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Irish captain Cal Burke looks ahead to season, is pleased with squad’s newfound confidence

| Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Prior to the start of the regular season, newly appointed Notre Dame hockey captain and senior forward Cal Burke addressed the media last week to preview the team’s season. He talked about his leadership style, the potential of the offensive unit which he heads, the mindset of his squad and much more prior to Notre Dame’s sweep of Air Force at home to open the season. 

Burke has had a prolific career in his time at Notre Dame, and the decision to appoint him as captain is hardly a surprise in light of his achievements. Even in his freshman year, despite limited time and involvement, Burke showed signs of promise, tallying three goals and eight assists for a total of 11 points.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Sophomore forward Jake Pivonka defends against an opponent’s slap shot during Notre Dame’s 5-1 victory over RPI on Dec. 1st.

But Burke really became an integral piece for this Irish hockey program, which has mounted a sort of dynasty as of late, in his following years. He went on to pick things up in his sophomore year, showing his clutch side when he scored two goals in Notre Dame’s 5-2 victory over then-No. 6 Minnesota. He also scored the game-winners against Michigan State and RPI. He was a key piece to an Irish offense that proved to be among the best in the nation, as they achieved a Big Ten Championship and a National Championship appearance.

In his junior year, Burke tallied a hat trick to give the Irish a 6-6 tie in the season opener against Mercyhurst. In doing so, Burke became the first Irish player with multiple career hat tricks since Anders Lee, current player for the New York Islanders, in the 2010-2011 season. From there, Burke went on to serve as an integral piece to an offense that lifted Notre Dame to a Big Ten Championship victory. 

But now, Burke will have to lead in more than one capacity, and although all signs point to him as the guy, even he admits that this is the most intense leadership position he has ever taken on in his hockey career.

I was in a leadership role last year; I was an alternate captain,” he said. “And I’ve been captain of teams in my past. But I think this is probably the most intense version of leadership that I’ve ever had. And my goal is just to keep building off the success and the culture and principles that we’ve had in place over the last three years, because we’ve been really successful. Our team culture has been really good. I’m just trying to build on that and then add my personal strengths to that list and help try to just add a couple of things of my own.”

But in any case, Burke is immensely proud to be named the captain of the Notre Dame hockey team. The senior went on to say that this pride is in large part a product of the great captains that he got to play under during his time in South Bend.

I think it’s one of the proudest I’ve ever been since I’ve been here. We’ve had so many great captains. I think about my freshman year, when I came in and Cal Petersen was captain. He was definitely a guy I looked up to a lot. I don’t know if I ever realized that I’d be in the same position as him when I was a freshman, so it’s a really big honor and I’m really happy about it.” 

Of course, every leader, in any capacity, serves with a particular style, along with a set of principles which underlie their leadership. Burke said that although he may not be the most noticeably vocal guy on the ice, he looks to lead by example and hold guys accountable to each other.

“One of the things I thought about — knowing that I was going to be captain going into the year — is just to try and be myself as much as I possibly can,” he said. “Because, obviously something about myself is what put me in this situation. I think I’m more of a lead-by-example kind of guy. I try to work really hard in all the aspects — school, hockey. I wouldn’t say I’m like the most flamboyantly vocal guy or anything. I’m just kind of stern, and I just try to hold guys accountable. I guess that’s my style.”

But even prior to the start of the regular season, and now, after the Irish swept Air Force in their season opener, a lot of the things Burke wants to emphasize among his teammates seem to be in a good place. The offense is deep, and a lot of those seniors who have developed a confidence in their game — which will foster greater scoring among the top line — are already playing into the culture that Notre Dame has built. And Burke expressed an immense amount of confidence in that Notre Dame hockey culture and in the guys who will lead the offense this year.

“Our offense is super deep. We’re super deep throughout the lineup. I think there’s only one or two freshmen that aren’t going to be playing right off the bat. So, right away we’ve got a ton of confidence in the lineup. Our top two lines have all pretty much been top-two-line guys for the most part last year. So, I think just from watching offseason training and just preseason, guys have stepped up their game offensively and taken that next step with their confidence. So, I think we’ll be even better than last year,” he said.

That training was on display on a national stage earlier this month when the Irish bested the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) 4-2.

“I think it was really encouraging [against the U.S. National Team Development Program]. I think our top lines were really good, given that we haven’t had that much time to play with each other or anything. I am confident, because I think … we have more guys that have just stepped up their game this year, that can have more confidence in those top-line roles to score. I think we’ll figure out our power play. It’s super, super early on. We’re just trying to figure out what combos fit and what’s the best way to go about it. But, once we get some practice in our belt, I think we’ll be good.”

And this year, interestingly enough, Cal Burke’s younger brother, sophomore forward Cam Burke, will be an integral part of this offense. Both Cal and head coach Jeff Jackson have expressed confidence in the younger Burke but have also emphasized the need for improvement. Ironically, Cam Burke had a freshman season similar to that of his older brother. The younger Burke showed promise, scoring four goals and an assist in 32 games. He even showed a glimpse of the clutch gene that his brother has shown throughout his career, as Cam netted the game winner for the Irish against Michigan State last year. Cal Burke said that he looks forward to what his younger brother will contribute to the offense this year after training with him during the offseason. 

“I think last year he was just trying to earn his keep a little bit,” he said. “He was just trying to do everything, all the little things, do things the right way, show that he’s really a team player. And I think, this year, I trained with him all summer, and he trained wicked hard. He really put a lot of time into the offensive aspect of his game, and I think he’s just being himself more on the ice. He’s playing with that much more confidence, and trusting in his ability as opposed to just trying to satisfy the coaches.”

Burke went on to talk about some other key guys in the offense, especially guys among the top line that he believes have improved their game over the offseason and have developed a newfound confidence which will allow their game to reach its full potential. Among some of these key pieces are senior forward Mike O’Leary, sophomore forward Michael Graham, sophomore forward Alex Steeves and junior forward Colin Theisen. 

“[O’Leary] is one of my closest friends on the team, and I’ve always seen how much potential he has. He just has that offensive instinct that you can’t really teach. He’s a really smart player, and you saw that at the end of last year, when he picked up his game a lot. I think I and everyone expect a lot from him. I think his confidence is in a really good place right now, which is key. So, I think we and everyone can expect a lot from him,” Burke said. “Michael Graham … came on at the end of last year too. Just another guy who, once he finds his confidence in his game, it’s hard to compete with him because he’s just got so much offensive skill, just so much talent that, when he’s really on, he can be good. And he’s progressing a lot. Everyone really in the top-six I think is going to come on well. I think Colin Theisen has been playing super well. He was really good in preseason, really a lot more poised and calm with the puck than he was in the past. I think Alex Steeves, he’s going to come on. He’s another one of those guys who is going to get his offensive chance as opposed to being a shut-down role from last year. He’s got a lot of offensive upside.”

Burke even commented on the play of freshman goaltender Ryan Bischel, who got his chance to see the ice in Notre Dame’s preseason game while senior goaltender Cale Morris is recovering from an injury. Burke said he was impressed by the freshman’s ability to keep his head in the game despite giving up two goals early on.

“I thought he was great. I mean, he let in two in the first [period] but then nothing in the second and third. And to be able to let in a couple early and then stay steady and strong and not let it get to your head for the rest of the game — that’s really encouraging,” he said. “You need a goalie that can stay calm and has that confidence in himself. So, we were really encouraged. And he’s another guy who has been good in training camp. So, you know, I felt good for him that he had that kind of game.”

But you can’t talk about Notre Dame’s offense without addressing its propensity for late-game wins, especially in the past few years. During Notre Dame’s National Championship run in the 2017-2018 season, the Irish won countless games in the third period. Even in the Frozen Four against Michigan, then-captain Jake Evans scored with only seconds left in the third period to send the Irish to the championship against Minnesota Duluth. In Notre Dame’s preseason game against the USNTDP, the Irish went down 2-0 early on but came back for a 4-2 win. And even though that propensity for runs later in the game isn’t ideal, Burke said this early comeback win, in a way, serves as a promising sign of this team’s future.

“I think now, looking back, being down 2-0 but then being able to come back — that was really encouraging,” he said. “We were able to handle that adversity so early on in a preseason game. You know, this team hasn’t had to come from behind yet, but we already have one under our belt now. It was really encouraging to see how calm guys were after the first period and going into the third. Guys were really calm. And even though it was the first game, I’m sure there were jitters but just that sense of confidence that you can kind of feel — that was really encouraging.” 

And Burke said that this propensity for comeback wins and this steadfastness late in games is not just a coincidence or a result of a specific game plan; instead, it is reflective of the team’s mindset and its emphasis on certain principles which it sees as key to success. This is a team which has confidence in one another and believes that hard work truly does pay off. 

“It has a lot to do with guys committing to their roles. What we’ve really been trying to preach, and what we’ve seen in the offseason, is just that hard work does pay off. I think this is probably one of the hardest-working teams that I’ve been on since I’ve been here,” he said. “And guys are really committing to their role and knowing that all of the work they put in in the offseason and in practice — as long as they commit to doing those things and what they’ve been taught to do within their personal role — that everything is going to work out. Guys have trust in each other, where not one person feels like they need to be the hero all the time. I think it’s just a collective, ‘You know what, it’s going to happen. We don’t know from who, we don’t necessarily care from who. Everyone is just going to do exactly what they need to do.’”

Lastly, considering Notre Dame’s recent rise in the NCAA hockey scene, building a premier program in a matter of years, Burke said that the expectations are naturally raised every year. And that’s good for this team, according to him. But at the same time, this squad will try to focus on what it can accomplish and not the bar that other teams have set in the past. 

“Expectations are definitely higher. I don’t think anyone underestimates us anymore. … But, I think that’s good, honestly. I think it’s good from a confidence perspective, on our team, on our players,” he said. “[Our opponents] know this is a premier program, and they have to bring it every day. And so, I think it really helps out our program. Guys know they’re part of the best team, so it plays to their own personal confidence. … We don’t try to think about trying to deal with teams in years past, but we try and think more about what we’re capable of. And I think the past success has shown us a little bit of guidance for what we’re capable of, and how to get there.”

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