Fish and Fowl: The History of the Cornell-Harvard Hockey Rivalry

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Updated: January 22, 2015

The Harvard Game.

It needs neither an introduction nor explanation. When Cornellians say “The Harvard Game” there is no confusion over what it is, what sport is being played, or why it’s so significant. When the Crimson come to Lynah Rink, the usually hostile environment increases tenfold. When they play in Harvard’s Bright Hockey Center, the overwhelming majority Cornell crowd turns the usual away contest into a de facto home game. The week before the game, everyone knows what’s happening, everyone wants a ticket, and most importantly, everyone will be throwing fish (whether those fish will be in raw, cooked, or candy form is up to those who throw it). However, this is a rivalry that is about much more than just sneaking fish into Lynah Rink.

First meeting in 1910, Cornell and Harvard have a rivalry that has spanned generations of players, students and fans. At the turn of the century, they were among a handful of Eastern universities to establish hockey teams after Yale and Johns Hopkins played the first intercollegiate game in 1896. Both schools had humble beginnings, as Harvard, who played their first game in 1898, first played most of their games on a rink built in their football stadium, while Cornell, whose first game came three years later, first played on Beebe Lake. Because of its proximity to New England’s prep school hockey teams, one of the only forms of organized hockey during that time, Harvard dominated in the first half of the twentieth century, regularly defeating its future Ivy League competitors (the official Ivy League conference wasn’t formalized until 1954). They were in part helped by the fact that they started playing in Boston Arena, one of the few indoor rinks at the time, about ten years after the team’s founding (this rink is now known as Matthews Arena, the home ice for the Northeastern University Huskies, and is the oldest indoor hockey arena in the world).

This was a stark contrast to the Cornell hockey program, one that continued to play on Beebe Lake, and was maintained by an engineering professor, even after many other schools starting using or built their own indoor rinks. Due to the limited number of practices the team could have, as well as their isolated location, they rarely fielded competitive teams. After Harvard won the first matchup 5-0 at St. Nicholas Rink in New York City, Cornell won their first hockey game against the Crimson in 1911 by the score of 3-2 at Boston Arena, part of an undefeated season that led to them claiming an unofficial national championship, as the NCAA at the time was in its infancy, and didn’t sponsor hockey. However, from 1912 onward, the two teams diverged, as Harvard won the next twelve contests, becoming a power in the Eastern region, while Cornell’s lack of funding and adequate facilities led to the university dropping the program after a winless 1947-48 season. It seemed as though this “rivalry” would end. However, it was just getting started.

After Cornell opened Lynah Rink in 1957, the history of the rivalry, and Cornell hockey was changed forever. Even though the first few years of the now storied rink featured many lopsided scores and sparse crowds, that all changed on February 3, 1962. Led by goaltender Laing Kennedy, Cornell came into contest spotting a solid 7-4-0 record, and had a legitimate chance of beating Harvard for the first time since 1911. Thousands of Cornell students lined up outside Lynah several hours before the game, and by some accounts more than 4,500 fans packed into a rink that at the time couldn’t even seat 4,000. It was not only the most anticipated athletic event at Cornell in years, but it was also the first instance of the “hockey line,” which until it was discontinued a few years ago was how new fans were initiated into the Cornell hockey tradition. After the Big Red upset the Crimson 2-1, in large part due to Kennedy’s 48 saves, the students stormed the ice in celebration, and “Lynah Faithful” as we know it today was born.

Shortly after their historic win, Cornell hired legendary coach Ned Harkness, who took the team to new heights. From 1966-1971, often considered the golden age of Cornell hockey, the Big Red won thirteen straight vs. Harvard, while winning their first national championship in 1967, led by future NHL Hall of Famer Ken Dryden. This stretch included their 29-0-0 1970 national championship season, still the only team in the modern era of the NCAA to finish a season undefeated. During this time, the rivalry started to heat up, as the majority-American Crimson teams didn’t like that Cornell recruited mostly Canadian talent for it’s hockey team. It was also in 1970 when the famous movie “Love Story” was released. Even though it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, most Cornell fans know the film for the main character, who plays for Harvard’s hockey team, committing a penalty against the Big Red at Lynah Rink, which leads to his team losing the game. To remind the Crimson of their inability to win even in fictional settings, the Big Red Pep Band plays the theme from Love Story when Harvard first skates onto the ice.

It was during the early 1970s, however, when arguably the most famous tradition in all of college hockey was started. After Harvard students threw a dead chicken onto the ice during the 1973 game in Cambridge (most likely a jab at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), Cornell students retaliated by throwing dead fish onto the ice the when the Crimson came to Lynah a few weeks later. The gesture was at the time seen as making fun of Boston’s fishing industry, but students at the game have dispelled that notion, simply saying, ‘we wanted throw something disgusting and smelly.’ And despite the administration’s best efforts to stop the tradition, it has remained strong in the decades since, with students throwing everything from octopus, to rainbow trout, to Swedish Fish (note to first time attendees: Do NOT throw fish during the course of the game. Just when Harvard enters the ice). Even though the Crimson struggled for much of the 1970s, and Boston University became Cornell’s biggest on-ice rival, the tradition of throwing fish turned the game into a must-see spectacle that you cannot leave Cornell without witnessing first-hand.

However, after BU and a few other schools left the ECAC to form the Hockey East conference in 1984, Harvard became much more competitive again. Over the next three decades, these two teams would become the top dogs in the ECAC, bringing yet another level of intensity to this already heated rivalry. In one of the most famous moments in the rivalry’s history, before the 1983 game, defenseman and current head coach Mike Schafer skated to the center of the ice with a hockey stick with “Harvard Sucks” written on it, and broke it over his head, causing the Lynah Faithful to go into hysteria. Even though the Crimson jumped out to a 4-0 lead in that game, the Big Red fought back, and with a goal from Schafer, ended up winning 6-5. Even though Harvard would dominate the rivalry for the next few years, that didn’t stop Cornell from pulling off a memorable upset in 1990. After Harvard won the National Championship in 1989, they were poised to repeat the next season, which would be legendary coach Bill Cleary’s last season. However, during the ECAC playoffs at Lynah Rink, they were swept in two games by scores of 6-2 and 4-2, after which an incensed Cleary refused to let his team shake hands after the final whistle.

After Mike Schafer was hired in 1995, he emphasized how important beating Harvard was, making it one of his main goals every year. His dedication to the rivalry has shown, as he is 33-14-4 against the Crimson as head coach. His most memorable victory against his arch nemesis might be the 2003 ECAC final. The Crimson had gotten the better of the Big Red in the 2002 final, winning 4-3 in double overtime, but the 2003 Cornell team had spent part of the season as the number one ranked team in the country, and were poised for a deep playoff run. But in the ECAC finals that year, Harvard led 2-1 with less than a minute to go, when a clearing attempt missed Cornell’s empty net with 38 seconds remaining. Off the ensuing faceoff Mark McRae scored with 33 seconds remaining, sending the pro-Cornell crowd in Albany into a frenzy. Sam Paolini then scored shortly into overtime, stamping Cornell’s ticket to the NCAA tournament, where they would go on to make their first Frozen Four in over two decades.

From playing on outdoor rinks, to fans storming the ice, to students throwing every imaginable type of fish, this is a rivalry that is unmatched in college hockey. Very few rivalries in any sport have the kind of history these two schools have, and almost no other teams can say they have been consistently at each other’s throats for as long as they have. If you’re going to the game this Friday, remember that this is an experience that is so much more than just throwing fish. This is a celebration; not only for the students, but also for the generations of hockey fans before you that helped mold the rivalry and the Lynah Faithful into what it is today. This is so much more than just a hockey game.

It’s The Harvard Game.

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