Feb. 14, 2017
By John Heisler
When the subject of Notre Dame’s first Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship in 2007 arises, it’s hard for seniors on that club like Wes O’Neill not to see the perspective of their four years in South Bend.
As freshmen O’Neill and his classmates earned an NCAA Championship bid for the first time in Irish history. A year later they won only five games (fewest in a season at Notre Dame) and as juniors they won 13–with a coaching change from Dave Poulin to Jeff Jackson in the middle.
“You go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows,” says O’Neill.
Then as seniors in 2006-07 they won a school-record 32 games, claimed both the CCHA regular-season and tournament crowns and won an NCAA game for the first time in Notre Dame history.
That team returns to campus this weekend and will be honored Friday night (when the current Irish play host to Providence) on the 10th anniversary of those achievements.
“It was a crazy four years,” says O’Neill, an assistant captain on the 2006-07 squad. “But the idea of going to the (NCAA) tournament was the start of a new tradition in Notre Dame hockey.
“We had a large class, a lot of really good hockey players in my class. I think the camaraderie showed–how close we really all were as far as being friends. When things weren’t going well? I even considered leaving school after my junior year to play pro. But we stuck together, and we had (Erik) Condra who was a sophomore and that younger (freshman) class that came in that was (Kevin) Deeth and (Ryan) Thang–that was an awesome class.
“Going into our senior year I remember sitting around with all the boys and saying, `We have one shot at this. It’s our last go. We’ve got to buy in.’ We were the most prepared team that I’ve ever seen at any level of hockey–both physically on the ice and with the amount of video we watched. It was insane.
“It was a magical ride that year. Brownie (senior goaltender Dave Brown) had a four- or five-game shutout string going and we got contributions from everybody–it was awesome.”
Former Notre Dame hockey sports information director Tim Connor remembers an early weekend setting the tone for the year.
“I always thought the team realized how good it could be on the second weekend of the season,” he says. “After going 1-1 against Minnesota State on the opening weekend, we went to Boston College and Providence the second weekend. BC was No. 1 and we dominated (with a 7-1 win) at Conte Forum. (Mark) Van Guilder had a hat trick, Thang had two goals and Brownie made 26 saves.
“The next night at Providence, freshman Dan Kissel picked up a hat trick and Brown gave up one goal (in a 6-1 win). That started an 8-0-1 run and put the team back in the national rankings for the first time since the 2003-04 season and they stayed there the entire season.”
Prior to the NCAA Championship the Irish played 12 games against ranked opponents and lost only one (that came on the road against eventual NCAA champion Michigan State). They spent seven consecutive weeks at the end of the year ranked number one in the polls. The team had unbeaten streaks of nine (8-0-1), seven (7-0-0) and nine (7-0-2) games during the season–and went 16-2-2 over one stretch.
“It was the first time Notre Dame got to number one in the country,” says O’Neill. “I remember they lit up the light there (on top of Grace Hall). That was pretty cool.”
After dispatching Alaska at home on consecutive nights in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, the Irish met Lake Superior State where Jackson had spent six years as head coach and won two NCAA titles. Though Notre Dame’s coach was more than a decade removed from his days in Sault Ste. Marie, the wife of Lake State’s former equipment manager met Jackson at his Detroit hotel with a batch of fresh cookies. Jackson’s team wasn’t so kind on the ice, shutting out the Lakers 3-0 behind Brown’s 17 saves and an early goal by O’Neill.
Next up in the title game was old rival and ninth-ranked Michigan, a team that had beaten O’Neill and his mates eight straight times over the previous two seasons–including by scores such as 8-0 in South Bend and 10-1 in Ann Arbor.
“I think going in we were the favorites to win, but I’ll never forget that (championship) game. You had Jason Paige with two raccoon black eyes (from a broken nose suffered in the Lake Superior State game). You had the firepower they had on their team with (defenseman Matt) Hunwick and (forward T.J.) Hensick and (forward Kevin) Porter. I remember going into the third period and `Hells Bells’ (by AC/DC) comes over the speakers and the whole arena started shaking.
“It was a special moment to beat them at The Joe, especially being from Windsor. My parents went on a cruise that weekend with my sister–and I’ve never let my dad live it down. It was an awesome, awesome memory.”
Adds Brown, “One moment that really sticks out for me is the final minute versus Michigan at The Joe. Although we were the higher-ranked team, the atmosphere of playing our longtime rivals had the majority of the crowd rooting against us. I just remember how all the boys fed off that energy, continuing on the path that we had set on so many months before with all our vigorous training both on and off the ice and being relentless in the pursuit of a victory. Although those final 60 seconds felt like 10 minutes, I never for a second doubted that we would win that game.
“After that final buzzer went, I threw my gloves as high as I could as the boys all piled on to celebrate. Seeing our captain, T.J. Jindra, get handed that trophy and skate (or run) towards the boys will always be etched in my mind. Being able to raise the Mason Cup was one of the biggest highlights of my career and something that I will never forget.”
That success in Detroit in front of a mostly pro-Michigan crowd qualified as all the more satisfying.
“It was a great bus ride home that night and the (Notre Dame) band was waiting for us,” says O’Neill. “We had a special relationship with the band when Coach Jackson came in and got them to come to our hockey games. Every goal we scored, no matter what end it was at, we’d go find the band. We had a quick little celebration and then we got back to work.”
The Irish headed into the NCAA Championship as the number-one team in the country and the top seed in Grand Rapids–only to struggle to eliminate a 13-19-3 Alabama-Huntsville team in two overtimes (then the longest game in Irish history at 94 minutes).
“You go into a game like Friday night and you don’t think that team (Alabama-Huntsville) can skate with us. We scored early (Josh Sciba at 3:18 and Thang at 4:26) and they pulled their goalie–and the guy they put in (Marc Narduzzi) didn’t even have matching pads, but he absolutely stood on his head (49 saves).”
The Irish finally prevailed 3-2 on a Thang power-play effort.
“Hockey is a fickle game like that. We kind of did it to ourselves Friday night, and it did not help going into the Michigan State game the next night (which the Spartans won 2-1).
“It did not end quite like we planned – I still run into (Spartan goaltender) Jeff Lerg every so often and I still tell him how much I hate him.”
O’Neill (now in medical sales and living in Grosse Pointe, Michigan) and his teammates remain in regular touch via email and try to get together once a year.
They remember long summer days in the weight room–determined to improve that area after Alaska pushed them around the previous year in the CCHA playoffs.
They remember how Brown was named CCHA Player of the Year after helping Notre Dame lead the nation in goals-against average at 1.63.
They remember how the Irish led the country in penalty kills–while allowing only 20 power-play goals all season in 209 chances.
They remember Condra, Deeth and Thang playing on the same line and combining for 51 goals, 77 assists and 128 points.
They remember the leadership from two-time captain and senior T.J. Jindra and the rest of that senior class.
“There were no egos,” says Connor. “They played for each other. This group made the Joyce Center such a tough place to play. They knew it wasn’t the most glamorous place to play, but it was their barn and they went out to defend it each night.”
They remember how their efforts helped make Jackson the national coach of the year.
They remember what it took to win that CCHA crown and also claim an NCAA victory for the first time in Irish history.
All that and more will be part of the narrative this weekend for O’Neill and his crew.
Ten years removed it still looks pretty good.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Irish athletic scene as a member of the athletics communication staff since 1978. Look for his weekly Sunday Brunch pieces on UND.com.