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Hockey: Ringel makes most from setback by becoming coach

Sam Werner | Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Irish hockey roster lists junior Eric Ringel as an “undergraduate student assistant coach,” but the former Irish defenseman’s role is a bit simpler than that.

“I’m kind of the midway between a player and a coach,” Ringel said.

Ringel joined the Irish coaching staff this season after a concussion cut his career short. Even though he can’t be out on the ice, Ringel said being part of the team was all that mattered.

“I think the biggest thing I would have missed from playing is being around the team and the ins and outs of every day,” Ringel said. “[In] the position I have now, I still get to do that, so the transition hasn’t really been that tough.”

Ringel had just worked his way into the regular lineup in December 2009 as the Irish went on the road to take on then-No. 1 Miami (Ohio) in a two-game series. Midway through the first period of the second game, Ringel was run into the boards from behind by a RedHawk player and left the game. He was diagnosed with a concussion and said the next few weeks were a struggle just to stay focused.

“I kind of had a couple weeks where I didn’t really function too well,” he said. “I missed class for a week with a doctor’s excuse, ended up taking finals and didn’t do too well on those.”

Ringel said he visited a concussion specialist who gave an encouraging, if cautious, prognosis.

“At first it was pretty tough,” Ringel said. “I’d never been out of hockey for an extended period of time other than breaking a bone. When it got to two, three months, it was like, ‘Am I ever going to play again?'”

In the spring, Ringel began trying to work himself back into shape and said doctors encouraged him to test his limits. But then Ringel suffered another concussion, and it was back to square one.

“I was slowly getting back into shape, and they were like, push yourself to see how hard you can go,” Ringel said. “Guess I pushed myself too hard.

“[The doctors] said the brain hadn’t healed completely and that the stress I put on my body from the cardio kind of set me back.”

In July, with concussion symptoms still lingering, Ringel returned to the specialist where he was not given clearance to return to competitive hockey. At that point, Ringel said he and Jackson decided he would medically disqualify, ending his Notre Dame career.

While most players would be devastated by this news, Ringel said the time off allowed him to mentally prepare for the potential end of his playing days.

“When I went back up to Ann Arbor that time and the decision was kind of made, I was pretty okay with it,” he said. “The pros didn’t outweigh the cons in terms of what I went through in December and January, and I was all right with that.”

A few days later, Ringel said Jackson called him about the possibility of staying on the team as an undergraduate coach. After approval from the Athletic Department, Ringel was officially hired.

Ringel said Jackson gave him two options: He could either put hockey behind him or stay involved with the team as a coach. For Ringel, the choice was easy.

“Moving on never really crossed my mind,” he said. “I love the sport too much. I still go out there and try and do as much as I can with drills or messing around after practice. I was thankful that there was a position, and even if there wasn’t I’d probably still just be hanging out at the rink anyways.”

Now, Ringel is a kind of liaison between the players and coaching staff, communicating when players are tired, upset or just bogged down with schoolwork.

Jackson said he always appreciated Ringel’s input.

“He gives me insights because he does care,” Jackson said. “He’s invested in the program, and I think it’s been great for him to be part of the team and he’s been helpful to the coaching staff.”

On the other end, Ringel said the coaches have been just as helpful to him, teaching him the ins and outs of what it takes to be a successful coach at the Division I level.

“I didn’t think there was really that much to coaching. I was like, ‘Oh you just put guys out there and they make you look good,'” Ringel said. “But there’s a lot that goes into it. From breaking down other teams and what would work against them, what doesn’t work against them. Even just setting rules and guidelines for your team to follow, not even just on-ice stuff but off-ice stuff, and just maintaining a good balance.”

At practices, Ringel’s involvement varies from day to day. He said he isn’t technically limited medically, but that Jackson keeps tabs on his activity and condition.

“Some days he’ll let me get dressed and run the mock power play,” Ringel said with a smile. “But that’s only been like three times this year.”

Despite his new role, Ringel is still just one of the guys.

A month ago, after a 6-1 loss to Ohio State, Notre Dame’s seniors called a players-only meeting. Ringel said he was present at the meeting, but didn’t relay its proceedings to the coaches.

“As much as I am a coach in title, I still feel like I’m more part of the team than the coaching staff,” he said.

After he graduates, Ringel, a finance major, said he wants to take some time off, but that coaching could be in his future.

“As much as I love the game, not playing hockey has kind of opened my eyes to a lot of other things,” he said. “The last 12 years of my life have been pretty much dedicated to it and I would like to maybe try some other things that I haven’t really done. I know that if that doesn’t work out for me I could always come back to coaching in the future.”

Ringel said he still feels the lingering effects of his concussion today, and said he gets headaches occasionally when he gets his heart rate up. But when asked if he felt any resentment towards the Miami player that ended his career, he just chalked it up to being a part of the sport he still loves.

“You can’t be mad about it,” he said. “Everyone’s hit someone in an awkward position, everyone’s been hit. My case is just one of those things where I didn’t recover from it and you can’t do anything about it, you just kind of go with it.”