Junior defenseman Robbie Russo leads a rush for the open puck.

Making the Move

Oct. 25, 2013

By Josh Dempsey ’16

The thought of moving away from home at 18 is a scary thought for most college-bound students. Leaving behind friends, family, and memories is a tough thing to do, and some shy away from moving on from these comforts. Despite this, the payoffs of moving out often outweigh the positives of staying. Gaining a perspective of cultures from both around the country and around the world are experiences that shape the adults students grow to be.

Robbie Russo, junior defenseman on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey team, engaged himself in this maturation process like many others. The only difference was that he did it two years earlier at the age of 16. At a time when the biggest concern on kids’ minds is who they’ll take to their homecoming dance or when they’ll finally be able to get their driver’s license, Russo was packing up his luggage and preparing to move away from his home in Westmont, Ill., to Ann Arbor, Mich., to begin training with the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP).

“It was definitely challenging at first. Being away from home was tough,” Russo says. “What made it a little different than coming to college was that everyone who was there with me was in the same boat; we were all the same age and there to play hockey.”

Russo adds, “I also had a good roommate and I lived with a great family which made the transition even smoother.”

A unique aspect of pursuing advanced levels of competition in hockey is the near necessity of moving away from home around the age that Russo did. In most organizations, including the USNTDP, players live with billet families who are subsidized by the organization. They provide kids with a family atmosphere that helps with their adjustment of moving away from their own homes.

In addition to providing housing, the USNTDP also made sure that Russo’s education did not suffer. All players in the national program went to Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“It was a great atmosphere. You played with the team, trained with the team and went to school with the team. So the camaraderie was great.”

The friendships and chemistry Russo built on the ice and in the classroom with teammates from the national team did not end when he left to join the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame has a reputation of picking up a large number of players from the National Team Development Program and Russo was not the only player who decided to join the Irish. He is now one of six alums from the National Team Development program that are currently a part of the ranks of the Irish, and one of 31 USNTDP alums to play for Notre Dame all-time.

“I played with Austin Wuthrich who’s now my current roommate. And then both Stephen Johns and Bryan Rust were there as well. They were a year ahead of Wuthrich and me, but you still saw them around all the time. You come to school here and you see familiar faces; it makes the process an easier transition.”

The transition to the college-life was one that Russo was able to handle with poise and maturity. Having already moved away from home at 16, moving on to college was not so much a milestone event as it was the next step in his development as a hockey player.

“Moving away at an early age really got me prepared to go to college. I felt a step ahead. I was also here a summer early so I was able to take some classes, so that helped. You just feel more comfortable with that transition.”

Having the experiences he’s had, Russo still admitted to the change in lifestyle that occurred upon his transition to college.

“No matter how you look at, when you’re a freshman, you’re still just a freshman,” laughs Russo. “You don’t really know what to look for or expect; there’s still a learning curve and room for maturity.”

Russo has come a long way in his maturity as a player. Coming in as a freshman defenseman, he made a significant impact on the Irish blue line–and particularly on the power play. Russo scored four goals his freshman season, all of which came on the power play. As a standout, he was named to the CCHA all-rookie team and was named Notre Dame’s rookie of the year. He saw his role only expand his sophomore year where he became a staple on the Irish power play and saw ice time in every situation.

As a junior and upperclassman, Russo had this to say about his role on the team.

“As a junior, you’ve got to take more of a leadership role. When you’re young, you lean on the older guys. But now it’s going to be the younger guys leaning on you.”

“On the ice, I see my role expanding. Hopefully I can continue to produce offensively, and you can always play better defense. Hopefully I can do both and that can translate to wins.”

With the start to the season that the Irish are experiencing, it seems Russo and the Irish are doing something right. Off to a 4-0-0 start, Russo already has two goals and four points. In addition to Russo’s production, the team has put up two shutouts and has only allowed five goals in four games. By the looks of it, big things can be expected from Robbie Russo and the Irish this year and in the future.