as each of them has emphasized their close relationship and friendship. “Gilly and I are best friends. It’s been fun. We’ve supported each other through it all,” Stewart commented.
It’s clear the Big Red is in no hurry to name a starter. Coach Schafer just decides who starts Friday and who starts Saturday, with both earning one game per weekend until one forces his hand. Or not. If both goalies are playing well, Schafer insists he won’t force a starter.
Conventional wisdom says a team needs one goalie, just like one quarterback; not that anyone around the team will admit there’s anything wrong with a goalie by committee.
Everyone at Cornell insists that having two goalies is more of a strength than it is a weakness. The forwards and the defensemen both seem to support the competition.
“That’s the plan right now, to see which one of those players rises to the occasion,” Schafer adds. “Goaltending is a difficult position. Sometimes you come to college [and] it’s the first time kids have to really compete for a starting spot.”
He denies any thought of a timetable, or the importance of a nominal starter. He’ll ride the hot hand, but make no mistake—there is a goalie competition at Cornell.
“Two guys trying to prove themselves. They’re pretty equal—Mitch and Hayden.” Both have proven themselves worthy of opportunities. Now, it’s just a matter of who will rise to the top.
“It’s going to be fun to sit back and watch and see who’s going to do that.”