Two seasons ago the Notre Dame hockey team put wheels in motion toward tonight.
Back then the Irish were a freshman-heavy team entering one of the most hostile environments in college hockey at Ralph Engelstad Arena to face traditional power North Dakota. Notre Dame did it during the dead of winter.
“It was a bit of a cold trip,” said Irish winger Bryan Rust, now a junior. “We went up there and I think 10 of our 12 freshmen were in the lineup the first night. Going into their 11,800-seat stadium, completely full, they’re all just yelling at you and cheering as hard as they can. We were all kinda shocked and a little nervous and a little timid to start that game.”
Now things are a bit different as No. 7 North Dakota (5-3-2) holds up its end of the bargain with a trip to the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend this weekend for a two-game series.
Sixth-ranked Notre Dame (8-3-0) has turned that group of freshmen into the veteran core of a team coming off its first road sweep of Michigan as a program since the mid-1970s. Welcoming in North Dakota caps off a brutal stretch of schedule that included Western Michigan, Boston College and the Wolverines.
North Dakota is a less frequent opponent than the others but no less an eye catcher.
“Obviously, a very storied program,” said defenseman Robbie Russo. “They have that on their side. A lot of tradition. They’re usually a pretty physical team, so I think we’ll be well prepared for that.”
Adding such a marquee program to the home slate started with making the trip to Grand Forks, N.D., a couple seasons ago. Head coach Jeff Jackson put series like that on the books in advance of knowing a new building would be completed back home.
Similar deals were worked out with Minnesota-Duluth, which came to South Bend earlier this season, and Boston University.
All of it has been a deliberate attempt to put some of the best programs in college hockey in front of the home crowd. Paying the price with taking some lumps on the road the last few years was all part of that process.
“We paid the heavy price to play in North Dakota a couple years ago and in Duluth and at Boston University so we could bring these teams to our fans,” Jackson said. “That was the idea. That’s why we played those teams on the road the last few years. So once this building was in place we could play teams of that caliber, highly recognized college hockey programs.
“If you’re a normal fan and you say North Dakota, you wouldn’t recognize them maybe for basketball but you certainly would recognize them for hockey.”
Playing in a friendly environment will be a stark contrast to the 6-3 loss in North Dakota a couple years ago. A more mature Notre Dame team will be waiting this time around.
“It’s gonna be a little bit different this year,” Rust said. “We’ve grown up a bit. We’re kinda looking to take it to them as opposed to having them dictate the pace.”