Notre Dame lays groundwork for future
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Jack Swarbrick remembers camping outside the Joyce Center with three of his college buddies his sophomore year of college, hoping to nab top-row, center-ice season tickets for 1973-74 Notre Dame hockey season.
In the middle of the night, Swarbrick recalled, a car pulled up, its headlights temporarily blinding him. Legendary Fighting Irish football coach Ara Parseghian stepped out of the vehicle, wondering what the students were up to.
Told they were waiting in line for hockey tickets, a confused Parseghian stopped and reminded Swarbrick and his gang that they could just show up in the morning to purchase tickets.
"But it was a great atmosphere," Swarbrick, now Notre Dame's athletic director, said with a smile nearly 40 years later. "Even then [it] had a real community feel to it. So it was a little different from the campus events, and just a real fun environment."
Swarbrick told the story from O'Brien's, a 250-seat premium club area overlooking the main rink of the two-sheet, $50 million Compton Family Ice Arena, which opened this past October after 19 months of construction. The Irish were in the middle of a 3-1 win over Central Collegiate Hockey Association rival Michigan before a "White Out" crowd of 5,022, the building's fifth sellout in its first 10 games.
It's part of Notre Dame's ambitious plan to improve its facilities and increase its national profile. The timing can be seen as either fortuitous or an example of incredible foresight. The Irish are in the midst of their best run of seasons in school history and are coming off a Frozen Four appearance, their second in the last four seasons. All five of their NCAA tournament appearances have come in the last eight seasons.
Those not in attendance that night for the Michigan game could have watched the contest live on NBC Sports Network, which airs 16 college hockey games this year and will televise Irish home games beginning in the 2013-14 season. That's when the program will leave the CCHA for Hockey East, bringing along a television deal that will give it, as Swarbrick said during the October announcement, "unprecedented level of national exposure."
The realignment dominoes that began to fall throughout college hockey following the creation of a Big Ten hockey conference -- made possible by the September 2010 announcement that Penn State would start a Division I program -- rendered the CCHA on the verge of extinction, leaving Notre Dame with a choice of joining the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference or Hockey East, a New England-based conference that is the home of seven national title winners since 1993.
"We all talked about expanding the footprint of Hockey East and taking it from a regional to a national-level conference," said Boston University athletic director Mike Lynch, one of four people on the committee that considered Notre Dame for admission into Hockey East. "We've had our share of national titles here, but it was still clear that Hockey East was a regional affiliation. And I think bringing Notre Dame into the mix creates more of a national profile for everyone in the league."
Swarbrick cited the cultural fit, a smaller conference schedule and the ability to retain media rights as the deciding factors for the move to Hockey East, which will have 11 teams once Notre Dame begins play. The Irish football team, an independent, has had its own deal with NBC since 1990.
"I think the TV contract as much as anything is going to help," said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, a Notre Dame alumnus whose son, Mario, committed to play for the Irish next season. "I know it's going to be great for me. My son's going to be playing there next year. I can TiVo a game if I can't get there. And to be able to watch the games, that's a nice recruiting selling point for parents."
Hockey East already has a television deal with NESN, and both the CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network will televise several games featuring conference teams as part of their college hockey coverage. While Joe Bertagna, the conference's commissioner, acknowledges the advantages Notre Dame will have with its own deal, he thinks the extra exposure will ultimately help the conference as a whole.
"It's a legitimate question, because they'll have a lot of their home games on [the NBC Sports Network] and it will tilt the balance a little bit, and I'm sure a lot of our coaches after a while will think they have a great recruiting edge," Bertagna said. "But most of the games they're on TV for are against other Hockey East members and will help our own relationship. We have a two-year deal with Versus now that we have every intention of renewing, and a two-year deal with CBS and a four-year regional deal with NESN, who's been with us from the beginning. So we're not lacking for TV, both locally and nationally. I do know that some people may have said we can't let one school have that advantage, but we looked at it differently, and in the long run it's another plus for us."
Barring the addition of a 12th member -- Bertagna said an even number is ideal, but he won't expand for the sake of expanding -- the future conference schedule, which has yet to be determined, will likely pit league opponents against each other twice a season rather than the current three. It will allow teams like the Irish to continue series with Midwestern rivals and likely limit trips to Notre Dame -- the geographic outlier of the conference -- to every other year and vice versa.
One of those Midwestern rivals is Michigan, which won the second of a two-game series at Notre Dame two weeks ago in front of another sellout crowd at Compton, the new arena made possible by a lead gift from Kevin and Gayla Compton, owners of the NHL's San Jose Sharks.
The Wolverines, nine-time national champions, are currently No. 8 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, two spots behind Notre Dame. Each is coming off a Frozen Four appearance from last season -- Michigan's 24th, Notre Dame's second. The Wolverines fell in the national title game.
With a new home for its players and a new conference on the way for its program -- and with more exposure, too -- Notre Dame feels it will be in position to compete for the top prize year after year.
Asked about the environment following the first game of the Michigan series, seventh-year Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said he was thrilled to finally have his own building, but he knows there is work to be done.
"We're finally where I think we should be," Jackson said. "It's great for the players; it's a great environment. Our students and our pep band are awesome, and we've had a great following in the community, too.
"This program, we're building right now. I've been here six years, but we're still building. We have room to improve. All the banners that are hanging in Yost [Michigan's arena] right now, it takes a lot to build a tradition."
Matt Fortuna covers Notre Dame football for ESPN.com.
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