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2008 Men’s Division I Hockey National Championship: Hockey: New national power

Kyle Cassily | Monday, April 14, 2008

DENVER – One inch could have changed the game.

If Kyle Lawson’s stick had tapped the puck just slightly on its slow trip from his skate into the net, it all could have been different.

If the replay official interpreted the puck’s deflection and the motion of Lawson’s skate differently, the disallowed goal five minutes into the third period could have stood.

If the goal stands, Notre Dame cuts Boston College’s lead to 3-2 and the game’s momentum swings toward the Irish. Who knows what would have happened from there?

But all the what-ifs in the world can’t alter the outcome of Saturday’s 4-1 national championship loss to the Eagles. The Irish aren’t the 2008 national champions and that will never change.

What has changed is Notre Dame’s standing among the college hockey powers. The Irish are now one of them.

Notre Dame’s profile has rocketed from the doldrums to the marquee faster than the Roadrunner-like wheels of Boston College forward Nathan Gerbe, who torched the Irish for two goals and two assists on Saturday.

During the 2004-05 season, Notre Dame limped to five wins; three years later they played in front of nearly 19,000 people in an NHL arena for a national title.

Two years ago, the Irish won 13 games under first-year coach Jeff Jackson but lost in the first round of the CCHA tournament to Alaska; the past two seasons the Irish earned byes past the first round.

Last season, Notre Dame set a program record for wins, won its first league title and was the No. 1 team in the country for the second half of the season, but it lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual-champion Michigan State.

This year, well, the Irish upset top-ranked Michigan in overtime in the national semifinals, after romping over New Hampshire and the Spartans in the regional.

That caught the attention of the czars of the college game, if nothing else did. Among those recent believers was Boston College coach Jerry York, who has now won three national championships with two teams (Bowling Green 1984, Boston College 2001, 2008).

“Notre Dame and Jeff Jackson remind me a lot of our team in 1998. We were just starting to pick up the pieces and all of a sudden we’re in the Frozen Four playing the University of Michigan,” York said.

“That got us over the hump and back at the national level. Notre Dame is at that point now; they’ve reached the national championship game. They’re going to be one of those brand name schools in hockey.”

The Frozen Four introduced Notre Dame fans that had rarely looked beyond the football stadium or basketball court to Irish hockey. Notre Dame clubs around the country organized game watches and the keyboards of national sports writers tapped out the names of Mark Van Guilder, Jordan Pearce, Ryan Thang and more, continuously.

Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis took a day away during spring football practice to watch the title game in Denver, rooting on his friend Jeff Jackson.

Irish hockey had earned the respect of the world beyond college hockey.

Outside the locker room Saturday after the loss, University president Fr. John Jenkins stood quietly for a long time, his head down, eyes closed and fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. Members of the athletic department milled around, stunned, no one breaking the silence.

It was etched on everyone’s face, Notre Dame couldn’t have lost. The team had come too far, worked too hard, gotten people too excited to have lost when the NCAA trophy was right there, 100 yards down the arena corridor but now wearing an Eagles hat.

But in that sadness was the beauty of what Notre Dame hockey has become. It’s a winner.

A loss is devastating, not the expected end to every season anymore; a national title now no longer the crazy dream of the Irish players and coaches who set about inventing three years ago what “The Gold Standard” of Notre Dame hockey meant.

One inch could have changed a lot Saturday night, but Notre Dame has already come so many thousands more.

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