The end of the Fall semester brings a few weeks of relaxation and unwinding for students at Notre Dame. While they're still in season, even the hockey team gets some time off to go home and spend Christmas with families and friends. Three members of the team unfortunately couldn't spend those off days at home in front of a crackling fire while the aromas of cinnamon and pine filled the house.
Anders Bjork, junior forward, Dave Gilbert, equipment manager, and Nick Siergiej, director of hockey operations, spent their Christmas holidays abroad in Helsinki, Finland representing the Land of the Free in the World Junior Championship (WJC). Bjork is one Notre Dame player in a long line of many to be called up to Team USA for the WJC.
Other members currently on the Notre Dame roster who have attended the annual event are Mario Lucia and Tommy DiPauli. Lucia won a gold medal with the team in January 2013 in Russia; DiPauli, along with former Notre Dame forward Vince Hinostroza, played on the 2014 team in Sweden.
Bjork received encouraging words and fond recollections from Lucia and DiPauli before he left for his own Scandinavian venture.
"They both gave me good advice and told me, 'Don't be shy. Don't be nervous. Just go out there, play your game, and play hard. Do the little things right. All these players are going to be good, so you've got to make an impact, so do whatever it takes," he said. "They told me how great of an experience it was for them, so kind of gave me some extra motivation to make that team, try my best in pre-camp, and everything."
The trip was not Bjork's first time to Finland. He'd been before with development teams, but he was excited to return. He said it was difficult to be away from his family for Christmas, but he tried to talk to them every day so that the distance didn't feel as isolating. Admittedly, the experience of being on the national team is worth the sacrifice, though.
"It was a dream come true for me, but I think it also helped me hockey-wise learning things from the coaching staff. Mentally, I feel now that playing some of the top players in the world and realizing that those guys are freakishly good, but I can play with them, has helped my confidence a lot. It just helped me believe in myself, which I think has helped my game already and will definitely help me in the future."
Since returning, flashes of his new confidence have been apparent and Bjork has reestablished himself as one of the top scorers on the Notre Dame squad.
Bjork had some very familiar faces travelling with him. Dave Gilbert and Nick Siergiej were both called up by the team as well to serve in essentially the same roles for the national team that they've been serving at Notre Dame for years.
Gilbert was first to receive the call from Scott Aldrich, the equipment manager for USA Hockey. For Gilbert, the opportunity was one he did not want to pass up, and it the offer, as alluring as it was, brought concern. "I'll be honest with you," he said, "The team I was most worried about was my family. Three weeks from home is a long time, especially over the holidays. But my wife was completely supportive and she was awesome. She didn't even bat an eye at it. She knew it was a cool opportunity and something that I'd always thought about doing." With his wife's support and the go-ahead from head coach Jeff Jackson, Gilbert took the job and began work with a second team.
His work began early, but was fairly light for a while. Beginning with phone calls and emails, Gilbert started to collect information about equipment sizes and preferences for the players on the national team roster so that they could start placing orders. He had to make some slight changes to his personal system of organization because of the unfamiliarity with the players he was working with. "For us, I do the backup sticks by number. There, I had to do them by alphabetical order because I had no clue what numbers went with names." The accumulation of practices increased familiarity and soon, names and numbers were no longer an issue.
Like Bjork, Gilbert had been to Finland before, but not for two decades. He'd been along with Coach Jackson, also with the national team, but he mentioned that they didn't go to Helsinki on that trip. They were restricted to the training facilities in Vierumaki. This trip also took the team to Vierumaki, which Gilbert said reminded him of his home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
For Siergiej, this was the first experience he had with a national team. He had also done little international travel. The opportunity came for him directly from Coach Jackson. "It was one day here this summer. We were working camp, and he comes in and sits right in the chair in my office and asks, 'Are you interested in working World Juniors?' and I'm like, 'Um, yeah, I'm interested. Are you okay with me leaving?' Because at that time, we knew Gilly was going, and we knew how our staff operates. Gilly and I are a duo on a lot of stuff, so it was, 'Are you okay with both of us being gone?'" Because there were a few months to plan, Jackson was again supportive of temporarily losing a staff member, and Siergiej readied his passport.
While Bjork was busy playing the game and Gilbert was organizing equipment, Siergiej was working heavily with the coaching staff cutting film for study. "I spent a lot of time with Coach Wilson, Chris Chelios, and Dan Cole, and our other assistant Kevin Rider," he recalled.
It was somewhat surreal in ways as well. "Being around Chris Chelios--the knowledge of the game that he has is unbelievable as is his attention to detail." Chelios was a defenseman in the National Hockey League for 26 seasons and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014.
"Sometimes you think with superstars, they're just naturally gifted and they don't know how to teach it, but he was just unbelievable with our guys, with our kids. It was really cool to get to know him on a personal level, not just like 'Hey, you're Chris Chelios.' I can text him if I want. He's a good friend now."
All three found the gameplay the most memorable part of the trip. "Starting off with Canada was intense. That day, it felt to me--the last time I remembered feeling like that was like playing Boston College in the national championship game. It was that level of intensity," said Gilbert. In very few things are Canada and the United States at odds with each other, but hockey can spark a friendly rivalry. "Right off the bat," Siergiej corroborated, "the Canada game grabbed your focus."
"Before we played Canada," Siergiej said, "Jake Evans sent me a text that said, 'You guys are going down."
Evans, a sophomore from Toronto, Ontario, also sent a text to Bjork, his roommate on the Notre Dame campus. "He texted me before the game, 'Go Canada!' with a bunch of Canadian flag emojis, so I didn't respond until after. Thank God we won that one."
After beating Canada with a final score 4-2, Team USA moved on to further preliminary games against Sweden (L, 0-1), Switzerland (W, 10-1), and Denmark (W, 4-1). The quarterfinal game was fought against a Czech Republic team, renowned for having a talented team every year. "We were anxious there, but then we ended up taking care of them pretty easily," Gilbert boasted.
The semifinal game was when emotions revved up. For Gilbert, he said, "That's when it really, really, really hit me that we were playing international hockey. We moved over to Hartwall arena, and you're in front of 13,000 fans, and a lot of them are Russian because they're so close to their borders there, and Canada travels so well. And for whatever reason, Canada hates us, so between the Russians and the Canadians, it was a pro-Russia environment, and you're just sitting on the bench going like--it kind of makes you think about the 1980 Olympics, and that kind of thing. You're just going 'Holy Cow. This is like US/Russia. This isn't Notre Dame/BC anymore.' So that was probably my 'Aha!' moment, when you're like, 'Holy cow, this is pretty special.'"
A 2-1 loss to Russia was a disappointment for the young American team. Bjork partly credits the loss to the inability to build a foundation for team chemistry due to time pressures. "I think we had the most skill there, but we just weren't together very long and stuff, so we couldn't go through those adverse situations."
That loss led the team to their bronze medal game victory against Sweden, in which Bjork scored twice, once in the first period and once in the second. Consequently, he was named the U.S. Player of the Game. But the medal was not his biggest takeaway from the game.
"Individually, [it's] definitely confidence. Not being cocky, but believing in myself and knowing I can play with any player and make an impact in any game is just what I take away from that tournament. Also, what ties into that, is focusing on the details and acting more professional."
Even though the experience required personal sacrifice from all three men, it was a chance to represent both their school and their country on an international, highly competitive stage. Spending their holiday vacation in an unconventional setting gave them an unconventional Christmas present, and one only an elite group has: a medal from a World Championship.
Winter Break: A couple of weeks when most college students get the opportunity to go home, relax, and spend some time with their family and friends without the stress of unending schoolwork looming over their heads.
For college basketball student-athletes, though, winter break means something entirely different. While school may stop temporarily, basketball does not and, for them, practices and games go on.
Without classes and schoolwork, there can be some extra down time. For the Notre Dame women's basketball team, this down time is an opportunity to give back to the community that limes-out Purcell Pavilion loud and proud for every home game.
After finishing their finals week responsibilities, members of the team spent time outside of Meijer volunteering as bell ringers for the Salvation Army
Director of Women's Basketball Operations Katie Capps is new to the position at Notre Dame this year but, she understands the importance of involving student-athletes with the outside community. In fact, she did exactly that during her 11 seasons on the women's basketball staff at the University of Kansas. One of their most successful events was a clinic they held every year for local Special Olympics athletes. Knowing that it was always a hit with the women's team at KU, Capps decided to give it a shot at Notre Dame, and winter break was the perfect opportunity.
The Notre Dame team invited members of the St. Joseph County Special Olympics to showcase their skills and learn even more from the number three team in the country. Just over 50 athletes of all ages showed up, a turnout that was larger than expected for Capps and the team.
"[I was] very pleased," said Capps. "With it being the first time we have done a clinic of this type, we weren't sure what to expect. [The Special Olympics] director mentioned that he was shocked at how many came out as well, with it being a first time event."
At the beginning of the clinic, the entire Notre Dame team went through introductions. As each player said their name, they received a respectable "two claps" in unison from the Special Olympics athletes. However, the last person to introduce themselves got a roaring round of applause. That person was Hall of Fame Coach Muffet McGraw. Clearly, the Special Olympics athletes know a great coach when they see one.
Next, the participants broke up into groups and rotated between four stations, each led by different members of the Notre Dame team.
"It was a nice change of pace to be able to coach them and teach them different skills like shooting, dribbling and passing," said senior guard Michaela Mabrey. "Watching them have the biggest smiles on their faces while doing it was an amazing feeling."
Junior Forward Kristina Nelson
Senior Guard Hannah Huffman
Sophomore Forward Kathryn Westbeld
Fifth-Year Guard Maddie Cable
After the drill work came the real competition.
Of course, the main event took place on the main floor - Purcell Pavilion. The Special Olympics athletes played against one another in an intense game of 5-on-5, coached by the Notre Dame players and reffed by none other than Muffet McGraw.
While the only fans in the stands were family and friends of the Special Olympics athletes, Purcell Pavilion was by no means quiet. From yelling words of encouragement at their players to yelling, even louder, complaints at the "inexperienced" ref, the Notre Dame players fully embraced their coaching roles.
At one point, Maddie Cable did her best Muffet McGraw impersonation; the thinking-woman squat, a position that's insanely impressive given that McGraw usually does it in heels and a skirt.
Overall, the event was a success for the participants, who got the chance to have some fun and meet their local idols, and the Notre Dame team, who relished the opportunity to step away from the intensity of practice and games and have some fun with other people who also enjoy the sport.
"I absolutely loved our first annual Special Olympics clinic," said Mabrey. "I really hope that it continues in the future because it was extremely special watching both kids and adults enjoy the game of basketball the way that our team does every day."
Senior Michaela Mabrey with her new friend, Tommy
Freshman Arike Ogunbowale gives a high-five to one of her Special Olympics players at the end of the game
Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new tradition in the program that will continue for years to come.
After collecting the team's votes, I'm proud to announce to you the winners of this year's MoWards. After a month of vacation for their razors, the team sported facial hair of many sorts for the month of November, during which they raised a total of $3,503 for prostate and testicular cancer research. This is the team's fourth year participating in No-Shave November, first introduced by Stephen Johns ('14) in 2012. Eric Johnson ('15) took over for the 2014-15 season, and this year, senior forward Sam Herr took charge. He and the team raised $1,250, to be donated to the Movember Foundation, on their Mo Space page online. The remaining $2,253 was raised through silent auctions held during the games of the Shillelagh Tournament, Nov. 27-28, and will be donated to St. Joseph Health System of Mishawaka. As you'll see by the awards, a few players did better in the voting than others, but many of the categories were a close race. For more photos of the team's mustaches, visit their Facebook page. Thanks to everyone who donated!
Allow me to introduce the Twitter Mirror, also known as the latest social media craze on the sidelines at athletic events and on the red carpet and backstage at awards shows. The innovative selfie-taking technological marvel (an iPad in a plastic frame shaped like a mirror) aims to capture celebrities and events in a less formal, more spontaneous fashion that posts directly to twitter.
We thought, if they can do it at the Grammys, why can't we do it at the Notre Dame Football awards show, ECHOES?
So, I was handed a Twitter Mirror to document the night. Here's a collection of some of the best moments from #ECHOES15 with the #TwitterMirror.
Notre Dame football players Jerry Tillery and Matthias Farley were the guest zamboni riders at the hockey game vs. UMass this past Saturday. The two quickly learned that an entire intermission is a long time to be on a zamboni with an arena full of fans staring at you.
Luckily, the guys were pretty entertaining. Check out their moves.
Last Thursday night, Notre Dame student-athletes showed off their best hidden talents at the 2nd Annual Student-Athlete Pageant. Competitive jump roping, balloon animal making, and broadway musical reenactments were just some of the talents on display as 14 student-athletes competed for the titles of "Mr. and Ms. ND".
The pageant was organized by the Student Athlete Advisory Council to help raise funds to send three former Notre Dame track stars to the 2016 Rio Olympics; Patrick Feeney ('14), Chris Giesting ('15) and Jade Barber ('15). Their combined Notre Dame legacy includes 31 All-American honors, 12 Notre Dame school records, and a National Championship, which was won by Giesting in 2012.
Now, all three have qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics and are currently training at Notre Dame. This year, the current student-athletes decided to hold the pageant to help Feeney, Giesting and Barber raise money through their GoFundMe site to pursue their Olympic dream.
Football captains Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley hosted the event and Matthias brought his puppy Harper along for the ride, as well. The 5-month-old German Shorthaired Pointer didn't spend much time on the stage, though, because she was too busy running around saying 'Hi' to everyone in the crowd and eating random things off the floor.
Below are some of the best moments from the 2nd Annual Student-Athlete Pageant.
Joe Schmidt's entrance.
When football player Sam Bush ('18) threw out Chipotle chips to the crowd.
When basketball player Hannah Huffman ('16) brought her cat Rascal on stage in this sweatshirt.
This fact about tennis player Eric Schnurrenberger ('16).
This amazing performance of Defying Gravity by hockey player Bo Brauer ('18) and rower Olivia Perham ('18).
When swimmer Sydney Golic ('16) made everyone think really hard with this question.
No surprise, that "Wicked" performance by Bo and Olivia won them the crown.
Remember those field trips you went on when you were in third grade? I remember going to the zoo, the science museum, and the symphony, to name a few. (Why someone thought that third graders would be able to sit through, much less appreciate, a two-hour long symphony... I have no idea.)
Imagine going on a third grade field trip to a Notre Dame football game. Sounds like just a dream, right? Not unless you're in Ms. Silva's third grade class. Then it's reality.
It all started three years ago, when Allison Silva's class at Taylor Leadership Academy in Stockton, California, had to decide what college they wanted to adopt for the year.
"At my school, each class adopts a different college," says Silva. "Because we're low-income, it's a low-income area, I'd say everybody that will go is going to be a first generation college student. So, it's sort of just a way for them to set that long-term goal of, this is going to be part of my life and they are aware of it."
Silva's brother graduated from Notre Dame and her father is, as Ms. Silva says, a big Notre Dame football fan. So, she might be a bit biased. But ultimately, it was the kids who voted to have Notre Dame as their school, in large part because of Notre Dame football.
"[Sports are] just sort of a natural gateway into catching their interest in college because that's something that they don't have and is not stressed in their household," says Silva. "So, Notre Dame is a natural fit. It was so funny, when I kind of presented them with a few choices it was like, 'Yeah, they're on my video game.' I'm like great, if you're going to be into it and be willing to learn about college. Whatever it takes."
Now, three years later and with a new group of third graders, Silva said this year's class has embraced Notre Dame more than any other year.
The walls of the California classroom are covered with Notre Dame and the students wear name tags with the signature leprechaun on them. Before each test, the class lines up and slaps a sign on the wall that says Play Like A Champion Today.
"It sort of gets them in the mindset of, 'I'm gonna tackle this and I'm excited for this test,'" says Silva.
To get the class' attention, Ms. Silva will yell, "Fighting!" to which the kids all respond in unison, "Irish!". When it's time to do research of their choice, it's almost always related to Notre Dame. One third grader found out she had the same birthday as Malik Zaire. After that discovery, Ms. Silva says she caught other kids sneaking on the computer to see if they shared a birthday with any of the players.
The students also write their own word problems that are centered around Notre Dame. Like this one:
Even outside of the classroom, the kids embrace Notre Dame. "Football isn't allowed at our school, so I have a Notre Dame basketball and they play basketball," says Silva. "But they say, 'We're the Notre Dame football team, playing basketball. I'm Jaylon Smith' or 'It's my turn to be Malik.'"
And, of course, the class watches Notre Dame play on Saturdays, usually at a local pizza parlor.
Last year, Ms. Silva decided to create a twitter account for her class. Not only is the account a way to share photos and videos of their love for Notre Dame but, it's also a way to connect the kids with the Notre Dame community.
"I wanted to bridge that gap," says Silva. "We know Notre Dame is a thing, we know that it's awesome, but how do I get these kids feeling like they're a part of it."
Social media was the answer. The twitter account has gotten the attention of some of the players, who will often retweet or "like" tweets from Ms. Silva's third grade class.
"It's bigger than just pressing retweet to the kids in my class," says Silva. "It's them feeling like they know [the players]. They think that Jerry Tillery wants to eat pizza with them from watching that Showtime episode."
The twitter account also caught the eye of Ted Mandell, a Film, Television, and Theatre professor at Notre Dame who is involved with producing a series of short documentaries called First Time Fans. Each documentary follows a person experiencing a Notre Dame football game for the first time.
Mandell first saw Ms. Silva's twitter account in the beginning of October, after someone tweeted at her saying that she should go to a Notre Dame game. When she responded that she had never been to one, Mandell, along with the film's director Chad Schaffler (ND '96), thought that Silva would be perfect for the First Time Fans series.
Camera crews wasted no time getting on a flight to Stockton to film Ms. Silva and her Notre Dame class.
"For me, it's all for the kids," says Silva. "So, when they said they were coming, I don't even think I could process thoughts at that point. That's been the most exciting part for me, that [the kids] felt so included in Notre Dame because these guys came out [to California]. It was like, they don't just know about us, they care about us."
A week later, Ms. Silva flew to South Bend for the Wake Forest game, getting the full Notre Dame experience.
On Friday afternoon, Ms. Silva facetimed her class to give them an update on the weekend. The kids were excited enough to see Ms. Silva at Notre Dame but when she revealed that she was being joined by Malik Zaire, the class went wild.
For the next 30 minutes, the students proceeded to ask Malik questions about football and sports in general. Mostly, though, the class asked Malik about school and what it was like to be a college student.
At one point, one of the kids asked, "Are you in the Golden Dome?" Unfortunately, we weren't. Before he said goodbye, the kids sang the fight song to Malik while he clapped along.
"Our local paper used a quote one of the kids said, 'We are Notre Dame,'" says Silva. "It's really how they feel now. It's seriously magical because they don't think of themselves as third graders. They think, we're just really small Notre Dame students and that's what they say. So the whole thing has been surreal."
Things only became more surreal for Ms. Silva on Saturday before the Wake Forest game, when she found out a generous donor had heard of her and her class and wanted to give them tickets to the Stanford game, just 80 miles from Stockton.
What was the class' reaction when Ms. Silva told them they would be going to a Notre Dame game? Watch below.
While adopting Notre Dame has given the students a group of players to idolize and a team to root for, the most important thing for Ms. Silva is what the Notre Dame football team has been able to teach this group of third graders.
"Even just through following Notre Dame, they've learned about all the colleges they've played," says Silva. "So, it's this awareness of, okay college exists, it's an option and I can do it and I can get there."
On Saturday, there will most likely be a good number of Notre Dame fans at the Stanford game. But no one will be louder than Ms. Silva's third grade class, ND Class of 2029.