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Hockey: Current Arena not enough

Kyle Cassily | Friday, October 6, 2006

The right coach and his staff are in place. The team has bought into the philosophy.

And North America’s best recruits give verbal commits to Irish hockey before they can even drive.

Yet Notre Dame is forced to play in a Joyce Center arena that has never been adequate, let alone state-of-the-art.

That’s unacceptable.

And it appears set to remain that way for the foreseeable future after Thursday’s unveiling of massive renovations to the Joyce Center by athletic director Kevin White did not include a single mention of the hockey facilities.

White and Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves said that plans for a new hockey facility were still in the conceptual stage pending funding and that they would not advance to a more definite plan until the backing was in place.

That is a sound strategy to follow, but the hockey team is held back by forces it cannot control when it should be on its way to the NCAA tournament and a national title.

Jackson turned a five-win team the season before into a contender for the CCHA crown, and in the off-season compiled a 2007 recruiting class that many college hockey analysts say is the best in the country. The longer the team goes without a new arena, the longer it’s development toward the goal of a national championship is delayed.

And yet Jackson still convinced the best 14-year-old defenseman in North America, Cam Fowler, to choose Notre Dame over Michigan and Ohio State – both prominent programs with prominent arenas.

Ramshackle and downtrodden are both more apt descriptions of Notre Dame’s ice facilities. Jackson and his coaches must duck in half to avoid ramming into steel supports in the equipment room after games just to have a private post-game meeting.

That same equipment room floods under several inches of water in February when the ice is removed to accommodate Junior Parents’ Weekend.

The ice frequently melts under the intense body heat and varying conditions often present in the Joyce Center’s north dome. With the hockey arena situated in only one half of the dome, many events are held next door – and the ice suffers.

Last March during the first-round CCHA playoffs against Alaska-Fairbanks, the Boxing Club’s Bengal Bouts also took place in the Joyce Center, and the heat generated by the boxers and spectators wreaked havoc before the biggest Irish hockey series since 2002.

The ice became slushy and puck control and skating slowed down, playing into Alaska’s physical, defensive style – and no amount of work by the arena staff could save it.

The Irish were swept out of the series in two close games.

Notre Dame held its first team practice of the year Sept. 30 – only a week before its opening game – amid a throng of football fans guzzling beer and brats within a puck’s throw. The team attempted to work out the off-season rust, but Jackson could not be heard by any of his players over the crowd and the deafening whine of construction equipment.

The facilities erode team chemistry as well. The team does not have a lounge or room in which they can hang around before practice or during free time – the crucial times where teams forge the bonds that create championships.

Jackson took a drastic measure and rescinded a team rule – a rare event – to allow his players to watch television in the locker room before practice. Outside of the locker room, the Irish have little more than a few hardwood benches and rubber mats in a drafty tunnel for recreation.

But Jackson, his staff and the players accept the inconveniences the arena offers and have made it their home.

College hockey programs around the country have used new arenas to transform average teams into national champions, especially in the past 10 years.

Minnesota had not won an NCAA title since 1979 when it built the new Mariucci Arena in 1994. The Golden Gophers won back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003, following a run of tournament appearances.

Wisconsin’s hockey program had fallen on hard times in the late 1990s before it built the Kohl Center in 1998. The Center is a multi-purpose basketball and hockey arena that houses 14,000 people when configured for hockey.

Both the Badgers men’s and women’s hockey teams were 2006 national champions and were perennial contenders in the WCHA for the eight seasons prior to the titles.

This success can and will be replicated at Notre Dame. It was guaranteed the day White hired Jackson as his new hockey head coach.

White works now to secure the funding that is necessary to build a new arena, and has shown a dedicated effort during his tenure to improve every sport’s situation. The one obstacle that remains is to gain monetary backing by benefactors. With that in place, it is fair to say that architectural plans will follow shortly thereafter.

If Jackson has accomplished this much without facilities on par with his CCHA peers, imagine what he could do with a new arena.