March 15, 2013
Craig Chval, Jr. -
The clock was winding down, with Notre Dame clinging to a 3-2 advantage over Ferris State in the Joyce Center. A berth in the CCHA semifinals was in the balance, and the Bulldogs pulled their goalie with a minute to play. But they soon gave up the puck, and Ryan Dolder sped across mid-ice, shooting from the blue line into the empty net for the game-clinching goal with 16 seconds to play.
It was a watershed moment for the program - arguably the beginning of the modern era of Notre Dame hockey - but the team didn't know it yet. Back in 2000, the CCHA tournament was structured so that the top 10 teams played in five three-game series. Out of the five winners, the top three seeds would make the semifinals at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit while the bottom two played for the final spot.
Notre Dame was the five-seed, so to advance to "The Joe" without a play-in game, it needed two of the four other teams to be upset in the first round.
"We were in the locker room waiting for the result of this other series," associate coach Andy Slaggert recalls. "I remember [then-junior winger] Chad Chipchase was injured at the time, and he came in and said, `We're going to the Joe!' And for us that was huge - that was like a monumental step for us at that time."
The team that reached the semifinals in 2000 was the first Irish squad to do so since 1982, when then-head coach Dave Poulin was captain of the team's first season in the conference.
"At that time the growth of the program was getting to the Joe," Slaggert says. "That was a huge thing. That was before getting to the NCAA tournament. We didn't even talk about the NCAA tournament. The step we felt we needed to make as a program was getting to Joe Louis."
Notre Dame lost that 2000 CCHA semifinal game 4-0, but the team recognized the moment as an enormous one for future Irish squads.
"We played Michigan State in a semifinal on St. Patrick's Day. We actually had green jerseys made," Slaggert remembers. "We lost that game, but you ask those seniors what the highlight of their career here was, it was walking into that locker room and seeing those green jerseys. And that was the first time to my knowledge that we ever wore green jerseys as a program."
This weekend, the Irish will begin play in the last-ever CCHA tournament. With the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the CCHA will disband after this year, with Notre Dame heading off to Hockey East.
But in the last 13 years, the Notre Dame hockey program has seen unprecedented growth in the CCHA, mostly under the watch of head coach Jeff Jackson, who joined the team for the 2005-'06 season.
"It was slow. That's the thing, it's taken a number of years and a number of small steps to the point where now when we're a top-10 ranked team, it's not really a big deal," Slaggert remarks. "It's an expectation. And I think at times our program has struggled with the expectations, but now I think we're getting more comfortable with that."
Since 2000, the Irish have reached Joe Louis Arena seven times, winning it all in 2007 and 2009. The 2008 and 2011 seasons, though without CCHA titles, have Frozen Four banners hanging in the Compton Family Ice Arena.
"Wherever I've been, getting to Detroit, getting to the Joe has always been the first priority," Jackson says. "It's dropped off in the last ten years. It used to be there was a point in time when playing at Joe Louis, that was a bigger thing than making the NCAA tournament within the conference. It was such a big deal."
"The first one we won here (at Notre Dame) was special - especially when you win that first one. I was part of Lake Superior winning their first one ever too, back in 1991. So especially that first one, it's special. It has a lot of meaning."
While Notre Dame's emergence in the conference is relatively recent, its newfound success has occurred in a proud league that has accomplished much in its 42 seasons. It began in 1971 with founding members Bowling Green, Ohio State, Ohio, and Saint Louis, while Lake Superior State joined the next year.
Although Notre Dame was in the CCHA from 1981-'83, the sport's demotion to club status for the 1983-'84 season damaged the program. Hockey would come back the next year, but as an independent. Rejoining the conference in 1992 was the first step in rebuilding the team.
"I remember when we joined the CCHA, it was the year before I started coaching here," Slaggert says. "And that was really important for our program because at that time we were a Division-I independent, so there was a lot of excitement for the alumni and the players that were going back into the league."
Notre Dame joined a conference at the peak of its position on the national stage.
Bowling Green had become the first team from the CCHA to appear in the NCAA tournament in 1977 and also earned the CCHA's first-ever national championship in 1984. The league would go on to win the championship in 1986, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2007, all by Michigan State, Lake Superior State, and Michigan.
The Notre Dame coaching staff is well aware of the conference's history. Jackson was head coach of Lake Superior State when they won the national title in 1992 and 1994, and Slaggert has been a Notre Dame assistant since 1992, when the Irish rejoined the CCHA. Associate head coach Paul Pooley has been with the Irish since 2005, was on Jackson's staff at Lake Superior, and was CCHA player of the year at 1984 in Ohio State.
Although the Irish icers haven't been around the league for nearly that amount of time, the history of the last CCHA tournament is not lost on them.
"It's kind of something we've always talked about," Irish captain Anders Lee says, "closing out the CCHA and its tradition the right way and hopefully making a statement with Notre Dame as a program and the closing of the conference."
And even if the players can't appreciate the history of the conference as much as the coaches, they certainly want to prolong Notre Dame's existence in it long enough to win the school's third Mason Cup.
"Growing up, I always watched the CCHA, and it's a shame it's no longer going to be around," senior Sam Calabrese remarks. "But hopefully there's a lot more hockey to be played."
A final CCHA tournament championship would be an unforgettable way for Calabrese to finish his Notre Dame career. But it would perhaps mean even more for his coaches with such deep ties to the league.
"I would say for us it would indeed be special. We would like to win a championship. It was unfortunate that we just fell short of the regular-season title," Slaggert says. "I grew up in Michigan, in CCHA country, so it's the league that I was introduced to college hockey with.
"We all have strong ties and feelings for the league, so we want to win those games. But I think when it's all said and done, if we're able to accomplish something special, yeah, it'd be nice to win the last one."
The building where Ryan Dolder nailed his game-clinching empty-net goal to finish off Ferris State in 2000 no longer houses a hockey team. Yet the defining moment of that season wasn't at the Joyce Center, but in Detroit.
If Notre Dame makes it to Joe Louis Arena once again, it will be the final stage of the CCHA-era for the program. How fitting that it is in the same building where Fighting Irish hockey came of age just 13 years ago.