Sept. 26, 1998
by Pete LaFleur
Accelerated expectations are a natural part of sports, particularly when a team comes under the coaching leadership of a noteworthy sporting figure. Such was the case for Notre Dame hockey in the summer of 1995, when it introduced former Notre Dame captain Dave Poulin as the third head coach in the program's 30-year modern era.
Three and a half years later, the Irish hockey team is poised to live up to those accelerated expectations that were often unrealistically heaped on the program's previous squads.
In accepting Notre Dame's offer, Poulin walked away from a 12-year National Hockey League career that included three appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals, two selections to the NHL All-Star Game and a seven-year stint as team captain for a talented Philadelphia Flyers organization. Years earlier, he had led Notre Dame to the 1982 Central Collegiate Hockey Association title game, the closest the program ever has come to qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
Thus, it was only natural that heightened expectations accompanied the hiring of Poulin, a classic overachiever who had a thorough appreciation for the importance of hard work and strong leadership.
Despite those expectations - Poulin cautioned patience. "The quick way is not always the right way - and this program is not a Band Aid situation," says Poulin. "Hard work is at the core of everything we do and I want this to be an encompassing experience, where we also develop the off-ice character of the players.
"But, you know what, on the ice we want to win. Our goal is to win a national championship and I'm confident that's going to happen. We're not content to just be a good team."
Such a high-reaching goal is all the more noteworthy due to the fact that the program nearly was disbanded in the 1980s, reverting to club status in 1983-84 before returning as a non-scholarship independent for the next eight seasons. The program returned to the CCHA and scholarship status in 1992-93, but Notre Dame's first season yielded just a 10th-place finish, followed by eighth- and ninth-place campaigns. When Poulin took over in the fall of 1995, several major steps were still to be completed.
Poulin met the challenge with enthusiasm but his first two teams extended the run of futility in the CCHA, placing 10th both seasons. But changes were afoot, led by the infusion of highly-regarded recruiting classes, and the Irish showed marked improvement in 1997-98 by tying for sixth in the CCHA before giving eventual NCAA champion Michigan a major scare in the CCHA playoffs.
If the third year of the Poulin era was the season to expect the greatest jump in the standings, then the upcoming fourth season under the former Hobey Baker Award finalist is centered on developing the consistency needed for an upper-division finish in the 11-team CCHA.
A common thread in the Poulin era has been the abstract concept of learning how to win. Notre Dame had the nation's second-youngest average age in 1996-97 and tied for the third-youngest last season. It's that sort of reliance on building young talent, says Poulin, that has extended the transition to becoming a winning program.
"Young players take time to adjust," says Poulin, whose squad is set to return 22 of 27 players, including five of the top six scorers and seven defensemen. "We've relied on those players for important roles, but experience will bring consistency."
Despite the addition of 18 freshmen to the Irish hockey program over the past two seasons, several veterans have shouldered important roles. Most notably, Poulin had the luxury of relying on a veteran goaltender his first three years. Matt Eisler earned team MVP honors as a freshman in 1994-95 and had a strong season as a sophomore before earning two more team MVP awards as a junior and senior. How the Irish respond in the post-Eisler era could play a major role in determining the team's success in 1998-99.
"Matt was our anchor and played a huge part in the program's transition," says Poulin. "Over the past six years, this program has gone from no scholarships to contending on the national level. It's no coincidence that Matt was in the net four of those years."
Poulin's 9-23-4 first season included victories over nationally-ranked Lake Superior State and Wisconsin. But those wins may have taken away from the team's focus.
"When you are young, the wins sometimes become too special. If anything, we didn't know how to react and didn't continue to do the things that are necessary to win," says Poulin. "But we're at the point now where we can compete with anyone on a night-to-night basis. And that's a crucial distinction."
Poulin readily admits that he, too, confronted a learning process when he returned to his alma mater. "I was a rookie coach in every sense, so I was learning and the team was learning what I wanted," he says. "We all learned from experience ... and the expectations have continued to be pushed higher."
While team MVP Jamie Ling led the 1995-96 team in scoring with 31 points, the Irish received a boost from three freshmen who now are the leaders of the senior class - left wing Aniket Dhadphale, right wing Brian Urick and defenseman Benoit Cotnoir.
A year later, the Irish welcomed a talented class, led by center Ben Simon, right wing Joe Dusbabek and defensemen Nathan Borega and Tyson Fraser. The squad was noticeably young, with more freshmen (10) than juniors (three) and seniors (five) combined, and the program failed to improve on its win total, going 9-25-1. The theme of that season clearly became one-goal losses, as the Irish came out on the short end of 12 one-goal games and won just three, with the losses including three in the final minute.
"Those close losses showed we were competing every night but we weren't finding a way to win," says Poulin. "Instead, we were finding a way to lose. In retrospect, those lessons may be the most important ones this program ever experiences."
The summer of 1997 produced a special moment, as four Notre Dame players -Simon, Dusbabek and incoming freshmen Jay Kopischke and Ryan Clark - were selected in the NHL draft, tying Boston College for most from any one school. That group combined with Dhadphale, Urick and senior Steve Noble to give the 1997-98 squad seven former NHL draft picks, second only to Michigan in the CCHA.
"The '97 draft showed the caliber of players that we were recruiting," says Poulin. "And all the credit for that goes to our assistant coaches, Tom Carroll and Andy Slaggert, who do an excellent job of combining tireless recruiting with a knowledge of what type of individual will succeed at Notre Dame."
An improved power play and more offensive weapons gave Eisler and the solid defense more help in 1997-98 and the team doubled its win total (18-19-4), including a 6-9 mark in one-goal games. The Irish also showed the character needed to win in hostile arenas, posting wins at St. Cloud State (4-3, 4-1), Michigan State (6-1), Wisconsin (4-2) and Northern Michigan (4-3).
That confident road play was further put on display at Michigan in the first round of the CCHAs, as the Irish nearly became the first team seeded seventh or lower to advance to the semifinals. Eisler's brilliant play in the opener of the best-of-three series included a pivotal save on a third-period penalty shot by CCHA leading scorer Bill Muckalt, as the Irish held on for the 4-2 win. Notre Dame led 1-0 the next night before seeing Michigan tie the game and win in the game's 19th minute of overtime. The Irish jumped ahead 2-0 in the final game, only to lose 4-3, but the hockey world had taken notice. And Michigan, which led for just 14:19 of the entire series, would go on to capture the NCAA title.
Several honors followed, highlighted by defenseman Mark Eaton-who went on to sign as a free agent with the Philadelphia Flyers-capturing CCHA rookie-of-the-year. Noble, the only three-year captain in the program's history, graduated with a 3.96 cumulative GPA while earning first-team Academic All-America honors and finishing as runner-up for the national Hockey Humanitarian Award.
Veteran forwards such as Dhadphale, Simon and Urick again will be relied on for strong seasons in 1998-99, as will surging sophomore left wing Dan Carlson. Highly-regarded freshman centers David Inman and Brett Henning-a member of the USA under-18 national team program-will look to help fill the void left by Noble and fellow graduate Lyle Andrusiak. The coming season also will provide several forwards with the chance to elevate their games, with that group including senior Craig Hagkull, juniors Troy Bagne and John Dwyer and promising sophomores Chad Chipchase, Ryan Dolder, Kopischke and Matt Van Arkel.
The hard-hitting but disciplined Borega (16 penalties in 34 games last season) returns with his 6-2, 225-pound frame to anchor the defense, as does the physical presence of 6-4, 225-pound sophomore Clark, who had six assists as a rookie while totaling just 11 penalties. The Irish also welcome back the dangerous two-way play of Cotnoir, in addition to senior Scott Giuliani and juniors Andy Jurkowski, Sean Molina and Sean Seyferth. The unit's lone newcomer, 6-0, 205-pound Sam Cornelius, will join the mix in what could be the most talented group of defensemen at Notre Dame since the early '80s.
The primary questions for the '98-'99 squad include how senior goaltender Forrest Karr will react to the possibility of being a starter, after a solid junior season that included a 6-3-1 record and a 2.85 goals-against average. "K" seems to be the magic letter in the Irish nets this season, as sophomore Kyle Kolquist and promising freshman Jeremiah Kimento will compete with Karr for playing time between the pipes.
The return of two juniors - Fraser and Dusbabek - also could play a major role in the quest for a national ranking. Fraser missed the final 12 games last season with a back injury, while Dusbabek did not play in the spring semester in order to focus on his academics.
As Poulin looks ahead to his fourth season, he points to several promising signs - both on and off the ice. The Irish have been the CCHA's least-penalized team the past two seasons, which "says a lot when you look at how physical we are and how hard we compete," he says. "That type of discipline is necessary to win. You might not think it transfers over, but it does."
Off the ice, the program has started an annual fall race to help fight cancer while the squad is coming off a 3.2 team GPA in the spring of '98. "That's saying something, when you look at the classes these guys take and the fact that the team is 27 players," says Poulin. "But we are trying to run a complete program in every sense. We continue to take the needed steps and are happy with how things are progressing."
Nobody ever said that learning how to win would be easy.