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Notre Dame Hockey: What a Long Way You’ve Come

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Onward Notre Dame ...

Photo by Lisa Kelly

As a Notre Dame student I loved going to Notre Dame football games, but my second favorite sport to attend as an undergrad was Notre Dame Hockey. Post graduation, I fell away from ND Hockey as there really wasn’t anywhere to watch it on TV ... that is until NBC Sports picked up coverage of Notre Dame hockey in 2011. That was when I fell back in love with Notre Dame hockey, and became fans of players like Ian Cole, Anders Lee, and Bryan Rust. And now that ND hockey is in the Big 10 Conference, (and absolutely killing it I might add), they are so much fun to watch. But if you’ve been a Notre Dame hockey fan for as long as I have, you also know that the incredible successes the program is enjoying now haven’t always been the case. I had the chance to talk to one of my fellow classmates, Brett Bruininks, about his experience as a hockey player at Notre Dame, and how far the Notre Dame hockey program has come in the last 30 years.

Brett’s freshmen year at Notre Dame was also ND’s first year in the CCHA. It was a big step for Notre Dame hockey, and helped propel them towards where the program is today. “Notre Dame was the place for me, even before I saw the rink. Having the opportunity to play in the CCHA was a big deal for me. With my being a bigger player, the CCHA had the reputation at the time of being a more physical league, and that was perfect for me. And with Notre Dame being a brand new team in the CCHA, it was awesome. It gave me the opportunity to contribute immediately to a new team. Everybody wants playing time, and I’m a big fan of you’ve got to earn your playing time; Notre Dame gave me every opportunity to try and secure a spot in the lineup. That was a big factor for me. When I saw ten freshman come in that year with me, I knew the school was committed to building the program. It was a little bit of a risk going into a new program, but I kind of liked being a part of something you can build.”

“I remember my first inter squad captains practice, I was coming off two national championships in Junior hockey, one with the St. Paul Vulcans and the other with the Des Moines Buccaneers; and so I was used to some success. A couple of the upperclassmen players said to me, ‘well, get used to losing.’ That’s not my mentality. I believe you’ve got to do everything you can to get rid of that kind of mentality; it can be destructive. And I think we did, as a group, bring in a little bit more life to that program. Some of my best experiences at Notre Dame were during my freshman year. Maybe it was because I was a 21 year old freshman. All of the guys that I hung out with were the seniors that year: Dan Sawyer, Eric Gregoire, Tom Arkell, David Bankoske and Matt Osiecke to name a few. And so for me, when those guys left, while I missed them, they also had a huge impact on my loving the school. Just by those guys taking me under their wings and showing me the ropes, I think I appreciated the school more by hanging out with the older guys first, as opposed to hanging out with the 17-18 year old roommates that I had.”

“The first time we faced Michigan, we played back-to-back games, and we lost them both 13-2. We just got lit up. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘wow, I just won a national championship (in Junior hockey), and we just got outscored 26-4.’ Even the team I was on in high school was successful, so the whole experience at Notre Dame was a whole new world to me. If the team had been a bunch of ill-tempered jerks, it would have been a tougher pill to swallow, but these guys were so genuine. They were just such good people and were willing to work and compete every day; and that fact made it easier to not necessarily ‘accept’ the losing environment in which we were in. Some teams would have imploded, but we kept at it. I played with a lot of incredible competitors during my four years there. Win or lose, I was confident that we had each other’s back; that goes a long way in hard times. I take a lot of principles that I learned from those guys into my classroom, my coaching, and into my family life. We had each other’s back, all day long. We focused on school and hockey, but we made time to have a little fun as well. When you’re immersed in it, you don’t realize how genuine the guys truly were until you are removed from it; at which point you can truly appreciate it.”

“When Dave Poulin came in and saw the dingy locker room we were using, his first response was, ‘nope, we’re not doing that.’ He got us our own locker room with the Notre Dame symbol on the floor and our own wood stalls. We thought it was the greatest thing ever, and we never for one second took it for granted. I think that was just one of many things Coach Poulin did to push the program forward. Obviously he had a huge influence on the program, and in return he got the support of the University. Look where the program is now with Jeff Jackson. Hopefully, what we did, and others before us, during our time at Notre Dame helped lead the program on to bigger and better things. I probably don’t take advantage of the ‘Notre Dame connection’ as much as some people do, but I do see the reactions when you tell people that you went there.”

Brett Bruininks may have only played under Head Coach Dave Poulin for one year of his Notre Dame career, but in that short time Coach Poulin left quite an impression on Brett and his teammates. “And then Coach Poulin came in. Not only did he have the credentials, but I think we were able to separate his playing history, from what he brought to the team. He brought a different vibe and different expectations. Poulin inherited a team (which was my senior year) that had experienced a lot of losses, and he came in with the expectation that this was going to change. I think the one big thing he brought in was hope and drive. He told us, ‘if you’re not going to try and make this program better, you’re not going to be here;’ and I think that was a good message. One experience sticks out in my mind that will help illustrate this idea.”

“Up until my senior year, I had played every single game, and I was looking at the potential of playing every single game of my career at Notre Dame; not missing one. There came a point in my senior season where I wasn’t playing well, and Coach Poulin made me sit out of a weekend series at Western Michigan. I will admit, I was so pissed at the time and lets say I somewhat destroyed a locker room. My whole family (my brother, step-mother, and father), who is from Michigan, had flown in to see me play, and he sat me the entire weekend. I was the captain of the team and I was pissed. Not just pissed, but really, really mad. But here’s the thing, I wasn’t playing well, and as a designated leader on the team, he expected more from me. He never straight out told me why he sat me, but I figured it out pretty quickly. After that I went on an eight or nine goal streak, and I stayed out of the penalty box. He taught me that it was better to play quality minutes than to play quantity minutes; pretty powerful message. More importantly, the message I got was… just because you have a uniform and you’re out there playing, doesn’t mean you’re doing the job. There’s always someone bigger, faster, stronger waiting in the wings to step in and take your place. What are you going to do to bridge that gap? I would have absolutely benefited from having a few more years with him.”

“With Poulin, it was the start of a new era for Notre Dame Hockey. We learned a lot about how to play winning hockey that year, and he learned a lot about coaching. It’s not easy to step in somewhere, (you didn’t recruit any of the players) even though you are a hall of famer, and have Olympic and All-Star experience, and change things around right away; but he made some great changes in a very short time. Coach Poulin definitely revived the passion and competitive spirit within us. At the end of my senior year, I got a call from Coach Poulin and he informed me that he had called the Philadelphia Flyers on my behalf. I was looking at graduate schools, and not necessarily thinking about the potential of playing professional hockey. Needless-to-say, his phone call was pivotal for my hockey life beyond ND. I really appreciated him going out on a limb for me, especially at a time when very few college kids went on to play professional hockey. When I left, I knew the program was going to be good, and look at them now. I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of the most important and influential experience(s) I had during my four years at Notre Dame; the time I got to spend with Lefty Smith. To be honest, what can you really say to do it justice? He is a legend. He didn’t have to, but he took the time to talk with me after most, if not all of the home games he attended. He shared his knowledge and his ideas about the game. Most importantly, he would critique my play. I’d like to think we got along because we were basically cut from the same cloth; a blue collar coach and a blue collar player; he appreciated hard work and physical play. Despite his ‘gruff’ nature, he cared greatly for Notre Dame and Fighting Irish Hockey. I’m fortunate to have had that time with him. I’m confident he would be thrilled and just so proud to see where the program is now. It’s been such a long time coming.”

Now that Notre Dame has secured it’s second straight Big Ten Championship, I am excited to watch them play in the NCAA Regionals, starting on Friday, March 29th. And if you too are a fan of Notre Dame hockey, you’ll be able to read more of Brett’s story in my new book coming out this fall, Triumphs From Notre Dame: The Echoes of Her Loyal Sons and Daughters.

Cheers & GO IRISH!