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Hockey: Notre Dame and Michigan rivalry continues on the ice

Sam Werner | Thursday, November 11, 2010

It’s still gold helmets vs. winged helmets, “Go Irish” vs. “Go Blue” and the Notre Dame Victory March vs. Hail to the Victors.

As fierce as the rivalry between Notre Dame and Michigan is on the gridiron, it’s equally as intense on the ice.

As CCHA rivals, the Irish and Wolverines have played annually since Notre Dame rejoined the conference in 1992.

But it’s only been recently, since coach Jeff Jackson has made the Notre Dame a player on the national scene, that the rivalry has picked up steam.

Notre Dame’s accomplishments are still modest compared to the banners that hang in Michigan’s Yost Arena. The Wolverines have won nine conference championships and nine NCAA titles, while Notre Dame has just two CCHA titles to its name, from 2007 and 2009.

The rivalry entered its modern era three seasons ago in neither South Bend nor Ann Arbor, but in Denver. The fourth-seeded Irish, who barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament and were playing in their first Frozen Four, were taking on No. 1 Michigan in the national semifinal. Notre Dame jumped out to a surprising 3-0 first period lead with goals from Calle Ridderwall, Mark Van Guilder and Ryan Thang, chasing Wolverine goalie Billy Sauer.

“Being aggressive from the beginning and trying to outwork them every shift was huge,” Ridderwall, now a senior on the Irish team, said. “And that carried over to the rest of the game.”

Michigan, a team always known for its offensive potency, fought back and the third period ended with the teams deadlocked 4-4. 5:44 into overtime, Ridderwall, who entered the game with just three goals on the season, scored his second of the game to propel the Irish to their first ever NCAA Championship game.

“That was my greatest hockey moment ever,” Ridderwall said. “It’s one of those moments that I’m going to look back to the rest of my career as a hockey player and even after that.”

A year later, the Irish and Wolverines met again in a playoff situation, this time at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit with the CCHA title on the line. Backed by an overwhelming maize and blue crowd, No. 3 Michigan jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead over No. 2 Notre Dame. Here, it was the Irish who bounced back, scoring five unanswered goals — including two from Ridderwall — to win 5-2.

“We just knew that if we kept working hard we were going to score some goals and that’s exactly what happened,” Ridderwall said. “After that first one, I think the whole team believed that we were going to score some more.”

Last season, both teams struggled in the early going, though Michigan rebounded late in the year to win the CCHA tournament despite finishing seventh in the regular season standings. Now, the Irish travel to Ann Arbor this weekend as both teams are trying to re-establish themselves as fixtures at the top of the college hockey world. Ridderwall said part of what makes the rivalry so special is playing in the hostile atmosphere that Yost Arena provides.

“It’s not hard to get ready for these kind of games,” Ridderwall said. “You know what you’re getting yourself into, but you also know how great it can be if you’re successful. I think it’s very motivating going into Yost and playing Michigan.”

Jackson said he thought the environment only helps his team.

“It’s always a challenge playing at Yost because it is an intimidating place, but I’ve always felt our teams relish playing there,” he said. “It’s an exciting place to play.”

As for preparation, Ridderwall said looking back on past success against the Wolverines, such as his overtime goal in the Frozen Four, gives him a boost of confidence, but that other subtle reminders never hurt.

“In the weight room, our strength coach Tony Rolinski isn’t scared to sing the Michigan fight song in your ear while you’re trying to clear the bar.”