May 1, 2024

After 25 Years as an Assistant at Quinnipiac, Cornell, Syer Excited to Take the Helm of PU Men’s Hockey

WELCOME TO JERSEY: New Princeton University men’s hockey head coach Ben Syer, left, is all smiles at his introductory press conference last Friday morning as Princeton Director of Athletics John Mack presented him with a personalized Tiger jersey. Syer comes to Princeton after serving the last 25 years as an assistant coach at Quinnipiac and Cornell. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Bill Alden

Over the last quarter century, Ben Syer has helped torment the Princeton University men’s hockey program as an assistant coach for heated rivals Quinnipiac and Cornell.

Now Syer will be bringing his winning approach south as he was named last week as the 18th head coach of Tiger men’s hockey, succeeding Ron Fogarty who was let go in mid-March.

After scheming to beat Princeton for the last 25 years, Syer is thrilled to now be running the show at Hobey Baker Rink.

“I understand the deep history and traditions of the University,” said Syer, 49, speaking at an introductory press conference last Friday morning at Chandler Lounge. “It is a great institution with the academics but also the history and tradition of athletic success. To have an opportunity to work with and lead this program is really exciting. I am really appreciative and really humbled to have that opportunity.”

Syer recently concluded his 13th season overall at Cornell and his 12th as associate head coach of the Big Red. His previous 12 seasons as a college coach came while serving as associate head coach and recruiting coordinator at Quinnipiac from 1999-2011.

In his 13 seasons at Cornell, Syer helped the Big Red win seven Ivy League championships, three ECAC Hockey regular season titles, and one ECACH Championship postseason title which came this past March. Cornell qualified for seven NCAA Tournaments and reached four Regional Finals during his tenure.

Before joining the Big Red, he was on staff during Quinnipiac’s rise into Division I hockey where the Bobcats won the 2002 MAAC championship and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time. In addition, he coached a pair of conference regular season championship teams at Quinnipiac — one in the MAAC (1998-99) and one in Atlantic Hockey (2004-05). He was on staff with the Bobcats during their move to the ECACH which included a run to the ECAC Final in their second season of conference membership in 2006-07.

In the release announcing the hiring of Syer, Princeton Director of Athletics John Mack lauded the new coach’s record and character.

“I am thrilled to welcome Ben and his family to Princeton and the men’s hockey program,” said Mack of Syer, who was the 2018 recipient of the Terry Flanagan Award which is presented annually by the American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA) to an assistant coach in recognition of his superior body of work over a career.

“He has a proven track record of recruiting and developing student-athletes and positioning them for success on the ice and in the classroom. He has been part of championship teams throughout his entire coaching career, navigating one of the toughest conferences in college hockey year-in, year-out. Throughout this process, it was evident that Ben possesses the qualities we are looking for in a head men’s ice hockey coach at Princeton. He is a passionate recruiter, an innovative tactician and a commanding leader inside the locker room. Under his guidance, I am confident that Princeton’s best days on the ice are ahead of us.”

Syer’s message to his new players focused on bringing passion to the rink on a daily basis.

“As I said to the players yesterday in terms of the standard that we are looking for as a group and as a program, we want to be the hardest working and the most relentless team in the ECAC,” said Syer. “It is something we can control and it is something that we are going to set forward on our journey here to establish, not just on Fridays and Saturdays but Monday through Thursday. We will bring that daily focus and consistency on a regular basis and that will be the standard of our program. I can’t wait to get started, I am so excited to be here.”

Although Princeton is coming off a 10-16-4 campaign, Syer believes there is plenty of potential in the squad.

“I really like the talent that is here,” said Syer, a native of Kitchener, Ontario, who graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 1998 with an honors degree in Urban Development. “I think there is a great group of guys here that are hungry to continue to develop and to get better. It is to find a way to be consistent and really find our identity as a collective group so we can maintain that on a week in, week out basis.”

Developing bonds with the Tiger players is a top priority for Syer as he takes the reins of the program.

“I know the players from recruiting, I have had an opportunity to speak with them directly,” said Syer. “I was able to observe them over the last number of years. I will meet with them here this afternoon individually to just start that bond and relationship. I shared some texts with them yesterday.”

In reflecting on getting the opportunity to guide Princeton, Syer credited Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold and Cornell head coach Mike Schafer with having a key influence on his growth as a coach.

“I owe a ton to both; they are very different individuals but they are very similar too,” said Syer. “When I started to work with Rand, the program grew. I think I had three different jobs while I was at Quinnipiac even though my desk didn’t change but I learned a lot. I learned what recruiting was and building a program. What I learned from Mike from the get-go was yes, those things are all
important but the development and the improvement of each player on your roster is crucial. That is done not only through on-ice development but through the building and sustaining of a culture that encourages that development. The similarities are that they both don’t like to lose. I have a different personality but I will say this, I don’t like to lose either. That is where our similarities lie.”

Over the last three seasons, Syer did serve as an acting head coach for Cornell, going 13-6-4 and gaining some valuable lessons in the process.

“It helps that you are in a position where you have to make the decisions, you can’t look to the left,” said Syer. “You realize that you have to make those decisions with the support of your staff. It has helped me in terms of preparation. When you walk in on a Monday, you have to have the week prepared. You have to have it dialed in, you change and alter practices as the week goes on. You have to be prepared for that week and then be prepared for the entire season and work off of that. Although it wasn’t official head coaching experience, it did prepare me to know what the expectations will be and the demands of this position.”

In his quarter century as an assistant, Syer has demanded a lot of himself as he has moved up the coaching ladder.

“You always have to prepare and work towards what your individual goals are, that is something I have tried to do my entire career,” said Syer. “I have always tried, whatever position I was at, whether it was at Cornell or at Quinnipiac, and whatever the particular role I was being asked to do, to do it the very best. So whenever I left that role or whatever I was tasked on a particular day or a certain week that area would be better. That was the approach that I always took. I felt if I continued along that course, I may get this opportunity but I would also feel very proud helping different programs and different student-athletes along the way.”

Over his tenure at Cornell, Syer played a key role in molding a Big Red defense that has been among the best in the country year in, year out. In the last 13 years, Cornell has averaged 2.21 goals allowed-per-game which ranks No. 3 among all Division I programs in that span. This past season, the Big Red led the country in scoring defense, allowing 1.86 goals-per-game as the lone team to average fewer than two goals allowed a contest. Syer believes he can help his new squad be similarly stingy.

“A lot of it is a mentality and what you can control with the hard work and the relentlessness,” said Syer. “You have an ability as an individual and a player being able to compete, being able to back check, being able to block shots. You can show some of those intangibles that not only help in that defensive system but really also show your commitment to being a great teammate and make different sacrifices for the entire group. That is something that we will try to instill immediately. It is something we will continue to grow on. I also believe that leads to consistency year in, year out. The majority of the teams that compete at the highest level the end of the year are usually the teams that give up the least amount of goals.”

While Syer can’t specify when Princeton might reach that level during his tenure, he promised to leave no stone unturned in that quest.

“I come from a family that were both teachers so I have always considered myself a teacher,” said Syer, noting this his family, wife Laura, and daughters Mckenna and Elly are excited about the move to Princeton.

“I have never been considered to have a lot of grace in anything that I do but I have never been criticized for having a lack of grit and hard work. We will demand from our staff, including myself, and our players to be extremely hard, diligent workers with the idea of having a growth mindset to get a little bit better every single day.”