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2004 Irish reset bar for future ND programs

Justin Schuver | Monday, March 29, 2004

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Looking at Notre Dame coach Dave Poulin’s face after his team’s 5-2 loss against Minnesota Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Championships, you didn’t see regret or worry on his face.

Even though the Irish are losing five seniors who played key roles on the team this season, you could almost imagine that Poulin was humming Frank Sinatra’s “The Best is Yet to Come” in the back of his mind.

“Obviously we’ve got a great senior class this year, and we had three very good defensemen in Neil Komadoski, Brett Lebda and Tom Galvin,” he said. “But I think we’re also bringing three good ones in [as freshmen] next year.

“But you don’t look at freshmen to replace seniors. We also need our underclassmen to step up for us next year. Some of our guys in-house are going to have to play a bigger role next year.”

Several members of Notre Dame’s incoming freshman class were recruited by other big-name programs such as Boston College and Michigan, and Poulin and the head coaching staff are continuing to fight recruiting battles over other big-name prospects in hopes of taking Notre Dame’s program to an even higher level.

Last year, the Irish signed the No. 2 recruiting class in the country according to RedLine Report, an independent scouting review out of Lake Placid, N.Y.

Those freshmen played a pivotal role in Notre Dame’s success this year, whether it was Wes O’Neill playing solid defense in his own end, or David Brown making an unbelievable kick save, or Jason Paige scoring a key goal at a key time.

In fact, Poulin has only continued a trend that has occurred all through his nine-year tenure with the team – the ability to sign talented players who can contribute not only at the college level but in the professional ranks as well.

Forward Ben Simon (1996-2000) and defenseman Mark Eaton (1997-98) are currently on NHL rosters with Atlanta and Nashville, respectively.

Senior forward Rob Globke made Irish history when he was selected in the second round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers. That record might be matched or bettered by this year’s freshmen, particularly O’Neill, who was ranked No. 1 in the Central Scouting Midseason Draft Report among college defensemen.

Throw in the fact the Irish have arguably the best returning goaltending tandem in the NCAAs with current junior Morgan Cey and Brown, and the pieces are in place for Notre Dame to make another run at the NCAA’s next year.

Poulin was not the only coach who commented on the growth of Notre Dame’s program at the press conference Saturday, however. Also making a statement was Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who was a teammate with Poulin while at Notre Dame.

“Dave [Poulin] is a good friend, and he and his staff have done a great job with that program,” Lucia said. “Now the one thing is that if they could get a facility, I think you’d really see the program take another step. I think that’s the one improvement Notre Dame can make for that program.

“It’s good for college hockey to have a big name school in Notre Dame that makes it to the NCAA tournament, and hopefully they can get that facility and take that next big step.”

The Joyce Center was built almost 40 years ago, with the official dedication taking place during the week of Dec. 1-7, 1968. Hockey seems almost like an afterthought, with the Irish playing in a makeshift rink with temporary bleachers and lousy sightlines.

With a rink that makes hockey seem underappreciated, it wouldn’t be too surprising to wonder if a lot of big-name recruits look at Notre Dame and decide that the school also sees hockey as an afterthought.

Brand-new facilities at schools such as North Dakota and Ohio State have helped to bring those programs to new heights. Ralph Engelstad, who has made a fortune in the casino business, helped finance North Dakota’s new arena, which opened in 2001 and includes an eight-screen video scoreboard, adjacent Olympic-sized practice rink and a padded leather seat for every spectator.

The Irish certainly have the alumni and administration who could help finance a new arena – even if it’s not one on such a grandiose scale as North Dakota’s. There’s little doubt that such a construction project could help Poulin and his staff bring in even more talented recruits that could eventually help Notre Dame match the depth and skill of the big-name programs today such as Minnesota.

After all, it’s hard to discount Lucia’s opinion. The guy has won two consecutive national championships.

The ideas and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Justin Schuver at [email protected]