Dave Poulin is fond of talking about little steps. When his Fighting Irish took Michigan to three games in Yost during the first round of the CCHA playoffs to cap the 1997-98 season, that was a significant little step.
When the Irish captured home ice at the end of the 1998-99 season and lost in three games to a powerful Northern Michigan squad, that was another.
But when Notre Dame beat Ferris State in three games in South Bend to earn a trip to the CCHA semifinals this year, “little” wasn’t the word that came to mind.
“That series was a big one, especially for me as a freshman,” says defender Evan Nielsen. “I wasn’t there the year before when they had a similar situation, losing big on Saturday, and I think everybody decided [this year]…that to let that happen again would be horrible.”
After being spanked 6-1 by the Bulldogs in the second game of the first-round series, the Irish responded with a hard-fought 4-2 win to step up to Detroit for the first time in nearly 20 years. In fact, the last time Notre Dame participated in the CCHA championship tournament, young Mr. Nielsen wasn’t yet one year old.
Poulin, on the other hand, was the senior captain for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 1981-82, when Michigan State beat them for the league crown, 4-1.
“It’s a pleasure to be going back to Joe Louis,” said Poulin. “I’ve talked to my team about this from the day I arrived on campus.”
The CCHA title game is a goal for every team in the league, but for some programs, the road to The Joe is a bit longer, or takes a more winding path. With the incredible success of Nebraska-Omaha in its first year as a league affiliate to contrast, the journey of the Fighting Irish during Poulin’s tenure seems unremarkable.
Don’t be fooled. In a city where football is king, on a campus over which “Touchdown Jesus” keeps watch, where the rink is an afterthought that occupies half of a circular multi-purpose facility, with a program that has seen just five winning seasons since Poulin captained the Irish to Detroit, what the Notre Dame coach has done to rebuild the Irish hockey program is remarkable, especially since he’s been forced to take those steps one at a time.
Nine wins his first season. Nine his second, 18 his third, and 19 his fourth. Sixteen wins this season, with a squad that he can finally call all his own.
And, finally this season, enough scholarship money to make the CCHA recruiting field a bit more level.
Make no mistake about it; Poulin is the reason for the Irish turnaround.
“I love him. He does a great job of relating to players,” says freshman goalie Tony Zasowski. “He’s not that far removed [from us] and he’s been through it all, basically everything we have.”
“He’s a good hockey guy, loves the sport. I’ve been happy with the choice [of schools],” says Nielsen.
Says David Inman, one of three Irish players to participate in this year’s World Juniors, “I remember coming down and the rink was a big deal, but it isn’t in the same way. It’s more of the program, the coach that matters. I think as far as Coach Poulin…he’s a great coach, a great mentor, a good guy to point you in the direction that you need to go to make it to the NHL.”
Poulin, of course, can draw on his own experiences in the NHL to guide his current players. All told, Poulin played in 724 NHL games, registering 205 goals and 325 assists. Poulin donned jerseys for the Philadelphia Flyers (1983-90), the Boston Bruins (1990-93), and the Washington Capitals (1993-95). He helped lead three teams to the Stanley Cup finals (Philly in ’85 and ’87, and Boston in ’90). Poulin was twice selected to play in the NHL All-Star game (’86 and ’88), and in 1987 won the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward.
Anyone who knows Poulin knows he’s a fierce competitor, which is something that made the start of this season difficult to take.
“We had an interesting year, to say the least,” says Poulin. “We started extremely slow [due to] a combination of factors, the primary one being we just played poorly.”
After flying out of the gate at the start of the 1998-99 season with a six-game win streak and going 9-3-2 in October and November of that campaign, and then not making the NCAA playoffs, this year’s 2-5-1 beginning appeared to be a step backwards.
“We had a pretty strong upward curve over the four years preceding [this season], and I think a number of players and possibly the coaches as well just thought it was going to continue to go up,” says Poulin.
“In this league, it gets tougher every day; it doesn’t get easier. Our expectations were very high, and we were disappointed in our play early on.”
So what did the Irish coach do with that disappointing start? Just what anyone who knows Dave Poulin would do; he turned it into a positive.
In early November, 1999, Poulin tried to put the slow start into context. “We went through a slump last season but it was midseason. At that point, you say, ‘Hey, every team goes through this every year. We go through this every year.’
“But, at the beginning of the season, when you don’t have many wins behind you, you can lose perspective.” Poulin also said that the Irish’s humbling October gave them a new opportunity for growth.
“When we started as fast as we did last year, we didn’t really get the chance to address what we needed to address,” he noted.
With those early-season lessons learned, Notre Dame’s season improved bit by bit. While the Irish were not known for their scoring prowess this year, Notre Dame did have a solid defensive corps, led by four seniors: Nathan Borega, Tyson Fraser, Sean Molina, and Sean Seyferth.
The Irish underclassmen know how difficult it will be to fill those skates and continue to build on what Poulin has begun.
“Borega and Molina–nobody gave them any credit all season long because they’re stay-home defensemen, but I knew when they were out there I didn’t have too much to worry about it,” says Zasowski.
“Then we had Sean Seyferth and [Tyson] Fraser. Sean really stepped up this year and did real well…made himself a part of the regular lineup. I knew who was in front of me every night. It’s going to be a lot harder to come back [without those four], and it will make my job a lot harder.”
“It’s been great playing with all of those guys,” says Neilsen. “I had a chance to learn, and they made it a lot easier for me coming in. Those are some big shoes to fill back there. I don’t know if we’ll have a Nathan Borega coming in, but hopefully we’ll get some good new guys and we’ll do our best to fill those spots.
“I’ve learned a lot from the older guys. Hopefully we’ll stay on that upward slope. There’s more to come.”
The remaining Irish are optimistic not just for the future of the team, but also about building a hockey tradition in a school best known for other sports.
“The biggest way to do that at any school is win,” says Zasowski. “The only way to get the students behind you and the people in town is to win. You really have to play for that. The football team has won, the basketball team as well. Hopefully people will take notice of us being here for the first time in twenty years, and take note that we’re here to stay and that we’ll keep getting better.
“We’ve got a great bunch of freshmen…a great bunch of guys here, and we’ve got a good bunch coming in. Poulin really has us in the right direction, so the future is out there for us.”
Inman says that the challenge of building something practically from scratch rather than walking into a ready-made situation was a factor in his decision to play for Notre Dame.
“That was one of the things that I looked at closely. Was the team going to rebuild and be good in the years to come? I could tell that the basics were there. The program has really turned around, and I wanted to be a part of it.
“Maybe stepping into a school that had already been established might have been a little bit different situation, but I thought that this was the place where I was going to get to play and contribute, and be part of something that’s going to be great in a few years.”
Neilsen says that the stories the outgoing seniors have told about the recent history of Notre Dame hockey have been encouraging.
“The more we talk to these guys [the seniors] at the end of their careers…they talk a lot about how it was when they came, and it’s come a long way in those four years. It’s getting better and better, with more and more people coming to the games. There are still those people who don’t know that we have a team, or think it’s a club team…but our core of fans that are there are great. And in South Bend, too, people know about us more and more.”
Neilsen, Zasowski, and the other youngsters in South Bend do well to listen to their older counterparts.
As senior Ben Simon said after the 4-0 loss to Michigan State in the CCHA semifinals, “It’s gone by quick. A lot of great memories. I’m going to look back and smile, to know I was part of this program.”
In Detroit this past weekend, Dave Poulin was able to look back at 20 years of Notre Dame hockey and take stock.
Twenty years from now, those who have invested the time and energy in continuing the work that Poulin has started may look back and see March 17, 2000–St. Patrick’s Day–as the first of many big steps for the Irish.