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Hockey: Hawks visit shows ND ascent

Isaac Lorton | Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The parallels are there.

Four years ago, the Irish were establishing themselves as a top hockey school while overcoming the struggles of playing in the outdated Joyce Center and living in the shadow of a famous football program.

Four years ago, the Chicago Blackhawks – one of the NHL’s ‘Original Six’ – were an organization that had been struggling for decades in a huge market but was finally on the rise. 

Last weekend, the Blackhawks brought professional hockey, fans and attention to Notre Dame’s campus and to the Irish hockey team and the Compton Family Ice Arena.

In 2004, ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in professional sports and until the 2009-10 season, the Blackhawks endured a 49-year drought without the Stanley Cup. In 2009, Stan Bowman, a 1995 Notre Dame graduate, took over as general manager for the Blackhawks, and in 2010, Chicago became an NHL powerhouse. In the past four years, the Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups, including one last season, and established an avid fan base across the country.

And like the Blackhawks, the Irish have been on the rise in recent years and are looking to solidify their place at the top of collegiate hockey. Notre Dame reached the Frozen Four for the first time in school history in 2008, and again in 2011. Last season, the Irish earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third time since 2007.

Bowman said Wednesday at a press conference that a lot has changed with the Irish since his time as a student at Notre Dame in the early 1990s

“I think at that time, the varsity hockey team was going through transition,” Bowman said. “They weren’t having a lot of success back then and you were in a facility over at the old Joyce Center that was nothing like this. So I think it’s come an awful long way.”

The recent success helped propel Notre Dame to build Compton, completed in the fall of 2011, and create a place specifically for the hockey program. 

Blackhawks starting goalie Corey Crawford said on Thursday experiencing the tradition of Notre Dame and the facilities of Compton were a bonus to getting away from Chicago and the expectations.

“So far we have just had a little tour of the facilities; they are great,” Crawford said. “We went to watch [Notre Dame football] practice. … It was cool to come check out the history of the school. There is a lot of it. So it was pretty impressive to see that.”

Bowman said he sees Irish coach Jeff Jackson as one of the reasons for Notre Dame’s recent success and rise to the top of NCAA hockey. In 2005, Notre Dame hired Jackson as the head coach and with Jackson came a change to the hockey program. 

“I remember back when Jeff Jackson took over and that first year, they had a lot of success, and I think it was evident that he had a good ability to orchestrate players that maybe didn’t have as much talent,” Bowman said. “And I think what’s happened over the years here, which is nice to see, is that they’ve started to attract more talent to come in and now they’ve got the facility that can rival any facility in the country. Then they’re going to start attracting even more players, so that’s great to see.”

Neither the Blackhawks nor Irish are unfamiliar with high expectations, and like Chicago, Notre Dame has to compete with the popular sport of football.

“Obviously, football is king here and it was certainly fun when I was here,” Bowman said. “There were some great teams. I was able to watch all that transpire. Lou Holtz was the coach. It was a really fun time to be a student back then, as it is right now. 

“And it’s nice to see the hockey program coming up as well, because I think they’re on the right track here with the recruits they have and there’s more and more good players each year choosing Notre Dame, so I expect them to be a powerhouse for a number of years.”  

Contact Isaac Lorton at ilorton@nd.edu