Hockey: Culture shocker
Dan Murphy | Friday, January 30, 2009
In the four years before senior captain Erik Condra arrived at Notre Dame the hockey team won 58 games. Since then, the No. 1-ranked Irish have racked up 97 wins and counting – an average of almost 10 more per season.
Condra’s freshman year saw a new coaching staff and the beginning of a new culture for Notre Dame hockey.
“Erik has had as much of an impact on the culture of this program in the last four years as anyone, including myself,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said.
Serious praise from a generally tight-lipped coach who already has two national championships under his belt and a .708 career winning percentage.
Jackson ended a nine-year hiatus from college hockey by returning to coach the Irish in 2005. He said that players like Condra were the reason he returned.
“That’s the reason I came back to college hockey, because of kids like him,” Jackson said. “He’s got great personality and he works extremely hard.”
When Condra and his classmates came to South Bend four years ago the team was coming off a 5-27-6 season.
The Irish lacked the attitude, work ethic and discipline to be a serious threat in the world of college hockey. Three years, two NCAA playoff appearances and a CCHA championship later, the No. 1 Irish have found that attitude.
Condra said he never doubted they would.
“The year before I came was a rough year because I was getting made fun of with my junior team because [the Irish] were the worst team in the league. Coach Jackson took over and I was a little nervous because I committed to Coach [Dave] Poulin,” he said. “But I just thought they were a program on the rise.”
Like so many Domers, Condra also had family ties at Notre Dame. His uncle Kirt Bjork played hockey for the Irish in the early 1980s.
“He didn’t push [coming to Notre Dame] too much. I just always heard him talking about it growing up,” Condra said.
Bjork’s picture still hangs outside the Irish locker room in the Joyce Center honoring him as one of the eight All-Americans to skate for Notre Dame. Bjork is also still in Notre Dame’s record books ranked in the top 10 in both goals scored (76) and game-winning goals (9).
Bjork’s influence along with the atmosphere at Notre Dame were enough to pull the Livonia, Mich. native away from the Wolverines and Spartans who he had been watching his whole life.
Big skates to fill
Condra had a lot to live up to on campus, but he has no problem keeping the family legacy alive.
Three weeks ago in a pair of shutout wins over Alaska the senior picked up both his 40th goal and his 100th assist.
“It just means that I’ve played with great players and that coach Jackson has given me great opportunities while I’ve been here,” Condra said.
He has added a goal and an assist since then but still needs 19 more points down the home stretch in order to catch Uncle Kirt’s career mark of 161.
Condra’s numbers are impressive, but even more important has been his ability to improve the team as a whole.
“He just makes everyone around him better,” junior Ryan Thang said. Thang has been a linemate of Condra’s since joining the team as a freshman and has already racked up 46 goals in his first two and a half years.
“He’s a really versatile player,” Thang said. “He knows where everyone is going to be, he just has a second nature of finding people.”
Condra agreed that his vision his most important tool.
“That’s my skill,” he said. “I’m not a great skater. I don’t have the hardest shot, but I can see the ice well and I’m smart enough to know what to do out there and where to be at the right time. I think that’s what has led to my success.”
Condra has led the team in scoring in his first three seasons at Notre Dame and is currently in third place this season behind fellow senior Christian Hanson and sophomore Calle Ridderwall.
His 101 career assists currently leave him one behind 1996 graduate Jamie Ling for ninth-place all time. With 10 games and the postseason remaining he probably won’t reach the top of the list (145), but he has a good chance to catch assistant coach Mike McNeill who is currently in fifth with 115 career helpers.
Condra couldn’t care less.
“Numbers really don’t mean much now that I’m a senior. I really just want to win a national championship, that’s really the goal now,” he said.
Last year Notre Dame came within one game of reaching that goal, losing to Boston College 4-1 in the national championship game. Unfortunately, Condra could do nothing but watch his teammates as the clock finally struck midnight on their Cinderella run.
In the third game of the CCHA playoffs Condra suffered a left knee injury that ended his season. He was leading a rush down the ice when Ferris State’s Mike Embach hit Condra low, directly on the knee. The hit sent him flipping through the air and knocked him out for the remainder of the postseason.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through,” he said. “It was just a battle watching everyday.”
The Irish lost in the CCHA semifinal but were able to pick up a fourth seed in the NCAA Tournament. The underdogs went on a remarkable run without their playmaker before losing to the Eagles, including a 5-4 overtime win over No. 1 Michigan to reach the championship game.
“I was so proud of how far they went. It was hard seeing that last game, though, knowing I couldn’t do anything to help,” Condra said.
In order to keep his sanity, Condra said he spent as much time in the locker room and around the team as he possibly could.
“I would just sit and watch them get dressed and watch them tape their sticks, for my own benefit really,” he said.
His teammates were happy to have him.
Condra has always been a welcome presence in the locker room, where his tireless work ethic and goofball antics have made him a leader since day one.
So much of a leader that last season Jackson asked his playmaker to captain the team as a junior. Condra declined, saying that he didn’t want to step on the toes of the seniors ahead of him.
“He has been the leader of this team for three, four years, but he didn’t want bypass some of the upperclassmen before it was his time and you have to respect that,” Jackson said. “He can lead by example, but he is also always one of the guys, I think the team respects that.”
There is no doubt that Captain Condra has earned the respect of his teammate, but that doesn’t mean they won’t take some shots at him.
“We usually make fun of him for having an old man’s body,” Thang said. “We call him Jacked 200. You look at him off the ice and you think there’s no way you’re a hockey player. He really is a pretty strong kid, you just can’t tell.”
Condra said that Jackson has been bugging him about getting into the weight room since the first time they spoke.
After Jackson was named Notre Dame’s new head coach in 2005, Condra said he got a phone call from his new coach within a week.
“The very thing he said to me was checking to see if I was in the weight room after my junior season had finished up. He said, ‘You have to get stronger, you’re going to be playing against 21 and 22 year old men out there,'” Condra said.
“He was all business. I think that’s just what this program needed.”
Condra’s own business-like work ethic has helped bring his team to the next level. He also takes that attitude into the classroom.
After spending hours on the ice, and in the weight room, the senior has a heavy workload as a pre-med major.
“It really helps that [Irish goalie] Jordan Pearce is pre-med as well. We kind of manage our time together,” he said.
Condra will graduate this May and currently holds a 3.56 GPA – so much for the dumb hockey player stereotype.
“He’s one of those very rare kids that can be a grade A player on the ice, get grade As in the classroom, and still have a great personality,” Jackson said.
Condra’s work on the ice and in the classroom has earned him a nomination for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS?Award this year. The award is given to one player across the country in each sport who excels in sports, academics and service to the community.
His teammates may not think he looks the part but they all know he is the complete package.
“There’s really nothing bad you can say about the kid,” Thang said. “He’s a poster child.”