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Werner: Hockey – ND moving into hockey’s elite

Sam Werner | Thursday, April 7, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It just wasn’t the year.

There are plenty of technical reasons Notre Dame lost Thursday night. Minnesota-Duluth’s machine-like power play scored at a 50 percent clip, while the Irish managed only two shots on five uninspired attempts with the man advantage.

In a larger sense, though, when you get down to just four teams playing single-elimination tournament games — on a stage few college players have ever played on — it’s sometimes just a matter of how the puck bounces.

The dominant storyline coming out of this Frozen Four should not be that Notre Dame came up short yet again. It should be that the Irish, who just six years ago were a CCHA doormat, have fully entered into college hockey’s elite.

In college hockey, there is a relatively small group of schools that annually contend for a Frozen Four appearance: Michigan, Boston College and North Dakota, to name a few. Without any national titles to its name, Notre Dame definitely is not in that group yet. It’s not unreasonable, though, for Notre Dame to begin every season with aspirations of making the Frozen Four.

Clearly, the Irish will not actually make the Frozen Four every year, but recent history has positioned Notre Dame as an annual contender. The Irish have Jeff Jackson, arguably the best coach in college hockey, and this year’s crop of impressive freshmen is only going to get better. Most importantly, over the past six years, Jackson has succeeded in his goal of establishing a winning culture within the program.

Not many players can graduate saying they’ve played in two Frozen Fours, and one championship game, over their careers, but Irish seniors Calle Ridderwall, Ryan Guentzel and Ben Ryan can.

“Sitting here right now it’s bitter, but I’m extremely proud of the team we had,” Ridderwall said. “I’m extremely proud to say I played four years of college hockey for the University of Notre Dame.”

Those three seniors, along with classmate Joe Lavin, have laid the foundation for an elite hockey program. Ridderwall’s overtime game-winning goal in 2008 is the most important moment in Irish hockey history. Ryan’s back-to-back game-winners in the 2009 CCHA championship gave Notre Dame its second-ever Mason Cup. Guentzel emerged as a dominant assist-man this season, with more points, goals and assists this year than in his first three years combined. Lavin, who transferred from Providence midway through last season, immediately stepped into a leadership position and captained this exceptionally young Irish team to the Frozen Four.

They won’t be here when (not if) Notre Dame wins its first national championship, but those four seniors will have played an instrumental role.

It’s difficult to see the silver lining now. I wrote Thursday that Frozen Fours are tough to come by, and that the Irish needed to take advantage since they were here. That’s still true; there is no doubt that this was a missed opportunity for the Irish. But, now that this season has come to a close, there is nowhere to look but the future.

The most tangible evidence of Notre Dame’s growth as a hockey program will undoubtedly be on full display next October. The Irish will be opening the brand new Compton Family Center, and will do so by raising a Frozen Four banner, at that. It won’t be the banner the Irish had been hoping for, but it’s an incredible accomplishment nonetheless.

With rafter space at the Joyce Center almost full, here’s hoping the designs for the Compton Center include plenty of room for more banners. There’s no doubt Notre Dame is going to need it.

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

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu