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Joseph: New arena signals the arrival of Irish hockey (Jan. 20)

Allan Joseph | Thursday, January 19, 2012

Gold helmets shining. An exclusive national TV contract. A raucous student section filling a sold-out venue. A perennial national championship contender. No, it’s not football. It’s the newest marquee sport at Notre Dame — hockey.

For decades, the hockey program had a spirited but limited reach. The late coach Lefty Smith built the foundations of a program that persist to this day, including a rare focus on academics. But while North Dakota, Boston College and Minnesota built cavernous arenas matching the size of their programs, the Irish languished in the Joyce Center for 44 years, and the program with them.

In 2005, though, things began to change when Irish coach Jeff Jackson took the helm. In his first season, Jackson took the Irish from cellar-dwellers to the middle of the pack. In his second, he led Notre Dame to its first-ever NCAA tournament win, and in his third, its first-ever Frozen Four.

Now, coming off the program’s second Frozen Four appearance and first-ever preseason No. 1 ranking, the Irish finally have the resource that takes them from upstart program to established power. After years of recruiting in spite of the Joyce Center, Jackson now has to do no more for a highly prized recruit than to give him a tour of the Compton Family Ice Arena.

The state-of-the-art arena is nothing short of jaw-dropping — from the locker room to the player lounge, from the secondary Olympic rink to the detailed layout of the equipment room, every touch was put in place with the express purpose of giving Notre Dame hockey the best possible home. Jackson designed the layout of the benches to give the Irish a home-ice advantage; equipment manager Dave Gilbert designed the stick-preparation room to be right off the ice for mid-game preparation; even sports information director Tim Connor had a hand in designing the press box to maximize media exposure.

The new arena is a thoughtfully-designed venue meant to make Notre Dame hockey players the best they can be in an environment as quintessentially collegiate as any; that is, it’s a reflection of how Jackson has designed his program. Now, he finally has the resources to back up his recruiting pitch.

The future of Notre Dame hockey is bright, and there are more changes ahead as the Irish move to the Hockey East in 2013 after the CCHA’s disbanding. But at this pivotal moment in the program’s history, it’s easy to forget about the present — and this season presents an opportunity to make more memories than just a thrilling Dedication Game victory over Boston College.

If the young squad can put aside its inconsistency, if junior goalkeeper Mike Johnson can find a way to again play his best late in the season, if sophomore Anders Lee can break out of his midseason scoring slump, this squad has the potential to go farther than any Irish squad before it, announcing Notre Dame’s arrival for good in a far bigger way than any arena could.

So the Irish host Michigan in a hard-hitting matchup of top-ten teams at night, in front of a packed arena, on national TV. The winner will see its national championship hopes brighten, and tensions will be high. Gold helmets will face off against winged helmets, and the game will probably go down to the very end.

No, it’s not football. It’s Notre Dame hockey, and it’s here to stay.


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

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu