The Comeback Kid

Notre Dame’s Dan VeNard is a living, breathing example of the criteria for the Terry Flanagan Memorial Award, presented annually by the CCHA in honor of the former Bowling Green assistant coach who died from cancer in 1991.

The award honors a player “for perseverance, dedication and courage while overcoming severe adversity.”

Adversity is VeNard’s middle name; the 2007-08 season is the first time he’s been healthy enough to play a whole season since early on at Ashwaubenon High School in Green Bay, Wis.

“I try my hardest not to jinx myself or say anything about getting hurt,” said VeNard, a senior defenseman. “This has been unbelievable. The last time I played a full season was my sophomore year in high school when I was 16.

“It’s been a blast.”

Of course, the fact that Notre Dame captured the Midwest Regional and earned a first-ever trip to the Frozen Four (the Irish will play Michigan in the semifinals) has made the season all the more enjoyable.

Following is a list of the “adversities” VeNard has overcome:

• During his junior year in high school he tore his right ACL in the first game of the season and didn’t return until there were eight games remaining.

• He separated his right shoulder versus Western Michigan as a Notre Dame freshman, missed seven weeks and didn’t return to the lineup until New Year’s Day.

• A stress fracture in a leg forced him to miss the first three games of his sophomore year.

• As a junior his right ribcage was sliced by a skate in a game. The wound required 15 stitches and he missed four games.

• He played in four games after the cut healed. Then, he got decked (again versus Western Michigan) and suffered a “massive” quad contusion. (VeNard: “We knew it wasn’t a standard Charlie horse. My body, in one of those weird mechanisms, thought my leg was broken and the muscles got calcified. I still have lumps in my left quad.”)

No wonder VeNard is ecstatic over the fact he’s played all 45 games — just 16 less than he played in his first three seasons combined — and has set career highs in goals (five), assists (seven) and points (12) while wearing an “A” on his uniform which indicates he’s an alternate captain.

But VeNard never has been one to wallow in self-pity.

“At some point you ask ‘What’s going on with my body?'” he said. “‘How come I can’t stay healthy and everyone else seems to be fine taking the exact same hits?’ I never really got down or discouraged about it. I attributed a lot of my injuries to the fact I always was coming back from injuries.

“You’re not used to taking hits and there’s a tendency to get hurt when you’re not in top shape — especially when you’re going against guys who are wheeling around.”

Want another example of his mindset?

During his acceptance speech after he was presented the Flanagan Award, VeNard mentioned his injuries and thanked all the players who were responsible for them.

“I looked them all up,” said VeNard. “I didn’t want to go up and be dry and stiff. The CCHA does a phenomenal job with the awards banquet. I thought it would be fun.”

Hopefully, so did Irish coach Jeff Jackson, whom VeNard thanked for the stress fracture “because of all the running we did prior to my sophomore year.”

And then there were his teammates.

“They say my body is made out of used parts and flowers,” said VeNard. “But I thanked them because I’ve had phenomenal teammates throughout the years

“They like to joke around but when I’m out, they never make me feel like I’m not part of the team.”

Good point.

While part of VeNard’s acceptance speech was made in jest, the opposite was the case when he “addressed” the team during the first intermission of the regional semifinal against New Hampshire with the game tied at 2.

“To be honest, I’m probably the quietest captain on the team,” he said. “But that’s what hammered home the message because guys were surprised. You can’t print a lot of what I said. We had been given a second chance to get into the tournament because we had struggled.

“We got outshot 15-6 and scored two power-play goals and were tied 2-2. I said you don’t get many opportunities this often and you can’t throw them away. It took some calling out of some key players who were sleeping. Some guys I knew could take it the right way, and everything worked out.”

Indeed. The Irish waxed the Wildcats, 7-3, and then beat Michigan State, 3-1, in the finals.

In the same vein, VeNard also is a leader off the ice.

He’s the president of Notre Dame’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which acts as a “buffer” between the faculty athletic board and athletic director Dr. Kevin White. It “hashes out issues and concerns” any of the school’s 26 teams may have.

VeNard also is the hockey team’s community-service leader.

Along with some of his fellow seniors, he participates in the South Bend Read Program for elementary school students.

He volunteers every week at the early childhood development program on campus.

And he was nominated for the prestigious Hockey Humanitarian Award.

Taking into consideration all of the above, are there any questions why?