It was March 2016 and the unthinkable had finally happened. After years of developing rivalries with schools in the Big Ten, the speculation was finally over. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish had joined the Big Ten conference.
One small detail: They would only be joining the conference for men’s ice hockey.
Much like the addition of Notre Dame to the ACC in basketball, I was overcome with excitement to hear about the Irish joining the B1G in hockey. Unlike basketball, this wasn’t because I necessarily thought it would bring on better competition, that’s for debate. Leaving Hockey East for the B1G was a plus for multiple reasons.
Joining the conference meant the team no longer had to constantly fly to the east coast anymore. It meant the Irish got to play college hockey blue-bloods Minnesota Golden Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers. It meant Notre Dame football fans could carry over their disdain of the Ohio State Buckeyes and Penn State Nittany Lions into hockey. But most importantly, it meant the Irish got the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans four times a year. Among schools that have Division 1 hockey, there aren’t two teams that are more hated by Irish fans.
There is always pride in winning your conference. In theory, that’s why teams play the regular season. Despite being the new kids on the block, Notre Dame playing a B1G schedule this hockey season has just felt right. In their four years in the Hockey East, the Irish had success, with three NCAA tournament appearances and a trip to the 2017 Frozen Four. Despite their success, it never felt like they truly belonged. After all, they were the only team to play outside of New England.
Friday’s 2-1 win over Ohio State guaranteed the Irish the only bye in the Big Ten Tournament and home ice for the semifinal game for the conference tournament. More importantly though, by winning their third regular season conference championship, it solidified their inaugural B1G season as an historic one.
The college hockey world has seen how great of a year it’s been for the Irish. They’ve been #1 in both polls five times this season, they still haven’t lost a road game in regulation, and it took them until January 21st to lose a conference game.
Anyone who follows the sport is also well aware of how amazing of a season Cale Morris is having in net for the Irish. The sophomore from Colorado should win the Richter Award and has a chance to be the third goaltender to win the Hobey Baker. This team also has six NHL Draft picks in Dennis Gilbert, Matt Hellickson, Jake Evans, Joe Wegwerth and Andrew Peeke. That’s not to mention Jordan Gross, who has to be considered one of the top free agents out there. To top it all off, they have one of the all-time greats in Jeff Jackson behind the bench.
This season is one that should not be taken for granted by Notre Dame fans. Since becoming a varsity sport again for the 1984-85 season, the Irish have three Frozen Four appearances and one national championship game appearance. The program is certainly going in the right direction and more good days are ahead, but this year’s team looks to be the perfect storm. They tasted the Frozen Four last year, they have a head coach who has three national championships, and now they’ve won their conference regular season championship. It’s been an incredible year to follow Notre Dame hockey as they accomplished their goal of winning the B1G regular season, let’s hope the accomplishments keep coming.