For the freshmen on the Notre Dame hockey team who just played their first game this past weekend on the ice of the Lefty Smith Rink at Compton Family Ice Arena, they've got four long seasons awaiting them. For the seniors, this is it: their last chance at an NCAA title. This year, their last, is also a year for the seniors to step up into leadership roles and show the freshmen the difference three years can make.
Missing out on the NCAA tournament last season, held at Notre Dame, stung. Some lessons, however, came out of it and this year's captains have set some goals and precedents for the season to get them not only to the tournament, but to the championship game in April. I spoke with four of the five captains--Steven Fogarty and alternate captains Sam Herr, Mario Lucia, and Tommy DiPauli--to talk about the outlook on the upcoming season, how they've changed since 2012, and what they've learned from experience and mistakes that they can teach to the team they're now leading.
"As a team we've come up with some goals for ourselves. I mean, there are performance goals, but there are also team value goals," Fogarty revealed. "Our main goal obviously is to win a national championship, but there are steps you've got to take to get there. I mean something we missed out on last year is the NCAA tournament, and we realized how important the non-conference games are. Those are usually at the beginning of the year, so we really need to have an emphasis on those, but obviously we have some off-ice values that we're going to try to hold everyone accountable to, and if we do that, I think we're going to have success on the ice."
Fogarty is in his second consecutive year as team captain. Herr is also entering his second consecutive year as assistant captain. For Lucia and DiPauli, this will be their first season with letters on their jerseys, but regardless, they have both been leaders for some time. DiPauli says that the lesson he hopes to teach the freshmen is that mistakes happen, but moving on is what matters.
"As for leadership this year, [it's] teaching the younger guys that messing up is not a big deal. I think that's a big part for a lot of freshmen and sophomores, because often times those players can let one little mistake kind of dictate the rest of the practice or the rest of the game. I think it's important that they know that hockey is a game of mistakes, and mistakes are going to happen, but that's why we're a team."
Teaching that lesson and ingraining the moral values and season goals of the team in the freshmen began in June when the team, including the class of 2019, came to campus for summer school. That's also when team chemistry began to build. Fogarty reported that team chemistry is good--"definitely not an issue right now." With chemistry taken care of, focus is the next thing to tackle.
"Everyone acknowledges rankings, but at the end of the day, we try to get the team to focus on the weekends," said Herr. "People are going to hear about [the rankings], but going into a weekend, we try to keep the focus on that. 'We cannot accept anything less than four points' is the goal going into a weekend. We have objectives during a game that we try to achieve, we try to execute, and not think about the bigger picture, but it's hard to say that people don't actually do it. I think it's on us to make sure the team is focused on a weekend instead of the overall picture."
Lucia agreed, and added, "At the end of the day, it matters where you are at the end of the season, not at the beginning."
Only two games into the season, both exhibition games, that ends-based attitude will have to be reinforced every single day. The leadership unit this year, though, has plenty of experience, which leads to maturity.
"The main thing that I've noticed is [that] as we get older is everyone acts more like a professional. People start realizing how to take care of their bodies, and they start realizing the preparation that needs to go into a game and after a game to regroup, and stuff like that." Herr continued, "Each year you learn something different on how to handle that, and that's the biggest difference from freshman year. I'm not saying that freshman year you don't handle yourself well, but you obviously learn as you go."
Consequently, the advice they leave for their underclassmen includes the following:
"Work hard. Do the little things," suggested Lucia, who came out as a force in his first season with the Irish and has continued to be a top-scorer, improving every year.
"This may be cliche, but it's a process. You're not going to go out and execute every single thing that coach wants you to execute your first game. Everyone's going to make mistakes. We've all been there," said Herr, who missed several weeks of action his freshman year to illness. "Guys aren't going to see the ice time that they think they're going to see, but you just can't let that affect you. You have to have a positive attitude and you've got to stick to the process. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and you've got to work to get there."
There's a long season ahead. That means months of potential mistakes, but also several months for improvement and success. With a strong and experienced leadership core to guide a talented group of underclassmen, the upcoming season hopes to be a great first for some and better last for others.