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.
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!
For a few years now, I've been intrigued by the hockey culture surrounding the state of Minnesota. I've been to Minnesota two memorable times in my nearly 22 years; both were in the last year. The first time was in January of this year. It's a bad idea to drive North on I-35 in January during a blizzard, but I had the opportunity to go to a Minnesota Wild game against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks at the Xcel Energy Center, so I was pretty motivated to get to the Twin Cities on time. The first thing I noticed at Xcel was the plethora of "State of Hockey" banners hanging from the ceiling. And it really seems to be the only state where hockey isn't just a hobby; rather, it's an expectation.
I've met quite a few people from Minnesota here at Notre Dame, and most of them did play hockey at one point or another in their lives. I can't name a single person I know from back home (Kansas) who ever tried hockey. Last year, when I interviewed Steven Fogarty, he said he played hockey growing up in Minnesota "because everyone played hockey," and he wasn't hyperbolizing. It's an interesting culture, and I've always been amazed by it.
The Notre Dame roster features eight members from Minnesota, and five of those eight went to Edina High School. The state with the second most players on the roster is Illinois with only four. That alone shows that there's something unique about the land of 10,000 lakes. Unsurprisingly, the University of Minnesota has a few--okay, a lot--more students and athletes from its own state. 22 of the 28 players (nearly 79%) on the Minnesota Golden Gophers roster are from the state. If football is a religion in the South, hockey is definitely a religion in the North.
Pictured above, counter-clockwise: Jordan Gross, Maple Grove; Mario Lucia, Plymouth; Bo Brauer, Connor Hurley, Dylan Malmquist, Steven Fogarty, and Ben Ostlie, Edina; Tony Bretzman, Mendota Heights
And that's why I'm always so eager for the series against Minnesota. When the Golden Gophers come into town, there's an unspoken sense of heightened excitement that invades campus. There's also that little family rivalry that everyone knows about (in case you didn't know--but you probably did--our own senior Mario Lucia plays his father, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, a 1981 Notre Dame graduate) that makes things more intense. More importantly, it's the fact that such a big portion of our own team have played with and against the members of the Minnesota team not only in college, but every year of pee-wee, junior and high school hockey leading up to these games. For one weekend, friends and family become frenemies and the oft-known overly warm, ambitiously sweet Minnesotans become ice cold and viciously competitive. It's a series that never fails to entertain.
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.
While our student-athletes have been working hard in preparation for the start of the fall season, we've also made a few improvements in anticipation of the new school year.
From this point forward, Irish UNDerground will be utilizing the Wordpress platform powered by NBC Sports.
Here's a look at our three new blog websites:
UNDerground: Notre Dame Athletics
Strong and True: Notre Dame Football
Irish United: Notre Dame Men's and Women's Soccer
Go ahead and bookmark these now. With features, videos, photos, commentaries and news from inside the athletic department, we are committed to bringing you coverage of Notre Dame athletics unlike any you can find elsewhere.
Get ready. 2012-13 is going to be an exciting year to be Irish.
Following in the footsteps of Bil Scholl '79 (Ball State), Tom Bowen '83 (Memphis) and Danny White '03 (Buffalo), former Irish hockey player Forrest Karr '99, became the fourth Notre Dame alum to be hired for a new athletic director position in the past six weeks, when Northern Michigan University named him to that post earlier today.
Karr will begin his new gig in the Upper Peninsula (or the "UP" as Michiganders call it) on June 11. The one-time Irish MVP and Academic All-American takes over the Wildcats athletic program after serving in the same role at the University of Alaska Fairbanks since 2005. It's safe to say he should have no difficulty adjusting to the climate in Marquette.
Said NMU President David Haynes regarding Karr's hire:
Forrest Karr is a great fit to be NMU's athletic director. He comes into the position with outstanding leadership and management skills. He understands both NCAA Division I hockey and Division II intercollegiate programs, having been involved with both as a collegian and an administrator. He's been innovative and successful at UAF and has more than enough motivation and creativity to take Wildcat athletics to the next level of success. Forrest received tremendous support from all of the NMU groups that interacted with him during the interview process.
Read more on Karr on the NMU website.
Bowen, a theology and sociology major while at ND, was actually hired at Memphis on the same day Scholl was introduced in Muncie. The former San Jose State AD will also begin his new position next month.
- Josh Flynt ('11)
Following a particular college or university is a pastime for all sports fans as they go through their stages of adolescence. Whether it be where their parents went, where they live or just an obsession with a particular team for no apparent reason, all fans share random, common bonds with people who may be miles away.
As a child I grew up watching the 'Old Ball Coach' roam the sidelines for the Florida Gators (dad's alma mater), Tom Coverdale run the point for the Indiana Hoosiers (childhood team) and Autry Denson and Jarious Jackson run the option for the Irish (location). As I got older, the times and games I remembered turned in to moments in which to this day I have not forgotten.
Moments are what make us as sports fans keep coming back for more, albeit there were just over 28,000 paying customers in attendance at Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buerhle's perfect game in 2009, as time goes by there will be 100,000 people claiming they were at Comiskey Park (I have and always will call it by this name) that day. I am not a fan of this particular Chicago area sports team, yet I will always remember where I was and whom I was with when this great moment took place.
I have many great and historic moments that I remember from the past 20-some years I have been a fan of Notre Dame. I have recollections that I would rather forget (Jackson's safety against LSU in 1998 in which he hurt his ankle and was out the following week) and those in which I wish I could relive over and over (Notre Dame women's basketball team taking down #1 UConn in 2001 at the Joyce en route to the program's first NCAA title). For both of those games, I remember where I was (Jackson's injury - celebrating Thanksgiving in Indianapolis, women's basketball vs. UConn - at game behind basket in first row).
This past athletic season had a fair share of 'Notre Dame Moments' in which I was able to witness; here are my top five ...
5. Frank Dyer, The All-American Guy
NCAA Men's Swimming Championships
March 24, 2012
In the 53 years of men's swimming at Notre Dame, the Irish have accomplished a lot - five BIG EAST Championships, five BIG EAST Coach of the Year honors and over 50 all-BIG EAST honorees - yet they had never had any swimmer garner national All-American recognition, until Frank Dyer's swim in Federal Way, Wash., this past season.
Dyer had been training all year long for the opportunity to make his mark in Notre Dame swimming lore. On a Friday evening in late March, he got his opportunity. As he stepped upon the blocks in the 200 freestyle finals, Dyer had the weight of the entire program on his back and he didn't disappoint.
The gun went off and just one minute and 34 seconds later, Notre Dame had its first All-American, Frank Dyer.
4. Freeby Calls Bull's Shot
Baseball vs. Pittsburgh
March 23, 2012
It may not have been George Herman Ruth calling his shot or even Jake Taylor, but Notre Dame baseball radio announcer Chuck Freeby opined between innings on the broadcast that the Irish would defeat the Panthers in the bottom half of the ninth inning on a home run from freshman Ryan Bull.
What happened next was truly amazing as Bull hit his first career home run at the exact time in which Freeby 'called it.'
3. Squeezing The Orange
Men's Basketball vs. #1 Syracuse
January 21, 2012
On a cold January day, the Irish, with a record of 11-8, welcomed the undefeated Syracuse Orange into Purcell Pavilion for a BIG EAST conference clash.
As the game wore on, Notre Dame played more like the Harlem Globetrotters to Syracuse's Washington Generals.
Building a lead as big as 18 points, the Irish went on to win 67-58 in front of a sold-out crowd. This was the eighth time that the men's basketball program had knocked off the top-ranked team in the AP poll in its history.
2. Big Shot Britt
Women's Basketball vs. Connecticut
April 1, 2012
In the fourth meeting on the season between the two squads, the teams went back and forth throughout much of the game.
The Irish squandered a five-point lead late to find themselves down two with just under-10 seconds to play when Skylar Diggins drove the length of the court and put up a runner in the lane, the attempt would miss and fall in the hands of senior Natalie Novosel. After gathering the rebound, Novosel put the ball up on a reverse lay-up, to see the ball drop with just a few seconds left on the clock to send the game to overtime.
The Irish found themselves down, three, early in overtime. That's when senior Brittany Mallory, who was shooting 1-11 in NCAA Championship play prior, was found in the corner for an open three, which she calmly drained.
After a rebound on the defensive end, Diggins quickly pushed the ball up the court and again found Mallory on the wing for another trey. The clutch play from their scrappy, sharpshooting senior would catapult the Irish to their second NCAA Championship game in as many years.
1. The Dedication Game (Holy War on Ice)
Hockey vs. Boston College
November 18, 2011
Taking part on the Friday night before their respective football teams clashed in the 'Holy War' on the gridiron, the hockey squads took to the ice for the 'Dedication Game' of the 50-million dollar Compton Family Ice Arena.
The sold-out crowd of 5,022 was treated to one of my favorite moments of my time at Notre Dame as the longtime tenor for the Chicago Blackhawks, Jim Cornelison (an Indiana University graduate), bellowed the National Anthem and kicked off a night full of moments.
This 'Notre Dame Moment' looked like something right out of the third Mighty Ducks when Bryan Rust capped off the game with a sudden-death victory goal with just 1.1 seconds left in overtime to give the Irish the 3-2 win.
These are just a few of the great Irish athletics moments from the past year. Every particular moment has its key players - Ryan Bull, Brittany Mallory, Frank Dyer - but the big question in sports has always been, "how will history remember you?" I'm sorry to say to all the athletes out there, it's not always your full athletic body of work that gets you remembered, sometimes it's just that one 'moment' where everything seems to come together and 20 years from now everyone is still talking about it, and all of Irish nation claims to have been there in person.
As the ghost of George Herman (Babe) Ruth told Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, "Heroes get remembered, but Legends never die."
- Aaron Horvath