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Adams: A hockey appreciation post from an unlikely fan

| Monday, September 21, 2020

I’ve said it a million times in Sports Authorities and columns, but I’m from Kentucky. That reason I’m bringing it up this time though is not to talk about football and basketball, but hockey.

To be honest — and this may be heresy — I knew nothing about Notre Dame football before I got to campus. I just remember flipping the channel to NBC for whatever reason as a senior in high school and seeing Notre Dame players walking to the locker room after a 38-35 loss to Duke at home in 2016, prompting me to ask my parents something to the effect of: “Notre Dame lost to Duke? Aren’t they supposed to be good at football?”

I only got into college football a little bit my junior and senior years of high school because the University of Kentucky got halfway decent under head coach Mark Stoops (Side note: God bless that man). Even then I didn’t know very much about it other than you try to get the ball in the endzone or through the uprights.

But for the very little I knew about the intricacies of football, I knew even less about hockey.

You can’t blame me. Basically, no school in the state even had a team. I had one classmate in high school who was on a regional squad made up of kids from various schools that won the state championship. The next closest people with connections to the sport were another classmate who was a Nashville Predators fanatic and my former statistics teacher who played goalie on the ice in high school and worked as a hockey referee on the side.

I came to Notre Dame for admitted students day one weekend in April 2017, the day after North Carolina beat Gonzaga to win the national championship (Side note: That year’s Kentucky team should’ve made it instead, but I’m biased). It was also the same time that the NCAA Frozen Four was going on.

I vaguely remembered something about the Frozen Four being the hockey version of the Final Four because the aforementioned stats teacher would put up the NCAA hockey bracket on of his white boards annually. Even as I saw videos promoting Notre Dame’s appearance in that year’s semifinals, I still didn’t give the game of hockey any quasi-serious thought.

And then I enrolled at Notre Dame.

It wasn’t an immediate spark. I didn’t just become obsessed with the sport like my Predators-obsessed friend. However, seeing people wear Notre Dame hockey jerseys to football games probably started it for me when I saw those nice threads.

And then, of course, I bought a Notre Dame hockey jersey from the bookstore for an absurd amount of money. Little did I realize that it was one of their Hockey East jerseys they were trying to dump (as they had changed conferences that offseason) in favor of new ones with the Big Ten logo.

But it was still a sick jersey, one which I wore while working the camera on hockey broadcasts for Fighting Irish Media. During one such broadcast of the Irish against (I believe) Nebraska-Omaha, I think I may have seen the play that sparked my love for the game.

Down a point and having pulled the goalie in favor of an extra man on the ice, the Mavericks left themselves wide open for a long shot from the Irish. As I had my camera zoomed in tracking the puck on its way to an empty net goal, out of nowhere a black jersey came flying on screen as the player dove on the ice and deflected the puck away from the goal with his stick at the last second.

I may have thought the play was more spectacular than it was considering my lack of experience with the game, but as one who gets up for hustle plays in sports, that play certainly elevated hockey as a sport in my eyes — that and the Irish being the No. 1 team in the country for most of the year behind the play of star goalie Cale Morris.

From there, being a (proud) resident of Zahm House did a lot of work as well, as I cheered on our interhall hockey team, FEAR. Never mind the fact that every FEAR game I attended as a freshman was a loss and every one I missed was a win. Badgering the referees with chants of “Bird Box Challenge” (gotta love how it so encapsulates the time period) and “Helen Keller” (Yeah … Sorry about this one) was a pretty unique bonding experience.

Even if your team isn’t playing, you should come to one of Zahm’s interhall hockey games just to get a taste of it. It’s a cultural experience. But I digress.

That 2017-2018 Notre Dame hockey run was a thing of beauty. Joining the Big Ten for the first time in a sport other than football and proceeding to record a record win streak and win the conference tournament in our first season was such a delightful slap to their face (and another win, we won it the very next season).

Then came the NCAA Tournament and two of my favorite Notre Dame sports memories, rivaled only by Arike “Ice Twice” Ogunbowale’s back-to-back game winners in the 2018 women’s Final Four and Ian Book’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Miles Boykin in the 2018 Citrus Bowl — the latter of which had my dad blaspheming he was so excited.

And speaking of my dad — who also knew nothing about hockey — he was the one who told me about the first of the hockey team’s great moments since I couldn’t see it live. In the opening round of the tourney, the No. 1-seeded Irish were nearly eliminated by a scrappy Michigan Tech team.

First, with the match knotted at 3-3 and just over four minutes left in overtime, the puck slipped by Cale Morris on a Tech shot and somehow moved so slowly the Irish managed to get a stick in the way and deflect it. Then, divine providence struck for an exhausted Irish defense unable to get a line change as the Huskies were maintaining pressure.

Defenseman Mark Auk’s stick broke as he hit it on the ice in a slapshot attempt. Then-sophomore forward Cam Morrison raced up ice as his shot was saved by the Huskies, but the puck came out to senior defenseman Jordan Gross, who flicked it past the goaltender from range to lift the Irish out of the first round.

Observer File Photo
Former Irish forward Cam Morrison takes a shot during Notre Dame’s 3-2 loss to Minnesota Duluth on Oct. 27, 2018 in a rematch of the previous season’s national championship.

After beating Providence in the next round to advance to their second-straight Frozen Four, the Irish would get a rematch with new Big Ten archrival Michigan. Up 3-2 in the third period, the Wolverines managed to beat Morris and tie the game with 5:22 remaining. Then, magic.

Michigan advanced the puck for their final regulation chance with just under 30 seconds on the clock. The puck was pinned and bouncing around in the corner of Notre Dame’s side until Gross managed to knock it out to senior forward Jake Evans.

Evans advanced to Morrison, who skated in from the left flank. He swung the puck around and left it right on Wolverines goalie Hayden Lavigne’s doorstep as Evans overpowered (and nutmegged) his defender for the game-winner to send the Irish to the national championship.

I’m still peeved that they couldn’t seal the deal by beating Minnesota Duluth in for the natty, but I’m ever so grateful for the image of Jake Evans skating into the Irish bench while doing the “Touchdown Jesus” and getting mobbed by his teammates. That, and the last call against Michigan that plays back sweeter in my mind every time I think about it:

“One more chance. Morrison. Can they do it again?

“Morrison, shot, score! They do it again!

“Can you believe it? The luck of the Irish strikes again.”

P.S. shoutout to Michael Curley, FEAR goalie extraordinaire last season, who saved back-to-back penalty shots in the interhall hockey semifinals to send us to the championship and gave me the first FEAR win I had ever witnessed in person. You were the real MVP.

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

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden