October 11, 2013

Hockey East season preview: Embracing Irish challenge

By Andrew Merritt


Goalie Steven Summerhays return for the Irish, who won the 2013 CCHA tourney title. (Photo: Matt Cashore)

In the 30 years since a group of athletic directors, led by legendary Providence boss Lou Lamoriello (Providence, R.I.), decided to form a league of elite New England college hockey teams, Hockey East has grown as a brand and made an indelible footprint in the region.

This year, that footprint gets a good deal larger.

For the first time in its 30-year history, Hockey East now includes a member team from outside New England, as Notre Dame becomes the 11th member of the conference. The Irish, fresh off winning the CCHA title, come to Hockey East after the dissolution of that league, which was the biggest casualty in the largest college hockey shakeup in quite some time.

With Penn State’s decision to become a Division 1 program, a series of dominoes began to fall in 2011 that saw some of the CCHA defect to the Big Ten’s new hockey league, some to the brand-new National College Hockey Conference, some to the WCHA, and the Irish to Hockey East.

That means the Irish will go down in history as the last CCHA champion, but history isn’t really on the minds of coach Jeff Jackson and the Irish now — it’s the looming present and the challenges of a new league.

“I think, first of all, our players are excited about the challenge,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be new for all of us, but it’s no different than when you play non-conference teams. It’s something new and exciting, going to create a real buzz for our guys and our fans as well. It’s a great opportunity for us to establish ourselves in the new conference.”

The Irish aren’t total strangers to Hockey East. They’ve played every team in the conference except UMass-Lowell, and the longstanding rivalry with Boston College has met 32 times on the ice, with the Eagles owning a 17-13-2 record against the Irish. Last season, Notre Dame played two Hockey East teams, beating Maine in the season-opening Icebreaker tournament before falling to BC a month later.

The Irish bring a good pedigree to their new conference home. Although Notre Dame spent many years as a middle-of-the-pack (or worse) team while bouncing between conferences, in the last 10 years it has been a pretty regular national contender, making six trips to the NCAA tournament (two to the Frozen Four), and finishing as the runner-up to BC in 2008. The Irish also won two CCHA titles, including last year’s championship win over Michigan, and finished as that league’s regular-season champion.

Most of that success has come since Jackson took over in 2005, replacing former Boston Bruin Dave Poulin after 10 years. Under Jackson, the Irish have amassed a 185-110-29 record.

In other words, they’re not just a rookie team about to get kicked around by their new league neighbors.

“We’re bringing in a very good team that’s going to make it harder for all of us — we didn’t bring in the Little Sisters of the Poor; it’s Notre Dame,” BC coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) said. “They’re a national contender in our league. Does it make our job any easier? Certainly not, they’re a very good hockey team, but none of us have shied away from that fact.”

There will, of course, be some necessary adjustments — for the Irish and their new rivals. The most obvious one is the travel. Hockey East has always been a “bus league,” with the longest distance between teams being the 300 miles between UMass and Maine. But 800 to 1,000 miles sit between the Irish and the rest of the teams in Hockey East, so buses won’t be an option.

However, it turns out that travel might actually be a little more reasonable now for the Irish, who spent countless hours driving through the Midwest, and flying to Alaska, to play CCHA games.

“We had a few nine- to 10-hour bus trips, and it’s tough to get back in hockey mode when you’re on the bus for so long,” said Jeff Costello, a senior and the captain of the Irish this year. “Flying in should be good; they’re not too long of flights, anywhere we’re going. Hopefully the fact that we’re chartering will help us.”

The plan initially was to have the Irish come east to play five sets of two-game series on the road, and host the other half of the league in South Bend. That’s still roughly the way Notre Dame’s schedule shakes out, except it will play one game at Boston College (the regular-season finale on March 1), and the other BC matchup is on Jan. 4 at Fenway Park, one of four games to be played as part of Frozen Fenway 2014.

Jackson and his staff also have had to start scouting Hockey East teams — not just as a one-off before a non-conference trip, but as full-fledged opponents who will be looking to take points out of the Irish’s pocket.

“The easy thing for (the rest of the league) is they have to look at one new team; for us, it’s 10 new teams,” Jackson said. “Our staff broke up the league just to get a sense of how each team plays, get an impression of what we’re going to see. We thought we’d do a little homework, see if there’s things we haven’t faced as much. We wanted to get a feel for the officiating in the league. That tends to be different. Sometimes there’s a change in philosophy, in the approach to instruction. That’s going to be different.”

The insertion of Notre Dame into the Hockey East mix also changes the shape of recruiting — both for the Irish and their new league mates. While this year’s edition of the Irish doesn’t include any New Englanders, Jackson said he and his staff hope to use their regular presence in Hockey East arenas each season as leverage for some recruiting muscle in the East.

“We’ve never really put a lot of emphasis on the East; it just didn’t fit … we recruited more in the Midwest and West,” Jackson said. “Now in Hockey East, it’s only natural we should go where there’s a lot of Irish Catholics.”

When UConn joins the league next year, Hockey East’s biggest lineup change in many years will be complete. But with Notre Dame joining the league this season, the new chapter has already begun — and the Irish are excited to make their mark.

“We’re very honored,” Costello said. “There’s been a lot of champions coming out of there, a lot of rivalries that all of college hockey is aware of. We’re very honored and privileged that we get to start setting our own mentality in the league, and hopefully we can intertwine ourselves with the history that the league has, and create some new stories.”

HOCKEY EAST PRESEASON RANKINGS

1. UMass-Lowell

 2. Boston College

 3. Providence

 4. Boston University

 5. Notre Dame

 6. New Hampshire

 7. Merrimack

 8. Maine

 9. Vermont

10. UMass

11. Northeastern

To read Andy’s in-depth analysis of each team in Hockey East, check out his team capsules in the digital edition of our October issue.

NOTE: Vermont's Kyle Reynolds suffered a season-ending injury after the team capsules went to print.