By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
If a puck drops in Indiana, does anybody hear it? It’s a question I’ve often wondered this past year.
Last summer I started graduate school in Indianapolis, a place where hockey is almost completely dead. They have a developmental USHL team called the Ice, but most people in town don’t know the team exists or where it plays its games. As much as I enjoyed my program, I felt a longing for hockey and a team to root for while I was living in the state. I searched all over and the closest thing I could find was the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey team.
Now I had known Notre Dame had a team for years, but I didn’t think they’d be the only team in the state. So to get my fix, I decided to follow them and do some research.
The Irish have recently become a hockey powerhouse, and just this season they opened their sparkling new arena, the Compton Family Center. It’s a symbol of how far Notre Dame has come in the college hockey world.
“For the past few years, we have been one of the winningest teams in the country,” Senior Associate Athletics Director of Business Operations and Youth Programming Tom Nevala said. “The new arena was created largely because of our recent success and it was an initiative of our new athletic director (Jack Swarbrick). We wanted to make a facility more accessible to our community and by having two rinks, everyone on campus or off campus can utilize it.”
The enthusiasm for the new arena is already getting around as there wasn’t a whole lot of love for the old arena.
“The old rink was comparable to a bad high school rink,” former Irish figure skater and one of my close friends, Miia Rasinen, said. “There wasn’t even a hanging scoreboard. It was a piece of junk. A far cry from what it needs to be and it was a real sore spot for hockey fans. I really think the new facility will generate even more support for the team and it looks really nice.”
Things weren’t always so rosy for the Irish.
Fighting Irish hockey began as a club sport in 1912 and finally reached varsity status in 1968 as an independent. In 1971, they joined the WCHA but they were never able to compete within the conference at a high level. So in 1981, they joined the CCHA along with Michigan and Michigan State, but quickly found out that they couldn’t compete well there either. Hockey was changed back to a club sport in the fall of 1983. In 1992, the Irish rejoined the CCHA, but again had difficulties competing.
The Irish got their first taste of success when they made their first ever NCAA tournament bid in 2004, but one year later, the Irish had a terrible five-win season, the worst in team history.
After head coach Dave Poulin resigned, the Irish ushered in the Jeff Jackson era. Jackson had won two national championships in the 1990s for another CCHA program, Lake Superior State. In three years on the job, he got the Irish back to the NCAA tournament.
That wasn’t all. The Irish also won the CCHA, received their first ever number one seed, and their first ever number one ranking in the polls.
“We had just come off a very poor year prior to my arrival, and I think we did a good job getting the program back to some level of success,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t difficult getting the players attention and we had a great group of kids to help change the culture. In 2007, we surprised everyone by winning the CCHA and making the NCAA tournament for the second time. All of that was a result of good leadership and a talented bunch of recruits.”
The following season the Irish struggled to finish fourth in the CCHA, but recovered in time to upset top-seeded New Hampshire and defending national champion Michigan State to make the Frozen Four for the first time. There they went on to upset national champion favorite Michigan before falling to Boston College in the National Championship game.
The following year (2008-09) the Irish won another CCHA title as well as the conference playoff title, and this past season they made the Frozen Four for a second time, falling to eventual champion Minnesota-Duluth – far surpassing expectations.
Now with a fantastic new arena, it appears Notre Dame is determined to remain near the top of the college hockey world.
“I hope we can emulate schools like Boston College or Michigan or North Dakota, schools that are always in the hunt for a national championship,” Jackson said. “Those schools are a great brand. Notre Dame is a great brand, but it’s never been a great brand in hockey. I think that we are starting to develop that, but it’s not built overnight. I want to continue to grow our brand, get name recognition, and create tradition. I think we are definitely moving in the right direction.”
My graduate program over, I am moving to southern Illinois, one hour away from one of the hottest teams in the NHL: The St. Louis Blues. Ever since Ken Hitchcock took over for the fired Davis Payne in early November, they have been on a roll.
The Blues currently sit in third place in the Central Division and have won three in a row and seven of 10. Some of the key players during this run have been free agents St. Louis picked up in the off-season. One is goaltender Brian Elliot, who has a 12-2 record and a stellar GAA of 1.45. He also has a great save percentage of .947 and snatched the starting job from Jaroslav Halak. Other big free agent performers have been Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. Arnott has 14 points and is tied for the team lead in assists with 10, while Langenbrunner has chipped in 10 points and eight assists.
The big-time performers on the team continue to be captain David Backes and T.J. Oshie. Backes leads the Blues in goals with 10 and Oshie is tied for the team lead in points with 19. Another performer that could stand out for St. Louis as he gains more playing time is Chris Porter. Porter has two goals this season after spending his first three seasons getting called up and being sent down to Peoria. My fiancée and I have seen Porter (as well as Oshie) play numerous times at North Dakota and he has a lot of potential. He also is very solid on the power play and is well-known for his ability to help kill penalties.
So after spending the last year and a half in the hockey wasteland of Indiana, I head south toward a team that sold out every home game last season and could be a serious contender come playoff time.
It’s not as perfect as it was in Minnesota and Grand Forks, but I’ll take it.