The Notre Dame hockey team embarks on its second season under the direction of head coach Dave Poulin looking to take the next steps needed to return the program to the upper level of the CCHA, a lofty and challenging goal that has not been realized since the Poulin-led Irish played in the 1982 CCHA title game.
The challenge awaiting Notre Dame is intensified by the high level of competition among the conference, as five CCHA teams were ranked among the nation's top seven teams at one point during the 1995-96 season.
"The CCHA currently is enjoying a very high level of competitive spirit and that is something that ultimately will help us," says the former NHL all-star Poulin. "Our goal is to become one of the top programs in the country and--to reach that goal--we certainly must become a force in the CCHA."
Poulin welcomes back 20 of the 30 players from last year's squad that finished 9-23-4, a somewhat deceiving record due to the fact that the Irish had their chances at victory in many of those games.
"We played in a lot of close games last year and the only way to get experience in those situations is to play in games like that," notes Poulin, whose '95-'96 squad lost twice in overtime and three other times by one goal.
"We also had difficulties holding a lead last season. All of these things come back to a mentality of knowing what it takes to win," he continues. "We are making strides towards having that mental toughness and developing that focus requires a lot of factors beyond just what we physically are able to do out there on the ice."
The coming season will provide crucial opportunities for the Notre Dame program, according to Poulin. "Our expectations this season are certainly higher. As you improve and people note your improvement, things get even more challenging," he explains. "We hope to win more but the primary goal is that we are looking for long term improvement. We have to take the steps that will build the program--there is no band-aid approach.
"I can say that we will be a team that works hard and we will compete on a nightly basis at a high level. Our veteran players are determined to make a positive impact on the program's development and the younger players are just as eager to be part of building Notre Dame hockey into a national power. We will give our fans a team that they can be proud of."
Notre Dame returns six of its top seven scorers from a year ago but will miss the offense of graduated center Jamie Ling, the team's leading scorer in 1995-96 (with 12 goals and 19 assists) and the program's eighth all-time leader in assists, with 102.
Other top players lost from a year ago include starting defenseman Garry Gruber (33 games, 8 goals, 9 assists) and a trio of forwards who each appeared in 32 or more games last season--Jamie Morshead (8 G, 6 A), team captain Brett Bruininks (9 G, 4 A) and Jay Matushak (4 G, 5 A). Goaltender Wade Salzman also has been lost to graduation after appearing in 14 games a year ago and leading the Irish with a .870 save percentage.
The Irish will be captained in 1996-97 by a pair of centers--senior Terry Lorenz and junior Steve Noble. Lorenz, who is noted for his size, strength and all-around play, is one of the team's top performers in specialty teams situations. Noble was thrust into a leadership role last season, captaining the team as a sophomore, and should again be one of the team's most inspirational players.
The Irish forward line will look for more balanced scoring and should show noticeably more depth among a group that includes eight players who have aspirations to see some time at the center spot.
Senior Tim Harberts (8 G, 17 A) is one of the top veterans on the front line and will be looking to return to the form of his sophomore season, when he led the Irish with 21 goals, plus 13 assists. Sophomore Brian Urick--who was drafted after his freshman year by the Edmonton Oilers--finished second on the team last season with 27 points (12 G, 15 A).
Aniket Dhadphale, a sophomore who was drafted out of high school by the San Jose Sharks, also returns after leading the Irish last season with 13 goals, in addition to seven assists.
Among the top additions to the forward line are freshmen Ben Simon and Joe Dusbabek. Simon, one of the many options at center, is fresh off a tour of Europe with the U.S. junior national team while Dusbabek joined Simon in the national team camp. Dusbabek's fellow Minnesota native Troy Bagne also is strong candidate at the right wing position and should add speed and offensive ability up front. Simon, Dusbabek and Urick all remain candidates to make the junior national team at the Christmas tryouts.
The Irish defense will be a young unit that includes just one senior and one junior. Sophomore Benoit Cotnoir (6 G, 13 A) was the squad's top scoring defenseman last season and emerged as a young leader of the defense after playing in all specialty team situations.
Other top returnees on the defensive end include senior Ben Nelsen and junior Justin Theel while a quartet of talented freshmen defenders will look to make their mark as well, led by British Columbia all-stars Tyson Fraser and Nathan Borega and two members of rival U.S. junior teams--Sean Molina (Dubuque Fighting Saints) and Sean Seyferth (Compuware Ambassadors), whose father Fritz is the associate athletic director at the University of Michigan.
Junior Matt Eisler (4.36 GAA, .867 save pct.) returns between the pipes after appearing in 51 games over the past two seasons and earning team MVP honors as a freshman. Eisler will be accompanied at the goaltending spot by senior Erik Berg, who saw his first action last season, and sophomore Forrest Karr.