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Hockey Analysis: Banner means so much more

Kyle Cassily | Monday, February 26, 2007

Irish captain T.J. Jindra leaned over the blue-draped table set up at center ice Saturday night and flipped the switch that unfurled Notre Dame hockey’s first championship banner. The Irish, clad in their green jerseys with the old-school front sweater laces, flanked Jindra on all sides and watched as the blue and gold CCHA regular season champion banner fell from the rafters high above the band on Senior Night.

The unveiling came only moments after the Irish honored their eight seniors with their parents and were awarded the CCHA regular season trophy by Commissioner Tom Anastos following a 2-0 win over Ferris State in the regular-season finale.

After a year in which Notre Dame has done everything and anything that it wasn’t supposed to do, the presentation may ultimately be the foreword to bigger things. But it is important not to lose an appreciation of what this year’s senior class has done for the hockey program in the shuffle of playoff games, packed arenas and NCAA Tournament berths to come.

It’s hard to think back to two Senior Nights ago, when the Irish sent their graduating class off in an empty arena at the end of a five-win season. One banner hung above the glass then, proclaiming the NCAA berth that the team had earned the season before. Of the few diehards who were there that night, none would have pointed to the sophomores watching the ceremony and said, “I’ll throw down five bucks that those guys will be No. 1 in a few years.”

Fast forward two years and that is the exact scenario, those sophomores now the leaders on not only the most surprising team this year in college hockey, but in all of college sports.

Goalie Dave Brown is a leading candidate for the Hobey Baker, while defensemen Wes O’Neill, Noah Babin and Tom Sawatske have anchored the country’s top defense all year. The forward line of Jindra, Jason Paige and Michael Bartlett have matched up with and shut down the opposition’s top line all season. And forward Josh Sciba continued to score goals at a pace just below his breakout junior season prior to an injury in January.

The underclassmen, including the strike line of Erik Condra, Ryan Thang and Kevin Deeth, have assumed the main offensive role for the Irish, but the seniors’ impact extends beyond the boards. Irish coach Jeff Jackson always deflects any praise for the program’s quick turnaround from himself to that group of eight. Every time the topic is brought up, Jackson says that nothing in this season would have happened if not for their off-ice work ethic and leadership.

If Saturday’s banner is the last to be hung this season, it will not be the last long-term addition that the seniors have created for Notre Dame hockey. The record number of wins in a season, the defense that Rick Minter wished he had and the No. 1 ranking all pale in comparison to the name that they have made for Notre Dame in just one year.

And their greatest impact has yet to be seen and won’t be seen until someone donates a $7.5 million lead gift for the construction of a new arena. The donation will come eventually and it will be only because the class of 2007 was able to put an ugly season behind them, adjust to a new coach in their junior season and get the rest of the team to buy into the discipline necessary for success – all in a little over a year.

Five or 10 years from now, these eight may return to Notre Dame after making a name for themselves in the NHL, in law offices or in business. But no matter where they come from or the amount of success they’ve achieved after graduation, they will step into that new arena, see that first banner hanging from a different set of rafters and know that it all started with them.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Kyle Cassily at kcassily@nd.edu