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Monday, April 14, 11:57 a.m.
Sports

UMaine’s Cornell leads by example on and off the ice

University of Maine men's hockey senior Mike Cornell has developed into a leader both on and off the ice for the Black Bears.
Haley Johnston
University of Maine men's hockey senior Mike Cornell has developed into a leader both on and off the ice for the Black Bears.

The University of Maine men’s ice hockey team senior defenseman Mike Cornell is in his senior year playing for the Black Bears and has seen the program go as far as the national tournament and as low as last place in the conference. Even though UMaine may not be having the year they wanted, Cornell is still highly respected by his peers and coaches as a team captain.

Before Cornell came to UMaine, he graduated from Mt. St. Charles Academy in Rhode Island. After winning a State Championship he spent time with the South Shore Kings and New Hampshire Monarchs. While with South Shore, Cornell scored two goals and added 19 assists during the 2006-07 season and scored six goals with 15 assists during the 2007-08 season. He was named an Eastern Junior Hockey League All-Star three times.

During the 2008-09 season with the Monarchs, Cornell scored six goals and tallied 21 assists while winning the regular season championship as well as the Tier III Junior A National Championship.

Cornell attributes his decision to coming to UMaine to the tradition and familiarity with a coach in the program he had while playing for the Monarchs.

“[I chose UMaine] for a lot of reasons,” Cornell said. “I grew up watching a lot of college hockey, a lot of Hockey East, and I think UMaine has such a special tradition and such a rich history that it was always a big draw for me. It was always a school that I looked up to and admired. And as I progressed through the years, I did a few visits in a couple different places, and in my last year of junior hockey, Bob Corkum was a coach with the New Hampshire Monarchs and he decided to come up to UMaine. Once that relationship had kind of been established, that kind of got my foot in the door here and made it a no brainer for me. I visited [The University of Massachusetts]-Amherst, Providence [College], and a couple other schools around the league but once I got up here I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

His time with junior hockey prepared him not only for the game of hockey but for the real world and academics.

“I think it prepares you just as much off ice as it does on ice,” Cornell said. “It was my first time away from home, and it forces you to grow up and think for yourself, cook for yourself, clean up after yourself and manage your time a little bit better. As far as on the ice it was tremendous for me, especially my last year. I learned so much in that one year with the Monarchs, and before that with the South Shore Kings as well, who I played for before the Monarchs. You learn a lot of little details of the game, especially when you’re only taking only one class here or there. You have more time to develop the little details of your game while learning more of the defensive side of the game. You have a lot of time to work on those things.

“It worked out well for me because there is a community college in my town called Dean College in Franklin, Mass., so I was able to come in with four courses completed so to make the load a little bit easier when you get here,” Cornell added.

Cornell was named to the Hockey East All-Academic team in 2011-12 and was a Maine Scholar Athlete in 2009-10. Cornell would like to stay in hockey for as long as possible, but as a business management major, he sees himself possibly following in his father’s footsteps.

“My goal right now is to stay in hockey as long as I can,” Cornell said. “If not I have toyed around with the idea of coaching, scouting, or management. My dad is a businessman and having gone through the business program here, that kind of thing is more appealing to me and I kind of understand the things he has to deal with on a daily basis. I think something in business one way or the other. I’m not sure, I have no idea.

“My short term goal is to sign on with a team at the end of the season and get some games in,” Cornell continued. “Whether it’s in the East Coast League or the American Hockey League, I just want to get my feet wet and get some pro experience and hopefully I can get myself in that position and progress as the year goes on. After that, I have no idea what the next step is, but I would like to stay in the game whether that is coaching or with a pro team either scouting or anything working my way up into a front office job.”

Hockey has been in Cornell’s family for a long time. His father played in college, and beginning his life in Canada, it was just part of growing up.

“My father played junior hockey in Canada then played at McGill University for a little bit. I was born in Canada, as well as my brother,” Cornell said. “At home it is kind of a natural progression that you give hockey a shot, like you give baseball or football here if you’re a young boy. It was just one of those things in my family, and it just runs in my blood. I fell in love with it day one.”

After being born in Canada, his family moved to the United States.

“I moved [to the United States] when I was eight,” Cornell said. “We lived in Massachusetts, then moved away for a few years to Indiana, then moved back to the same neighborhood in Massachusetts because of my dad’s job.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see that his favorite players are defensemen and hold similar qualities.

“I’ve got a few favorite players,” Cornell said. “I really like how Kevin Bieksa plays on the Vancouver Canucks. My favorite player though is Andrew Ference, who plays for the Bruins. He is a smaller guy; he’s physical, and he skates really well. He is a good two-way player. He will stick up for himself and his teammates; he’s a good leader, and a good guy in the community. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Though he is a defenseman, Cornell leads the Black Bears in shots this year with 37. It has always been important to Cornell and the rest of the team to develop skills in every facet of the game instead of only specializing in their positions.

“The beauty of our program here is that they try and develop guys to be strong on both aspects of the game,” Cornell said. “We don’t have any guys who are completely offensive minded or completely defensive minded. We spend a lot of time in practice making sure everybody goes through the rotation on a power play, someone will simulate someone else’s penalty kill so everybody will get their feet wet. But more offensive guys will go out on power play, more defensive guys will help out on [the penalty kill], but the natural progression is that as you get older you want to be good at both.”

Head coach Tim Whitehead says Cornell’s work ethic and ability to improve on both ends of the ice have paid dividend not only for Cornell, but for the team.

“What’s great is when he came in at this level, he realized he would have to be a defensive defenseman first and foremost,” Whitehead said. “What I’ve liked about Mike these past two years is that he has expanded his role offensively because he’s understood that we need that as well. I’m very pleased with his offensive development. He contributes a lot, he moves the puck well, he shoots the puck well, and he has a good one timer shot, and makes very good moves with the puck.

“But at the heart he is a defenseman, a great shot-blocker, great penalty killer, has a great physical presence on the ice, and definitely takes a hit to make a play and gives out a hit to break up a play so those are qualities which his teammates respect a lot,” Whitehead added.

The Black Bears are 2-11-2 so far this year, last in Hockey East. One of Cornell’s jobs as captain is to lead the team through tough stretches by not only setting an example for others to follow but by helping lighten the mood while trying to keep a focus on the task at hand.

“It’s a balance of keeping it light but keeping it focused,” Cornell said. “If guys are down in the dumps and kicking themselves every day you’re not going to develop the way you should. It’s no fun when you come to the rink every day nervous or stressed out so you try to keep things light to keep guys confident and motivated but at the same time keep them focused every single day while finding a way to compete. We’re in a tough stretch right now but we have to make sure every guy in that locker room believes that we can be successful, they have an important role on this team, and find a way to improve every day to help us move along.”

Being named an assistant captain in 2011-12 and a team captain in 2012-2013 was no surprise for Whitehead, but nonetheless Cornell felt tremendous honor after having the team vote for him to be a co-captain next to fellow seniors Joey Diamond and Mark Nemec.

“Mike is, first and foremost, a fabulous young man,” Whitehead said. “Everything he does he strives to achieve at everything he does at a high level. He’s very dedicated, very determined, and multitalented. He’s a great leader, a natural leader, and his teammates look up to him, and they should.

“He doesn’t claim to be perfect, that’s one of the things I like about Mike, he’s very tough on himself, sometimes too tough, but that is one of the things that drives him to keep achieving at a high level and his success is not an accident,” Whitehead continued. “It’s come with hard work, focus, determination, and talent. He’s going to keep getting better and better. Mike has become a tremendous student athlete at UMaine, and we’re very proud of him.”

“To have that letter on my jersey and to be recognized by my teammates and my coaches is a tremendous honor for me and to see some of the guys who have worn the C in the past is a pretty special thing, especially in a program with such tradition and history, and to be able to share it with Joey [Diamond] and Mark Nemec, it’s a good honor and something to be proud of and something we don’t take lightly or for granted,” Cornell said. “We really respect it and are trying to make the most of it.”

Though the Black Bears’ chances for returning to the national tournament are slim this year, the young core of freshmen that were welcomed into the UMaine Black Bear hockey family had Cornell to look up to during their first season. With the positive attributes that Cornell brings to the team and the praising that Whitehead has given him, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team back in playoff contention in the near future.