Hockey rivalry with No. 5 Michigan is fierce
By BILL HART
Associate Sports Editor
After one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory, many Notre Dame hockey fans hoped this year's team would provide the same thrills.
As it turns out, those fans will not have to wait long.
The Irish hockey team starts their regular season tonight at 7:05 p.m. against one of their fiercest rivals, the fifth-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
"It's a great way to start," said Irish head coach Dave Poulin. "There's no question. It's nice that it's the first CCHA game of the year, so all the focus is right here tonight."
While the many battles between the Irish and Wolverines dates back to 1921, last season's three-game series proved to be one of the most exciting in recent history. The series was split 1-1-1 during the season, with a margin of victory never greater than one goal.
The last time the two teams met, left wing Aniket Dhadphale scored the deciding goal with less than five minutes remaining in the game, off a rebound shot by Dan Carlson.
"This will be great start for us," senior defenseman Tyson Fraser said. "We've got a big history with Michigan over my last three years. We've been really close and they've always seemed to get a bounce or a break. We're just going to go out there, lay everything we have on the ice and play as hard as we can."
With the intensity of last season's games, Poulin believes this match-up is fast becoming Notre Dame's greatest rivalry.
"With the proximity of the two schools and the fact that we compete in so many different sports, I think it is the rivalry for us. Both teams play very aggressive offensively, and with both teams built for speed, it's going to be very exciting hockey."
Head to head
Michigan starts the season the odds-on favorite for the CCHA title, holding first place in the conference coaches' preseason poll. The team returns many veterans from last season, including last year's leading scorer and CCHA rookie of the year, Mike Comrie.
"They're very skilled up front," Poulin said about the Wolverines. "There's no question. They've had a little bit of adjustment on defense, though, since they've lost a couple of players. But up front, they have as much firepower as anyone in the country does. You don't want to get into a shootout with them."
But the Irish return 18 of 24 letterwinners from last season. The squad is headed by senior captain Ben Simon, picked by many to be the CCHA player of the year this season. Simon totaled 18 goals and 24 assists in his junior year.
Still, the loss of four players to graduation, including starting goalie Forrest Karr, leave some holes to be replaced. Three of those players — Brian Urick, Benoit Cotnoir and Dhadphale — scored more than 40 percent of Notre Dame's goals last season.
"They're four very key players," Poulin remarked. "They meant a lot to this program, and did a lot for the elevation of it. You don't replace a player such as Brian Urick; other players have to pick up the pieces, and I'm encouraged by our depth."
That depth will prove fairly important this season, as the Irish return eight players with more than 10 points each last season. Nine of the current Irish forwards this season have NHL draft status or experience with national programs.
Defensively, the trio of Nathan Borega, Fraser and Sean Molina lead a veteran contingent that includes at least five seniors that have played a combined 401 career games.
In addition to the current lineup, the Irish have gained one of the top freshman classes in the nation, including four former members of the USA Developmental Program and the top goaltender of the United States Hockey League last season.
Two new members of the coaching staff also enter the Irish roster this season. John Micheletto, who spent three season as top assistant coach at Union College, will share primary assistant coaching duties with seven-year assistant Andy Slaggert. Irish fans may remember the other new face, volunteer coach Greg Louder. A goaltender for the Irish from 1990-94, Louder currently is enrolled in the Notre Dame MBA program and is working the Irish goalies.
"He's been a great addition since he joined us in July," Poulin said." Greg's one of the top goalies to go through a Notre Dame program. It's a perfect fit, having him on board."
In addition to the new faces on the coaching staff, a new team has joined up in the CCHA. Nebraska Omaha has entered as a 12th team, prompting a change in conference alignment. The CCHA now consists of three "clusters," each consisting of four teams. This season, the Irish will compete with UNO, Alaska-Fairbanks and Michigan State.
While the addition of a new team may change future Irish schedules, it won't affect the goals the team has set for itself.
"We want to take the next step," Poulin said. "And the next step for us is the CCHA Tournament in Joe Louis Arena. From there, history says you have a terrific chance of the NCAA bid."
For Fraser, however, the stakes are set even higher.
"We have a pyramid of goals posted on our locker room wall," he said. "Ultimately, our goal is to win a national championship, but it's the little things, the foundation, that have to get done first. Every single game, even the practice games, it all adds up to achieving those goals."
All Sports Stories for Thursday, October 7, 1999