September 24, 2013 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Jackson, Notre Dame Ready for Hockey East Test

League's Coaches Excited for Fighting Irish's Arrival

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson leads his team into its first Hockey East season this year.

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson leads his team into its first Hockey East season this year.

BOSTON — Since Jeff Jackson arrived at Notre Dame ahead of the 2005-06 season, the Fighting Irish have become one of college hockey's most successful teams. Looking at television schedules and recruiting battles, it's clear Notre Dame has transformed into a truly elite program.

The 2013-14 season, however, presents an interesting challenge for Jackson and his program. A move to Hockey East means a new league to conquer and another hurdle for Notre Dame to surpass.

In New England, Hockey East is already established as the premier conference in college hockey. The arrival of Notre Dame means an expansion into the Midwest and another national power competiting for the league's hotly contested crown.

"Hopefully, we can help the league develop an even greater identity and footprint than it already has," Jackson said on Tuesday's league media day. "For college hockey purposes, I don't think anyone has a better identity than Hockey East. It's an exciting time for us and our program, having moved into a new arena two years ago and now moving into Hockey East. It's a great time for our program."

Notre Dame's season begins on Oct. 11 and 12 with a pair of home games against Western Michigan. Hockey East play begins on Nov. 1 and 2 with two games in Vermont. The weekend coincides with Vermont's celebration of its 50th year as a program.

UVM coach Kevin Sneddon, like the rest of the league, is excited by Notre Dame's arrival.

"It's our 50th year as a program, capped off with a league-opening weekend with Notre Dame," Sneddon said. "We're having a big celebration that weekend for the anniversary.

"We've been waiting for this for a while now. Coach Jackson and his staff do an unbelievable job there. It's a great school to add to our great mix. We've enhanced our league even further with the addition of Notre Dame. We're looking forward to hosting them this year in their first games in Hockey East. We're putting on a nice event to welcome them to Hockey East."

The chain reaction around college hockey, sparked by Penn State's program launch, led to Notre Dame's move to Hockey East, first announced in Oct. 2011. Winning the final CCHA championship last season was a nice farewell for the Irish, but Jackson believes his team has a challenging year ahead of it. Despite an experienced, talented roster, the move means a season of firsts even for the club's 15 juniors and seniors.

"It's an adjustment for all of us," Jackson said. "In some ways, it's going to be like playing an entire non-conference schedule until we get accustomed to the league. We're playing all new venues. ... We're playing different opponents that we haven't seen in recent years. We're playing with new officials. It will take some time to see how they call games. You get accustomed to officials. You know how they're going to call games. That's new for us."

Despite the issues presented by the move, 2013-14 is an important year for Notre Dame. With 10 seniors, the Fighting Irish are poised to compete within Hockey East and beyond. The program has been one of college hockey's most successful recently, but that first national championship has proved elusive.

The current senior class experienced a Frozen Four trip as freshmen in 2011, losing to Minnesota-Duluth in a national semifinal. Last season, Notre Dame fell, 5-1, to St. Cloud State in the tournament's first round.

Jackson believes the highs and lows his seniors have experienced have prepared them well for the challenges they face in their first season in a new conference.

"It's probably good timing for us because we have an older team," Jackson said.

"This senior class made it to the Frozen Four as freshmen. We had 11 or 12 freshmen four years ago. There are only 10 of them left, but I think they've gone through the highs and lows over their four years. I think they're ready for it. I thought last year, as juniors, they all had good years. If they can take their games to another level, we can be a highly competitive team in this conference."

Boston College coach Jerry York is equally excited about the move. Notre Dame and Boston College's long-standing rivlary has shifted to the ice since the Fighting Irish began competing with the nation's best programs. The clubs meet twice this season, including an outdoor game at Fenway Park on Jan. 4. and the final day of the regular season in Chestnut Hill.

"It's a home run for our league," York said of Notre Dame's arrival. "(Hockey East) commissioner Joe Bertagna should be given a lot of credit that he could go out and bring in a team like that. 

"To bring in a legitimate national contender and a big name school like Notre Dame makes us that much stronger as league. It also makes it that much harder to win this league. ... Bringing a traditional rival of ours into our league, the crowd will be a major factor when they come into our building. It's not quite to the level of BU for us, but it's in that hemisphere."

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