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Carson: ND left on outside in Hockey East

| Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When conference realignment came to the college hockey world a few years ago, Notre Dame had a decision to make. The conference the Irish had been a member of for the better part of 20 years, the CCHA, was folding at the end of the 2013 season due to the impending departures of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State to the newly-established Big Ten hockey conference.

The CCHA was, in many ways, a great league for the Irish. They had natural, cross-sport rivals in the Wolverines and Spartans and developed strong on-ice duels with teams like Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio). But unfortunately, that had to come to an end.

On Oct. 5, 2011, Notre Dame officially joined Hockey East. It was touted as a great move for the Irish program — I surely heard the phrase “the nation’s premier hockey conference” thrown around enough by the athletics department — and one that would put the team’s influence at a national level. But despite Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick’s reassurances that Notre Dame fit well in the conference, it was clear from the start that the Irish were going to be outsiders in this new league.

Notre Dame sophomore defenseman Justin Wade handles the puck during a 3-3 overtime tie with Connecticut in Compton Family Ice Arena.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer
Notre Dame sophomore defenseman Justin Wade handles the puck during a 3-3 overtime tie with Connecticut in Compton Family Ice Arena.

It all starts with geography and goes from there. Notre Dame is the only school in the conference not located in New England. Every time the Irish play a road conference game, a somewhat lengthy plane ride awaits them. When the Irish joined Hockey East, Boston College was the only school against which they really had any sort of competitive sports history, and in the 18 months since, they’ve yet to establish anything that resembles a second rivalry in the league.

And just take a look at the Notre Dame roster. An astounding 17 players come from the Midwest. How many come from New England? One. That would be junior goaltender Nick Stasack, who has yet to see the ice in his first season as a walk-on.

If you aren’t in New England, don’t have many players from New England and don’t have rivals in New England, what made anyone think this arrangement would work?

On WSBT Radio’s Sportsbeat broadcast Monday, Jackson told host Darin Pritchett that he was concerned the Irish were still treated as an “outsider” in the league and that there was a “double standard” in play against the team. And he’s absolutely right in that assessment. Because the Irish are outsiders.

We have been seeing it on the ice now, too, specifically from the guys wearing the white-and-black striped shirts. The Irish were denied an opportunity at overtime Friday when Northeastern directly benefitted from a missed slashing call in the final two minutes of the game. This non-call came on the heels of a conference game earlier this year when the Irish were denied a win against UMass Lowell after officials failed to review a missed offside call. Jackson asked for a review, the correct process in this situation, but none happened. Add these incidents to the growing list of referees’ decisions that have baffled the Irish coach over the past two seasons, and it’s not hard to see a trend developing.

Of course, as with anything, the element of money is involved. When Notre Dame joined Hockey East, it did it alongside the announcement of an agreement to air Irish home games on NBC Sports Network. That agreement got underway last year — Notre Dame’s first in the league — and puts the Irish on national television as much as any other college hockey program.

Does that happen if Notre Dame went independent or joined the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), the other league the Irish considered?

Probably not. Had the Irish gone independent, it is likely that they would have struggled to find quality opponents late in the season. This weekend, Vermont and Penn State are the only teams playing a non-conference contest. The following week, it’s just Northern Michigan and Minnesota-Duluth. With such uncertainty in scheduling, it’s easy to see why NBC might not have been interested in such an arrangement.

As for the NCHC? It’s hard to say. At face value, NBC might have preferred the Hockey East teams to a slate headlined by Miami (Ohio) and North Dakota. Besides, it’s difficult to say if the conference would have let the Irish negotiate their own TV contract because it already has an agreement with CBS Sports Network.

So, yeah, if a television contract is the most important thing to Swarbrick and the program, they probably made the right call.

But it’s left them in a conference where they’re outsiders in almost every way. And I’m not sure that will ever change.

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

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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