Sept. 16, 2013
Notre Dame, Ind. - By Craig Chval Jr.
Last Wednesday (Sept. 11), Joel Quenneville walked into the Compton Family Ice Arena media room and took a seat in front of the Notre Dame backdrop.
"Well, good afternoon," he said. "And I'm going to say right off the bat, what a place. I'm very impressed with my first time being here. Just looking at this beautiful facility, it's amazing."
Quenneville, the head coach of the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, is no stranger to great hockey facilities. Chicago's United Center has filled up to its 20,500 capacity for more than 200 consecutive games.
This weekend the Blackhawks played to another sell-out crowd, even if Compton Family Ice Arena only holds 5,022.
After a very short offseason since the Cup-clinching game on June 24, the `Hawks began their preseason training camp on Notre Dame's campus on Wednesday, playing in front of the public on Saturday and Sunday, as well as for Notre Dame students on Friday.
Besides geographic proximity, the relationship between Notre Dame and the Blackhawks centers on Stan Bowman, the general manager and vice president of the team, who graduated from the University in 1995.
"It's quite a backdrop for me to be here at the university where I spent four of the best years of my life. I loved it here - it's a special place as I think anyone who's been around the school knows," Bowman said at the opening press conference.
"I've got a lot of fond memories of my time here. It's pretty special to be back here - to see some familiar faces. And it really is a nice backdrop to celebrate this day." With the rave reviews for the Compton since it's opening in 2011, Bowman saw the state-of-the-art facilities as an opportunity to bring the Blackhawks back to his alma mater.
"This goes back about nine months ago. I had a conversation with some of the people in the hockey department, and it was really just a concept," he said. "I wasn't sure timing-wise if it would work or availability.
"But we talked it through, and a lot of people put a lot of hard work in planning this, so we're excited about being here. It's a tremendous facility. I also know that the hockey department here has really gotten things in order. It's something I know pretty well."
Besides giving Bowman the chance to return to Notre Dame, the training camp allowed the Blackhawks players to experience the campus. For most of them, it was the first time seeing the sights.
"We went to the football practice the first day (Wednesday) and saw the football locker room, saw the stadium," said Patrick Kane, winner of the Conn-Smythe trophy for playoff MVP.
"From what I hear, you've got to get to the grotto and the basilica so that's something we'll probably check out."
Although Notre Dame offers nice tourist attractions, the University has ensured the professional players have adequate resources to begin their preseason after such a short time off.
"I don't think anyone's really thought of it too much as a college campus," Kane said.
"I think we've all thought of it as a great facility and great atmosphere. The accommodations have been great, from the hotel to what Notre Dame athletics has allowed us to do. It's been awesome."
"We're just trying to take advantage of it. The facilities are great - they have so much here that you can really use to your advantage, use to try to make yourself a better player. That's what a lot of the guys have been trying to do."
Although the team has been pleased with the training camp atmosphere at Notre Dame, conducting it so far from Chicago can have its pros and cons. Players live in hotels for the week, and the ice isn't NHL regulation. However, the Blackhawks are happy with how a road training camp can start off the year.
"I thought it was a great idea," Quenneville said. "The objective here is that we're preparing in the right fashion, focusing on what we have to do to get off to a strong start.
"The way it's been received, as far as fans coming to watch the scrimmages, from a coaching perspective, you can't ask for a nicer environment, knowing that it's a full building and everybody gets excited to play. I think that whether it's in Indiana or in Illinois, in Chicago, I think that a lot of people are talking hockey."
Indeed, Bowman saw that the positive effects of the camp could go beyond reconnecting with his university. In addition to the sell-out crowds, he envisioned the week as a way to better connect the players with each other and with the Chicago fans in South Bend.
"I think there's something to be said for our guys spending five days together as a team," he said.
"That's where your team starts to bond, more so off the ice than on the ice. Certainly we have a lot of fans in this region, as well. And it's nice to be able to connect with them and get them to see us, maybe if they don't get up to Chicago as often. So we can certainly solidify them as Blackhawks fans."
If the weekend crowds are any indication, Bowman and the rest of the Blackhawks organization have solidified the South Bend area pretty well. But a third Stanley Cup in five years wouldn't hurt, either.