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Hockey: Notre Dame hockey has come a long way in 40 years

Kyle Cassily | Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Notre Dame captain Mark Van Guilder joked during Sunday’s awards show that his freshman year banquet was held in Parisi’s restaurant in front of six or seven non-team members.

Van Guilder wasn’t exaggerating, but the crowd laughed. They laughed because looking at this year’s elaborate, two-hour ceremony in a large auditorium, it was strange to ever think that no one cared about Irish hockey.

Notre Dame has played hockey for almost 40 years now in the modern era, going back to 1968 when Father Theodore Hesburgh charged a high school hockey coach, Lefty Smith, with running the new team and making sure the Joyce Center rink generated a profit.

Lefty brought the Irish to the top five in the country within six years and packed the rink. But when the powers-that-be at Notre Dame decided to deemphasize hockey, it resulted in a year of club status in 1983 followed by years of Div. I independent status.

It took until this year, until an Irish team backed into the NCAA Tournament and then made a surprise run through a Regional, for Notre Dame to make the Holy Grail of college hockey – the Frozen Four.

The nearly four decades between Lefty’s first squad of three scholarship players and today’s national semifinalists were a giant wave of successes and failures. But through the peaks and valleys, Irish hockey has done what it did best this season – persevere.

Mike McNeill is now Notre Dame’s volunteer assistant coach and has been for the past two seasons. McNeill was raised in South Bend around the hockey program through his father, Tim McNeill, who was Lefty Smith’s longtime assistant coach.

“I grew up your typical rink rat, the son of a guy who spends all his time at the rink,” Mike McNeill said. “It was like a pack of young kids that would always be going to the games.”

McNeill remembered the packed bleachers of the Joyce Center in the 1970s, when the Irish played in the WCHA against traditional powers like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin would come in buses upon buses and make a sea of red,” he said. “Then as a group of kids, if you were ten years old or something, you had your rat pack and you’d try to get in there and incite the Wisconsin fans a little bit.”

McNeill and his rink rats, along with many other South Bend kids, worshipped the Irish players of the 1970s like Bill Nyrop and Brian Walsh. Notre Dame hockey, in only its first decade, had made a huge impact not just on campus, but in the community, where the program had developed youth and high school leagues.

“You get to know the [players], it’s a big deal if they pat you on the back, they might call you by your name,” McNeill said. “There’s a lot of things that go through the years, but [Irish hockey players] are all good guys. They take the time to work with the young kids.”

But in the 1983 season, Notre Dame dropped out of the CCHA and reduced its hockey team to club status. McNeill, fresh out of St. Joseph’s High, joined the team in 1984 when it was promoted to varsity status again – but to a Division I independent.

“We would go from a trip to like Alaska over fall break and play both Alaska teams,” McNeill said. “We would go out and play Air Force Academy, but then right after that weekend we might have Dayton or Dearborn (Michigan), Lake Forest. We went to a Christmas tournament and it was a big deal for us – we got to play Yale.”

Notre Dame didn’t rejoin the CCHA until 1992, and by that time it was being coached by Ric Shafer after Smith retired in 1987. The Irish meandered along until 1995 when former Irish All-American Dave Poulin took over on the bench.

Poulin reinvigorated the program and eventually brought Notre Dame to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2004, but retired from coaching in 2005.

Mark Eaton, now a defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins, played under Poulin from 1997-98 and chose Notre Dame for the education because he didn’t have aspirations of a pro career. He played so well under Poulin’s coaching that he made the “extremely tough” decision to chase that now-real professional path after only a year at Notre Dame.

“They ran such a good program with Dave Poulin being a former NHL guy,” Eaton said. “Looking back with the practices he ran, they were very much how NHL practices were run. If you’re looking to take the next step to the pro level, how Notre Dame goes about it, it prepares you well for the next level.”

Eaton said Notre Dame players have a reputation in the NHL for something more than their hockey skills.

“Teammates know you went to Notre Dame so if there’s a feud that needs to be settled … they know he’s usually good for the right answer.”

Since Jeff Jackson arrived in South Bend in the spring of 2005, that reputation of a strong mix of athletics and academics at Notre Dame has attracted top recruits. Players, like this year’s senior class who were recruited by Poulin, have bought into Jackson’s philosophy also and forged a team chemistry that wins games.

And there’s also the shared connection that hundreds of alumni have through Notre Dame hockey. Former players from the 70s, 80s and 90s have flooded the hockey office in recent days with e-mails encouraging the team.

At the front of that pack has been last year’s senior class, eight players who took the Irish to a No. 1 ranking and a league championship last season.

“Even before we got on the plane in Colorado Springs, I think most of the seniors from last year had called,” Van Guilder said. “They’re all fired up.”

Senior defenseman Dan VeNard joked about a one-liner from defenseman Noah Babin, who graduated last year.

“I think Babin had the best line: ‘Look what we can do once we get rid of the deadweight from last year’,” VeNard said. “They’re just as instrumental to this year’s success as the guys playing here right now. Without their support and what they’ve done in past years, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

On that April weekend at Parisi’s three years ago, it was impossible for Van Guilder and the other four seniors to imagine going to a Frozen Four.

But without the 40 years of trial and error and the hard work of the program’s founders and those after, the Frozen Four could still have been an ice dream for Notre Dame hockey.

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

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