Nov. 5, 2002
Notre Dame, Ind. – By Tim Connor
A little confidence goes a long way in the game of hockey. It’s amazing how one event or one quick decision can turn the fortunes of a hockey team.
Such is the case of the Notre Dame hockey team. The Irish, currently 3-2-2 on the season worked hard in the off-season in anticipation of getting the 2002-03 season off to a fast start.
With a 3-0-1 start under their belts, the mission was accomplished.
Going back to last February 9, Notre Dame has put together a 10-4-2 record and is playing some of the best hockey in the program’s 35-year history.
According to junior defenseman Brett Lebda, the reason is very simple.
“We finally learned how to win. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but we learned how to win,” says Lebda.
“Once you win a few games, your confidence builds. Confidence is huge, especially late in the season. We got on a roll last year and it’s continued into this season.”
Confidence is not something the talented Irish defenseman has ever lacked.
An offensive-minded blueliner, the Buffalo Grove, Ill., native is one of the key members of a veteran Irish defense that has come into its own over the last 16 games.
“As a team, we really started to take pride in our defense late last season. We had better attention to detail. We worked to do the little things well and now we are seeing the results,” says Lebda.
It might sound strange for a player known more for his breathtaking, end-to-end rushes to talk about defense, but Lebda understands the importance of stopping the opposition from scoring.
“I’ve always been an offensive-minded defenseman since I started playing hockey. I like to start the offense from the defense,” commented Lebda earlier this fall.
“But, I also know that you have to take care of things in your own end first. I think I’m a threat when I have a chance to jump into the play, but the most important thing is keeping the puck out of our net.”
One of four juniors on the Irish defense, Lebda and his classmates got their baptism under fire two seasons ago, but are now seeing the dividends of their on-the-job training.
“We’ve really come a long way since our freshman year. The four of us came in together and we got a chance to play right away. I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect,” says Lebda.
“We had our ups and downs, but we worked hard and believed in ourselves. Now being juniors, we are playing with confidence and know what our roles are. There is no question in my mind that we have one of the top defensive corps in the CCHA.”
The four juniors team with senior captain Evan Nielsen, to give the Irish five defensemen who begin their third season together. That makes for one of the more experienced defensive corps in the league.
“All of us compliment each other very well and I think that’s part of the reason we play so well together,” says Lebda.
“Tommy (Galvin) and I like to carry the puck. Evan (Nielsen) will go on the rush from time-to-time, but mostly he stays back. Neil (Komadoski) and T.J. (Mathieson) like to stay back. We all like to play physical in our zone. Having played together for so long, we really have a good idea of what the other guy is going to do.”
A familiar sight for Notre Dame hockey fans is smooth-skating Brett Lebda leading an Irish rush up ice.
Lebda burst on the scene as a freshman with seven goals and 19 assists for 26 points to finish fifth in scoring among league defensemen. For his efforts, he was selected to the 2000-01 CCHA all-rookie team
Last season, Lebda led the Irish with 151 shots on goal while scoring six goals with eight assists for 14 points. Included in his six goals were a pair of game-winning goals.
While most defensemen would be thrilled with six goals and eight assists, the 5-10, 200-pound blueliner expressed some disappointment with his sophomore season’s output.
“I had a good year my freshman year and I probably expected a little more from myself last year,” says Lebda.
“I think I tried to do too much last season to try to live up to what I did in my first year. I really learned last year that it’s better to let the game come to me.”
Through the first seven games of the 2002-03 season, Lebda has let the offense come his way as he has four assists and a +3 rating while ranking among the team leaders with 17 shots on goal.
While he was disappointed in his offensive numbers as a sophomore, the 2001-02 season provided it’s share of highlights for the quarterback of the Notre Dame offense.
In December of 2001, the fleet-footed defenseman was named to the United States Junior National Team and played in the World Junior Championships, helping the U.S. to a fifth-place finish in the Czech Republic.
Lebda scored two goals in the tournament with both coming in a 4-4 tie versus Slovakia.
“Playing in the World Junior Championships is the highlight of my career so far,” says Lebda.
“It was something that I had looked forward to for so long. I didn’t get invited to the evaluation camp the year before because I broke my ankle in my last year with the Developmental Program. That just made me work harder to get there last year. It was a great experience playing against the top players in the world in my age group.”
For now, the confident defenseman looks to keep the Irish on the winning track.
“We are off to a great start and now we just want to keep things rolling. As long as we stay committed to the things that have gotten us to this point, we’ll be fine. I’m expecting us to have a great season,” says the junior defenseman.