Men’s hockey coach Mike Schafer ’86 poses for a portrait in the locker room at Lynah Rink on Thursday, February 15, 2024. (Ryan Young / Cornell University)

A Conversation with Coach Schafer

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With nearly three decades at the helm of Big Red men's ice hockey, Mike Schafer ’86 is beloved by players and fans alike

Editor's note: In mid-June 2024, Schafer announced that he would retire after the 2024–25 season. His successor: Clarkson University head coach and CALS alum Casey Jones ’90. A former Big Red captain and assistant coach, Jones will initially return to the Hill as associate head coach, serving alongside Schafer for a season before taking the reins.

By Beth Saulnier

Mike Schafer ’86 wasn’t actually born in a hockey rink, but he may as well have been. A native of Durham, Ontario, he grew up in a family of nine children—six boys and three girls—and he can’t recall a time when the sport wasn’t an integral part of his life.

“In Canada, it’s woven into the culture,” says Schafer, the Jay R. Bloom ’77 Head Coach of Men’s Hockey. “I grew up playing from a young age. It was what our family did on weekends and what everyone talked about at school.”

The CALS alum is closing in on his 30th anniversary in the role—and he already has the longest tenure of any men’s hockey head coach in Big Red history. Since taking the helm in 1995, he has carved out a stellar record: going into the current season (2023–24), he had 520 wins, 282 losses, and 105 ties.

Schafer playing for the Big Red men's hockey team playing Brown at Lynah Rink on Feb. 22, 1986.
Playing for the Big Red against Brown. (Cornell Athletics)

Among his many laurels: under his leadership, the Big Red has won the ECAC tournament five times; in 2020, he was co-named the top head hockey coach in the U.S; and two dozen of his former players have gone on to the NHL.

In February 2024, the team clinched its 26th Ivy League title—its 13th under Schafer.

But long before he was head coach, he was a player: he lettered all four years of undergrad, serving two seasons as co-captain. His senior year, Cornell won the ECACs and was ranked fifth in the nation.

And Schafer has notable Big Red ties off the ice. He married a classmate, Human Ecology grad Diane Composti Schafer ’86; their three children include an alum, John Schafer ’18, MBA ’22.

In February, Schafer took time out to chat with Cornellians about the sport, his coaching philosophy, the agony of being a Maple Leafs fan, and much more.

Has hockey changed since you started playing?

It’s much different. It used to be a much more violent game; there was more fighting. Rules that took effect in the late ’90s and early 2000s made it much more of a skills game. It’s still rough, but not like it used to be.

What do you think is special about hockey?

Schafer coaching men's ice hockey during the 1998-1999 season.
Early days: The 1998–99 season. (Cornell Athletics)

Like in basketball and soccer, you’re playing both offense and defense. Like lacrosse, there’s the element of the stick. But in hockey you have skating, which makes it totally different from any other team sport.

What’s something you took from your time as a player that informs you as a coach?

That you’re part of a team. Regardless of successes and failures, it all comes down to a group of people, not individuals. But actually, I probably learned more about coaching from growing up in a big family than anything else.

Actually, I probably learned more about coaching from growing up in a big family than anything else.

What’s your coaching philosophy?

There’s an old saying that a coach should be “the calm in the eye of the storm, and the storm when it’s too calm.” I’ve tried to live by that. Our athletes are the driving force. If you tried to motivate them between every play of every game, you’d lose your team in a hurry.

I think the consistency of how you treat them, what you say and do, is the most important thing. There are times where you have to push and prod—but they happen a lot less than people think.

Mike Schafer talks with forwards on the Cornell men’s hockey team during a break in play in an ECAC Hockey and Ivy League game against Harvard on Jan. 25, 2020 at Lynah Rink in Ithaca, N.Y. (Eldon Lindsay/Cornell Athletics)
At home against Harvard in January 2020. (Eldon Lindsay / Cornell Athletics)

Why do you think hockey is so popular at Cornell?

Well, it’s a winter sport, and it gives people something to do in Ithaca in the wintertime. [He laughs.] It’s had a tradition of winning, way back to the late ’60s—and I think success breeds fans.

It’s something that gets townspeople, faculty, staff, and students together. It’s been entrenched in the culture for many years, to have this special place where people can come and scream their brains out and cheer for the University.

Schafer coaching on the ice
Coaching on the ice. (Riley Joslin / Cornell Athletics)

School spirit is so important; athletics is another venue for students and alumni to be very proud of Cornell. That can’t be underestimated or undervalued.

Can you describe what’s it like to play a home game in Lynah?

There’s nothing more special than coming in and feeling the roar of the crowd. It’s a tremendous experience. It gives you goosebumps when you go on the ice. You never get used to it.

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You obviously play for each other as a team, but you really play for Cornell, and I wore that jersey proudly.

What do you think it’s like for visiting teams? Do they dread it?

I think a lot of teams love to play here. The atmosphere—the crowd, the cheers and chants—is something they never forget. When you talk to alumni and coaches from other schools, they say they enjoy the Lynah experience—and they wish they had that at their university.

Mike Schafer speaks with media after the Cornell men's hockey team's 2-0 victory over Boston University in the biennial Red Hot Hockey event on Nov. 30, 2019 at Madison Square Garden in New York. (Matt Dewkett/Cornell Athletics)
Speaking to the media after the Big Red's 2-0 win over B.U. in the 2019 Red Hot Hockey contest in NYC's Madison Square Garden. (Matt Dewkett / Cornell Athletics)

When you’re recruiting a player, what do you look for?

Obviously they have to have the skills, so it comes down to things that are hard to see: hockey sense and character. Everybody says they want to develop, to pursue excellence—but when it gets down to having to work hard to overcome adversity, does the kid have that makeup?

So that’s what we look for: not just good skills, but kids we can help become better players.

You obviously play for each other as a team, but you really play for Cornell, and I wore that jersey proudly.

You mentioned “hockey sense.” Could you define that?

It’s a tough thing to quantify. It’s like the difference between “book smart” and “street smart.” Some kids can “think” the game really well and make adjustments themselves. It’s how you read and react, how you see things, how you anticipate, how you can take coaching and put it into action.

The game is so fast and complex; as kids climb higher and get better, hockey sense becomes more and more important.

How do you attract the players you want, given that the Ivy League doesn’t allow athletic scholarships?

Kids will choose Cornell, obviously, because of the quality of the education. They’ll choose us athletically because we have a history of winning and because our alumni have succeeded in getting to the NHL.

And the Lynah crowd is one of the biggest selling points: not all schools, regardless of how much money they have, can offer such a great environment to play in. So you combine all those factors, and that’s our niche. That’s why kids turn down full scholarships at other schools to attend Cornell.

The Cornell Big Red men's ice hockey team competes against Denver on March 23, 2023 at SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H.
At a game against Denver (which the Big Red won 2-0) during the 2023 NCAA Regional Semifinals in Manchester, NH. (Matt Dewkett / Cornell Athletics)

What’s it like for you to see your former players play professionally?

There’s so much pride. To see their perseverance and mental toughness in getting to the highest level of the sport—to reach their childhood dream—is really something special. It’s always exciting to watch them on TV or get a chance to see them live.

What pro team do you root for?

Well, I’m from Ontario, so the Toronto Maple Leafs—but I’ve had many, many, many, many years of disappointment. [He laughs.] I also like to cheer on our alumni, to root for whatever NHL team they’re playing on.

Mike Schafer and his wife, Diane.
With wife (and ’86 classmate) Diane.

What’s something about you that Big Red hockey fans might not know?

I love my boat. I just love floating or driving around, being with my family and friends on Cayuga Lake in the summertime.

Do you still play hockey for fun?

Yeah, I’m getting up there in age, but I try to play once a week in the spring and summer. I still enjoy the game.

Do you think it’s important for you as a coach to keep your stick in, so to speak?

Not really as a coach—but mental health-wise, it’s great.

I’ve met so many people playing hockey who’ve become friends whom I would have never met otherwise, in all walks of life—from CEOs to teachers to prison guards to professors.

I think hockey keeps you grounded in what’s real. Always has, and always will.

Top: Schafer in the Lynah locker room. Photo by Ryan Young / Cornell University.

Published February 22, 2024; updated June 14, 2024.


  1. Jerry Langdon, Class of 1959

    Great story. Wouldn’t mind seeing a list of of names of NHL players. Maybe also one with Harkness and Bertrand players.

  2. LS, Class of 1978

    Thank you Schafer

    • LS, Class of 1978

      Cornell is hockey. And Cornell hockey is Mike Schafer.

  3. Frederick Scholl, Class of 1968

    Great person and coach.

  4. Sandra Mozesky Kavanagh, Class of 1986

    Thank you Coach Schafer for your enormous dedication to Cornell hockey and Cornell.

    Sandra Mozesky Kavanagh

  5. Robert Brooks

    This chap makes us all proud to be Cornellians. No fluff. Look ya in the eye and exude character.

  6. Jay Tsigas, Class of 1988

    My best Mike Shaffer memory: one home game in either ’85 or ’86, visiting player gets checked so hard, his stick flies into the stands. What a souvenir! Oops – refs stop the game and the player demands his stick back. You can imagine – the crowd goes WILD; there’s a delay and then finally to a further chorus of boos, the fan surrenders the stick. The boos keep raining down; refs seem unsure how to start the game back. Suddenly Shaffer skates from the knot of players on the ice back to the Cornell bench, grabs a stick and skates it back to the dispossessed fan… ‘Beloved’…is an understatement!

  7. Karen Hovorka, Class of 1992

    Diane and Mike were our chapter house parents at Kappa Delta for a few years, when Mike was first starting out as a coach. It was cool having such young house parents and even cooler that Mike was affiliated with the hockey team (popular then and now). So happy for him for all of his success leading the Big Red for 30 years!


    From Big Red Pep Band, to sleeping out for tickets, to taking our young children to years of games, to Madison Square Garden, Cornell hockey has been an integral and wonderful part of my life. Thank you, Coach and thank you Lynah staff and Lynah Faithful!

  9. Dan Dovdavany, Class of 1996

    How can a Mike Schafer article be written with no reference to the chant “Kill, Schafer Kill!!!”??

  10. Stewart Schwab

    I saw a different coaching style by Mike and can definitely say he was a heck of an assistant t-ball coach. We coached together when our kids were little, and Mike was amazingly patient and gentle turning a kid around when picking daisies in the outfield and fulfilling all the other tasks of an assistant t-ball coach with good cheer and a twinkle in his eye.

  11. Kelly ONeal, Class of 1985

    So proud of you Coach Schafer!

  12. Bruce Taylor, Class of 1972

    FWIW, Beth was a member of the 2017 Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team. FIVE of them were alumni of Cornell. I don’t remember exactly, but three of them on one Canadian line had played together on a line at Cornell, including Rebecca Johnston.

  13. Nanci (Swartz) O'Connell, Class of 1987

    Great article about a great guy. And Diane doesn’t seem to age at all!!

  14. Ken Christensen

    Thanks for all that you’ve done both for CU hockey and for the university as a whole, Coach Schafer! You and your teams have helped make Cornell the very special place that it is. Looking forward to witnessing in person a sweep of Union and RPI this weekend!

  15. Stuart Baron, Class of 1982

    “Schafer is the one coach to have when your hockey team’s just won!”

    I covered the Red Hot Hockey and Frozen Apple games at MSG for US College Hockey Online from 2013-2019.

    It was fascinating and a privilege to sit and listen to Coach Schafer as well as opponents’ coaches in the postgame press conferences. It was impossible not to absorb their vast knowledge of the game.

    Speaking of opponents, I had a classmate and friend in my MBA program who had played ice hockey at Princeton. He and his teammates loved playing at Lynah Rink because of the crowd and its energy. Interesting perspective.

  16. Claudia Sokoloff

    Kill, Schafer, Kill.
    There. Article complete.

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