Nameless No More
Ridderwall Returns to Frozen Four
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
At the 2008 Frozen Four in Denver, a little-known and unheralded Swedish freshman scored the overtime game-winner for Notre Dame, as the Fighting Irish stunned Hobey winner Kevin Porter and No. 1 overall seed Michigan in the NCAA semifinals.
After the game, Wolverines senior captain Chad Kolarik credited the rookie — but didn't have any idea who he was.
"Number 22, I don't know his name, but he played a heck of a game," said Kolarik afterwards.
Now, the one-time freshman hero, Stockholm-native Calle Ridderwall, is a senior. He still wears No. 22.
And as a team captain for Notre Dame, he's back in the Frozen Four.
"To start your college career and end your college career with a Frozen Four, it's something very special," said Ridderwall, who has scored 51 goals since that dramatic overtime winner in '08.
This time, though, he'll head to St. Paul with a much different perspective.
"Knowing what to expect a little bit more is going to be beneficial," said the senior left-winger. "Freshman year, you go to the Frozen Four not knowing what to expect and not knowing what the atmosphere is going to be like. Now you know exactly what you're getting yourself into. I think you know not to let anything outside of hockey get in your way of being focused on the task, and that's playing a game on Thursday night."
Notre Dame, readying itself to face Minnesota-Duluth on Thursday in St. Paul, finds itself in the Frozen Four after a year when few expected to see them on this stage. A year ago, the Irish were riddled with injuries and close losses, ultimately missing the NCAA tournament with an uncharacteristic 13-17-8 record.
And with 15 underclassmen on this year's roster, the Irish were picked to finish fifth in the CCHA by the coaches and media in preseason polls.
Instead, they finished second. They were led in scoring by freshmen T.J. Tynan (the CHN Rookie of the Year) and Anders Lee, a New York Islanders draft pick who returns to his home state of Minnesota for this week's Frozen Four.
But through it all, Ridderwall and his senior classmates have provided the leadership to bring Notre Dame to its fifth NCAA appearance — and fourth in the past five seasons.
Said Ridderwall, "We knew we were going to be very young. I think we maybe put a little bit more emphasis on the older guys having to be leaders coming into this season. Starting last summer, right after the season ended, I knew all our seniors were going to have to take on a bigger leadership role. We knew we'd have to lead by example both on and off the ice."
"Those guys have done such a great job all season long," said Notre Dame head coach and two-time national championship winner Jeff Jackson. "They've pulled the group back together. I can't say enough about our four seniors. They've led when they needed to, and they've backed off when they needed to. They've worked hard to get this team back to this point.
"They're sometimes the best coaches we have."
Having played in the national title game as a freshman — falling short against Boston College — Ridderwall and his classmates have been waiting the rest of their college career for another opportunity. When Ridderwall was a sophomore, the Irish had high expectations, earning a No. 1 seed during a season that included a program-record 20-game undefeated streak.
But Notre Dame lost to Bemidji State, 5-1, in a first-round stunner.
Admitted Ridderwall, "[Before that NCAA tournament], I thought 'We have a chance to go back to the Frozen Four. Maybe it's not that hard.' And obviously we didn't make it that year, didn't even make the tournament last year. And all of a sudden you realize that it's not an easy thing to accomplish at all. There's so much work that goes into it, so many big games you have to win.
"This year is very different in that we were underdogs coming into the season. We weren't expected to do anything before the season started, and I think we like to play that way. You get to relax, and you know you have nothing to lose when you have no expectations."
The result has been what Jackson calls the "closest team" he's ever coached. And that includes Jackson's national championship teams (1992, 1994) with Lake Superior State.
"They really care about each other," said Jackson. "I think people might have seen that on the ice after the game. They were arm in arm for our alma mater. That just shows how much pride they have for Notre Dame."
Ridderwall now prepares for his final weekend of play in a Notre Dame sweater, and whether he's a hero on this stage again remains to be seen. One thing is for sure though — the circumstances surrounding Ridderwall's Frozen Four trip this year are considerably different than they were in 2008.
Now, after all, everyone knows his name.