Hockey scores a happier home

Author: Rachel Guerrera ’10

Since his arrival on campus, Coach Jeff Jackson has transformed Notre Dame hockey into one of the nation’s elite programs. The Irish icers have become a hot local ticket, too, often drawing sellout crowds to the rink inside the Joyce Center Fieldhouse.

The downside to the team’s sudden popularity is that not all fans have the chance to catch a game because of limited seating inside the lackluster arena. The University had planned to revamp the facility but instead announced last February that the hockey team would have a place to call its own. Plans call for a freestanding ice arena to be completed in time for the 2011-12 season, a move Jackson has called the “most important and missing piece of the puzzle to this hockey program.”

“We wanted something our students are going to be excited about, where people are going to feel good about coming and we won’t have to turn fans away,” he says.

Open to campus and community use, the new arena will seat some 5,000 fans. The space is badly needed. A year ago the team drew a standing-room-only crowd of 3,007 when it faced Michigan. Average attendance — 2,722 fans per game and growing — already exceeds seating capacity and is pushing the normal limits for standing areas. Players and coaches say they are proud of the trend and are looking forward to the roar of an additional 2,000 fans.

“I think we’ll be able to fill it, especially if we keep on bringing people into the building by how we play and by how we act,” says Jackson. “I think that being active on campus and in the community is about being more than just hockey players.”

And active they have been. Last season, the Irish welcomed fans to an outdoor practice at Merrifield Park in Mishawaka, followed by a meet-and-greet with the team. “Our guys do a nice job getting out in the community with local youth hockey programs,” says associate head coach Paul Pooley. “That’s motivating because we need to expand our horizons and get people excited.”

Groundbreaking for the state-of-the-art facility is set for the spring. The arena will contain two sheets of ice, including one of Olympic size, as well as administrative offices, locker room and both weight and cardio training facilities.

“It shows a level of commitment Notre Dame is making to the hockey team,” Pooley adds. “So people down the road say Notre Dame is serious about the game.”

Officials estimate that the yet-unnamed arena and its playing surface, the Charles W. “Lefty” Smith, Jr. Rink, will cost nearly $50 million. Smith retired in 1987 after 19 seasons as the modern varsity team’s first head coach. He helped produce six All-Americans and ended his tenure with 307 victories.

The plans for naming the new ice surface in honor of Smith were made possible by the Mary Jo and John Boler family of Inverness, Illinois; their daughter Jill Boler McCormack ’84 and her husband, Dan; and their son Matthew Boler ’88 and his wife, Christine. They were joined by the family of Mary Beth and Frank ’57 O’Brien of Albany, New York, whose six children all graduated from Notre Dame. The O’Brien’s late son, Frankie, played hockey and lacrosse for the Irish from 1984 to ’88.