By John Heisler
The University of Notre Dame has known for several years that it would be the institutional host for the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four at the United Center in Chicago.
Then Jeff Jackson's team knocked off the top two seeds in the NCAA Northeast Regional 10 days ago in Manchester, New Hampshire--ensuring that the Irish, in effect, would be crashing their own party.
That also explained why drivers headed north on the Dan Ryan Expressway starting today viewed multiple colorful digital billboards featuring blue-jerseyed Notre Dame hockey players and the phrase, "Here Come the Irish."
Says Notre Dame assistant athletics director for marketing Brian Pracht, "We purchased six different digital locations this week in key areas near the United Center and other high-traffic areas. As the host school and a participant in the Frozen Four, plus our significant Irish fan base in the area, it made sense to promote the University's presence and brand during the entire week. We did something similar for the Fiesta Bowl two years ago given the large number of Irish fans that traveled to Arizona."
Serving as host institution has meant months of coordination with the United Center staff, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Sports Commission, led by executive director Kara Bachman.
Ticket sales were handled by the NCAA through the Blackhawks--with Notre Dame as the host school having the opportunity to offer a limited number last fall to Irish season-ticket holders and others. About 200 were sold long before the Frozen Four teams had been determined.
The NCAA conducts a priority sale to individuals who have been attending the Frozen Four for years--and then there's also a limited public sale. Both the Thursday night and Saturday night sessions are expected to be sellouts.
Notre Dame hockey equipment manager Scott Eastman and Irish hockey athletic trainer Kevin Ricks help coordinate any locker room needs for the participating teams.
While the NCAA takes care of media credentialing, the Notre Dame athletics communication staff is responsible for most other media operations at the United Center. That means everything from obtaining postgame player quotes from the locker rooms to producing game notes.
Notre Dame hockey communications director Dan Colleran brought in hockey media relations contacts from Hockey East, Dartmouth, Colgate, Boston College, Northeastern, UMass Lowell, Merrimack, North Dakota, Bemidji State, the ECAC and Virginia (that individual previously worked with hockey at Denver) to help handle official statistics and other media matters. The Big Ten Conference has three staff members on hand (including former Notre Dame staff member Chris Masters), and the Summit League provided two interns to assist.
The United Center itself now includes lots more NCAA branding and a little less Blackhawks and Chicago Bulls imaging.
The Blackhawks last played there Sunday afternoon--and once that game against Boston ended, Blackhawks staffers began the process of removing the Chicago NHL team logo and replacing it with the Frozen Four logo (plus a couple of interlocking NDs and NCAA logos) at center ice.
Three of Notre Dame's ice technicians from the Compton Family Ice Arena--Pat Klaybor, Brian Ahern and Sweh Velilla--spent all day Monday helping paint the ice. The surface was shaved to just under an inch, the ice was painted and then the ice was built back to about an inch and three-eighths.
Klaybor and Blackhawks ice engineer Danny Ahern are long-time friends, so Klaybor volunteered to assist this week.
Says Notre Dame senior associate athletics director Tom Nevala, co-chair (with Bachman and United Center senior vice president of operations Terry Savarise) of the local organizing committee, "Our local group began with monthly conference calls with the NCAA, then more recently every other week to make sure everything around the games is handled. The hockey games kind of run themselves."
The Irish like the idea they are playing on the same ice where recent Notre Dame hockey alumnus Vinnie Hinostroza plies his craft for a franchise whose general manager is Stan Bowman, another Notre Dame alumnus. The Blackhawks have come to the Notre Dame campus for their preseason camp a number of times in recent years.
Added Jackson, "Being in Chicago is extra special for us. It's kind of like our big-sister city. We have a lot of Chicago natives (three on the current roster from the Chicago area) and alums and friends in this area, including the Blackhawks and Stan Bowman. So for us it's great to be in the Windy City.
"We recognized when I first started at Notre Dame that our lifeblood in terms of recruiting was going to run through Chicago. It never fails that when an NHL franchise all the sudden takes off like the Blackhawks have, youth hockey is right on the coattails. And we've had a lot of great players from Chicago."
Here come the Irish, indeed.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.