Hockey enthusiasts know Mike Schafer as a stellar Division I college coach who’s racked up 466 wins in 24 seasons at the helm of Cornell University. He has a particularly strong Big Red squad thus far in 2019-20, ranking second in the country as of late November with a perfect 8-0-0 record.
Yet elsewhere in Tompkins County — and as far away as the Caribbean Islands — Schafer sheds the limelight to live out his Catholic faith, volunteering to help folks in need and often engaging his players in the process.
Schafer told the Catholic Courier that by stressing service as well as athletics, he seeks to convey key life lessons to student-athletes.
“You try to help people who can’t help themselves, stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves,” said Schafer, 57. “You take an initiative, step up and do the right thing.”
He and nearly 50 Cornell hockey and lacrosse players stepped up Sept. 22, spending an afternoon gardening, doing minor repairs, cleaning and painting at the homes of senior citizens around Tompkins who had requested help. This first-time effort took place in conjunction with the cluster of All Saints Church, Lansing, where Schafer is a parishioner; St. Anthony, Groton; and Holy Cross, Freeville/Dryden.
Schafer’s players perform other service projects throughout the year, such as mentoring elementary-school children. In addition, Schafer recently assisted at his parish by cooking at the cluster picnic and helping to power wash and paint the All Saints parish center.
However, the coach’s most prevalent volunteer focus is some 1,700 miles from home. This past May, he visited the Dominican Republic to aid impoverished residents — the fifth time since 2009 that Schafer has made such a trip, bringing hockey athletes with him each time. He was joined in the spring by five Big Red players as well as area Catholic parishioners, including the cluster’s pastor, Father Daniel Ruiz. That group represented the Portal de Belen Foundation, an Ithaca-based initiative to support the Dominican communities of Monte Plata and Don Juan.
Volunteers engaged in several projects over a five-day period: they provided water filters; assisted in building three latrines; helped to dig, by hand, a house foundation for a mother and child living in squalid conditions; donated and spread new dirt for a baseball diamond; and visited students and teachers at a school for special-needs children. The Tompkins contingent also delivered an array of donated items including hygiene kits for girls, athletic uniforms and equipment, clothing, footwear and souvenirs.
“People don’t have water, don’t have sanitation. You just see the guys really kind of be taken aback when they get there,” Schafer said. “If that doesn’t humble you, I don’t know what will.”
His players typically undergo a transformation, making new friends and becoming profoundly aware of the difference they can make in people’s lives.
“It means a big deal. It’s very impactful,” he said of the Dominican service experience.
Schafer is a lead fundraiser for the trips and board member of the Portal de Belen Foundation. He emphasized that many people are involved in the initiative, saying, “I’m just a small part of that aspect.”
On the other hand, he remains committed despite the demands of being a full-time, high-profile coach. Schafer acknowledged that he was consumed with hockey earlier in life, but credits his wife of 32 years, Diane, for influencing his personal growth.
“You get your eyes opened,” he said.
It was also through his wife, a former staff member at Ithaca’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish, that Schafer got to know Father Ron Gaesser, the parish’s pastor until 2003 when he reached senior-priest status. Father Gaesser began the Portal de Belen Foundation in 2001 and lives part time in the Dominican Republic.
“The work he’s done is amazing,” Schafer said of Father Gaesser.
Meanwhile, Schafer’s best-known work is with Cornell hockey. The native of Durham, Ontario, was first involved with the program as a player, spending four years as a defenseman and serving as a two-year captain before graduating in 1986 with a degree in business management. He was an assistant hockey coach at his alma mater from 1986-90 before taking over the head position in 1995-96.
Schafer began the 2019-20 season with a career record of 458-259-95. By winning its first eight games, Cornell earned the No. 2 spot in the Division I polls as the Big Red strive to bring home Schafer’s first national championship. The program under Schafer has won numerous ECAC Hockey conference titles and sent 20 players to the National Hockey League.
Yet no matter how great their hockey success, Schafer said that he and his players will never lose sight of serving others. In fact, he asserted that many college athletes enjoy volunteering, although that side doesn’t usually command headlines the way that wins and losses do.
“It’s a big part of who a lot of athletes are. I think it’s way more common than people think,” he said.