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Hockey: Irish icers take it outside

Matt Gamber | Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The latest signs that the Notre Dame hockey program has arrived were literally on display last Friday, when a few hundred fans gathered to watch the No. 1 Irish practice outdoors at Merrifield Park in Mishawaka.

“Seeing people lining the rink with signs and kids coming up to you for autographs in between your shifts while you’re drinking hot chocolate – it couldn’t be any better,” senior center Justin White said. “The support we get from the community is just unbelievable, and it feels really good that we were able to draw those kinds of fans just to watch a practice.”

The event marked the second straight year the Irish held an outdoor practice – though the circumstances surrounding the two differed greatly.

This Notre Dame team currently boasts a school-best 20-game unbeaten streak that dates back to Halloween. Last year’s squad was in the midst of a four-game winless streak when Irish coach Jeff Jackson decided to hold an outdoor practice before a series with Bowling Green – which Notre Dame promptly swept, outscoring the Falcons 10-2 in a pair of blowout victories.

“Our guys loved it last year even though we were in kind of a tough spell,” Jackson said. “I thought with the week off [with no games last weekend] it was a good chance to break up the monotony of a normal day.”

Doing so can be crucial to a team’s psyche, especially considering that the hockey season is the longest of any college sport. Notre Dame’s season, for example, could last exactly six months – the Irish opened play on Oct. 11 and the national championship game is set for April 11.

“When you get to the end of January and early February, it gets to be the dog days of the season,” Jackson said. “To keep the guys excited to come to the rink, to put a smile on their face and get them to practice hard, it’s good to change up the routine once in a while.”

Senior center Christian Hanson added: “When you get to [this time of the year], you get to the rink and by the time you leave you don’t see any sunlight. It gets to be depressing and can kind of wear on guys … To break it up a little bit and have some fun is big.”

The Irish goaltenders – senior starter Jordan Pearce and junior backup Tom O’Brien – picked teams for a casually competitive scrimmage. Pearce’s gold squad topped O’Brien’s blue in all three contests.

“I went for all offense and it kind of backfired,” O’Brien said with a laugh. “It wasn’t a good showing, but it’s alright. It was a lot of fun anyway.”

And not just for the players and the fans. Associate coach Andy Slaggert, a 1989 Notre Dame graduate and two-time monogram winner for the Irish, laced up his skates and played a few shifts with the players – several of whom said the “practice on the pond” represented a return to their hockey roots.

“Going out there is just a chance to go play hockey how we played it growing up,” White said. “Just messing around, having fun, maybe trying a few things that you normally wouldn’t get to do – it’s a big thing, definitely, for our mental edge.”

That might especially hold true heading into a huge home-and-home series with No. 7 Michigan this weekend. The Irish host the Wolverines (18-8-0, 12-6-0 CCHA) at 8 p.m. Friday before heading to Ann Arbor, Mich. Saturday for a game in the always-hostile Yost Ice Arena.

“If we would have had just two straight weeks of every day coming to the rink, preparing for Michigan, preparing for Michigan, I think you would have gotten to the middle of this week and guys would have been kind of burned out,” Hanson said. “I think the coaches did a great job of mixing it up.”