Myers: For the domers, Notre Dame hockey is finally golden
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If you own a television and you've ever turned it on during a Saturday in the fall, you've no doubt heard the stories of Notre Dame football legends like the Gipper, and Knute, and Rudy.
But for four decades now, across the street from the gridiron home of the Irish has sat the lesser-known home of Notre Dame hockey, and a legend every bit as beloved among those who put on skates and chase a puck.
Charles "Lefty" Smith came to the shadow of the Golden Dome in 1968 after more than a decade of coaching high school hockey in South St. Paul, leading the Packers to the state tournament year after year, while working with talented players like puck-stopping goalie Jim Metzen and puck-moving forward Doug Woog. Like any good Catholic boy from St. Paul would, he jumped at the chance to go to work at the then-new rink at Notre Dame, forming a hockey program there that was sure to be a national powerhouse in no time.
More than 40 years later, that goal is finally coming true. The Irish come to Mariucci Arena this weekend for a one-game date with the Gophers ranked second in the nation in major polls. They're looking for their third Frozen Four trip in the last five years, playing in a new arena that is the envy of the college hockey world, and - like their football team - looking forward to an exclusive national TV deal that will have eyes following the Irish from coast to coast.
Gophers coach Don Lucia, who played for Smith at Notre Dame in the late '70s, talked to his old coach last week, helping Lefty arrange some tickets for this weekend.
"Being an old South St. Paul guy, he enjoys coming back up here and coming to games. He's meant a lot to Notre Dame and has certainly meant a lot to me, giving me the opportunity to go to school there," Lucia said. "You always like you your coach a lot more as you age than you did during your four years of playing for him, and you appreciate him a lot more. That was certainly the case with Lefty."
Then, in a sad twist of fate, Lucia got a text late Tuesday night from Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi (another Notre Dame grad) spreading the sad news that at 82, Lefty Smith had died in his sleep.
In October, Smith was on hand as the Compton Family Ice Arena was dedicated and the Irish played their first game there. He won't be there next month, when the arena's playing surface is dedicated as the Charles "Lefty" Smith Rink.
With Smith at the helm, the Irish were members of the WCHA until 1981, when the program was temporarily downgraded to club status. Smith had led Notre Dame to a pair of runner-up finishes in the conference and took great pride in the fact that all 126 athletes who had played for him at Notre Dame had gotten their college degrees. Smith stepped down from coaching, but worked two more decades in the Notre Dame athletic department, and was known as the ambassador for Irish hockey.
The school reinstated full Division I college hockey in 1989, but by that time the rink they called home was not anywhere near modern college hockey standards. Under long-time NHLer Dave Poulin, Notre Dame finally made a NCAA tournament trip in 2004 (falling to Lucia's Gophers in the opening round) but the long-awaited true emergence of Irish hockey just wasn't happening.
Enter Jeff Jackson, who had led tiny Lake Superior State to a pair of NCAA titles in the 1990s. With him behind the bench in South Bend, recruiting in Minnesota, in the growing Chicagoland talent pool, on the East Coast and among heavily Catholic parts of Canada, and a new rink finally on the way, the Irish finally won a conference title in 2007, went to the NCAA title game in 2008 and advanced to the Frozen Four again last spring.
Where once he had to worry mostly notably about recruiting competition from Wisconsin, North Dakota and others in the region when he went to a prospect's home, Lucia admitted that in the last decade, Notre Dame has made more inroads into the Minnesota high school hockey scene. Gophers forward Zach Budish, from Edina, said one of the highlights this weekend will be facing off against Irish forward Anders Lee, an old friend and high school teammate with the Hornets.
The Lucia family got a first-hand look at the recruiting reach of the Irish recently, as over the summer Don's son Mario signed a tender to play hockey at Notre Dame. Lucia's top assistant, Mike Guentzel, also had a son who played four years with the Irish. So it's not surprising that despite the Gophers heading to the Big Ten and the Irish joining Hockey East in two years, the two hockey programs will be seeing a lot of each other.
"Selfishly, we'll be playing them the next four years," said Lucia, with a smile. "That's kind of how it works out. That was part of the recruiting process. It's a good opponent for us to play too."
For college hockey fans in the region, it could be a kind of re-ignition of the east-west rivalry between the Gophers and Boston University that was so prominent in the 1970s. Either way, where a trip to face the Irish used to mean a chance to grab a relatively easy win or two, there's been an abrupt change in South Bend, which some are calling Indiana's hockey town.
"Everybody felt there's no reason that Notre Dame couldn't be one of the best teams in the country with their location and academics and everything else," Lucia said. "Now they have a great facility to work with and they've had a great run the last five years. It's going to continue and they will be one of the top teams in the country year-in and year-out. They're at the point now where everybody hoped it would be."
In other words, as they prepare to say their final goodbyes to Lefty Smith, the old coach from South St. Paul finally got to witness the long-awaited Irish hockey dreams coming true.