Jan. 19, 2000
By Pete LaFleur
Things weren’t supposed to work out this way for Ryan Dolder.
He had no interest in pursuing a college hockey career-much less attending Notre Dame-but accepted a surprising walk-on invitation from the Irish.
He had no guarantee of being a regular member of the Irish lineup, but the junior right winger has made a name for himself as a clutch goalscorer and solid all-around player.
He certainly had no delusions of emerging as a team leader, yet today he finds himself as the team’s co-leading scorer and was named an alternate team captain in early December.
All he knew back in March of 1997 was that he was fed up with hockey and was ready to hang up his skates for a set of golf clubs-literally. “It’s pretty hard to believe how things have worked out,” he says.
Dolder played two seasons of junior hockey with the Twin City Vulcans but received no Div. I scholarship offers when the ’96-’97 season ended in early April. Frustrated with his lack of playing opportunities, Dolder headed west for Palm Springs, Calif., and moved in with his grandparents while planning to attend a local junior college and become a golf pro.
Two months into what he thought was his post-hockey life, Dolder received a surprising call from former Notre Dame assistant hockey coach Tom Carroll.
“He had seen me play and talked to various people about whether I could play Division I hockey,” says Dolder, whose Vulcans’ coach, for Jim Johansson, was a college teammate of Carroll’s. “They had checked my transcripts and were inviting me to walk on, but the offer caught me totally by surprise.
“The thing is that I was mad and fed up with hockey at that time. I had put my time in with two years of juniors and it didn’t get me anywhere. I didn’t think I’d put on the hockey equipment any more.”
Dolder’s parents, Tom and Carol, effectively had to talk their son into considering a return to the Midwest and-more importantly-a return to the ice. Dolder also sought the advice of fellow Minnesota native Brian Urick, who had just completed his second season at Notre Dame.
“Brian played a big role in selling me on Notre Dame,” says Dolder, who skated alongside Urick on previous Team Minnesota squads. “Brian and his dad both had great things to say about the school and where the hockey program was headed.”
After touring a nearly-vacant campus two weeks after graduation, Dolder was impressed enough to make the leap back to life as a student-athlete.
Despite growing up in hockey-crazed Minnesota, Dolder’s path was not the most conventional. Raised in Hutchinson-a town of roughly 10,000 people, 60 miles west of Minneapolis-he played on teams that struggled to get enough players.
“One year, we only had six forwards and four defensemen,” he says. “But one good thing was that I got to play all the time.”
Dolder went on to help his Hutchinson High School team secured the program’s first berth in the state tournament. He then elected to take the junior hockey route, someday wearing the blue and gold was the farthest thing from his mind.
“Never once had I thought of coming to Notre Dame-I didn’t really know much about the school,” says Dolder. “Growing up, it was such a big thing to dream about playing for the University of Minnesota. That’s all you have in your mind.”
Dolder’s career at Notre Dame has yielded a classic story of persistence and hard work. When he arrived in the fall of ’97, he was pushed to the back of a talented group of forwards. “It was obvious I was the last guy on the roster,” he says. “But I always told myself that if I worked hard I would get my chance.”
Despite those convictions, Dolder’s confidence was tested while he bounced in and out of the lineup. “I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some tough times,” he admits. “I questioned whether I had made the right decision.”
A boost in confidence ended up being his turning point, as Dolder left his imprint on the playoff series at Michigan by scoring the game-winning goal in the 4-2 opener before tying the third game, 3-3 (Michigan escaped with a 4-3 win).
“I told myself that I never wanted to lose my spot again … and things kind of carried over,” says Dolder, who still was disappointed in a sophomore season that yielded five goals and four assists in 35 games played.
Dolder’s second season began with a bang, as he scored the first goal in the history of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center-sparking the Irish to a 2-1 win that silenced more than 14,000 rabid Badgers fans.
Dolder’s role continues to expand, serving as one of Notre Dame’s top penalty killers in ’98-’99 and has combined with senior left wing Andy Jurkowski and sophomore center Brett Henning to form the team’s most consistent forward line. He has skated on the top power-play unit and added another huge goal to his resume, scoring with five minutes left to lift the Irish past Michigan State (1-0).
“Ryan’s skating ability was evident when he arrived but his main problem involved confidence,” remembers senior defenseman Tyson Fraser. “Once he believed in himself and realized he was a skilled player, that confidence was there and he has continued to develop-to the point where he is one of our key players.”
Despite his penchant for scoring big-game goals, Dolder remains focused on helping Notre Dame secure the program’s first appearance in the NCAAs. “It will be a really big goal if we have the chance to play at Joe Louis Arena (in the CCHA semi-finals) or in the NCAAs-that’s the type of game where I’d love to help this team achieve its goals,” he says.
Both of Dolder’s siblings are in the midst of their own competitive seasons. Brother Kyle currently plays on the junior level for the Des Moines Buccaneers while 15-year-old sister Linsey-“the most talented player in the family,” according to Ryan-is in her third season of varsity hockey at Benilde St. Margaret’s High School.
To keep up with the overlapping schedules, the Dolder parents have fashioned their own version of “planes, trains and automobiles”.
As of mid-January, Tom Dolder had seen 55 of his children’s games (many with his wife at his side), including 22 of Notre Dame’s first 26 this season. His journeys have included plenty of visits to internet sites in search of discount airline tickets, upwards of 1,000 miles per weekend behind the wheel of a rental car, hitching a ride with another parent or on the junior team bus, and even tucking a pillow and blanket in the trunk for short naps.
Yet while he has gone out of his way to stay close to his children, the proud father has been just as conscious of keeping his distance.
“Off the ice and after the games, we don’t even talk about hockey unless I bring it up,” explains Ryan. “My dad has seen other parents who get too involved, but he never tells me what I should have done. He is always very supportive and complementary.”
Even without his on-ice success, Dolder knows he made the right choice. “I’ve met so many good people here-people that I will be friends with for the rest of my life-and receiving a degree from Notre Dame is a great accomplishment in itself,” says Dolder, who likely will give pro hockey a try when his Irish career is over. “It’s like somebody had a plan for how I was going to end up here. I’ve never been given anything and had times where I had to sit and watch. But that made me appreciate things more and work harder every day .
“I almost look at my situation as a gift, because I never thought I’d be here. I just want to make the most out of it … before it’s over.”