In new arena, Notre Dame finds ‘last piece to the puzzle’

When Jeff Jackson was announced as Notre Dame’s hockey coach in May 2005, the Fighting Irish were coming off the worst season in the program’s modern history. While Jackson improved the on-ice product almost immediately, he knew that upgrading the substandard facilities would be critical if the program was to enjoy lasting success.

On Friday, Jackson will finally see his vision become a reality when No. 2 Notre Dame hosts Rensselaer in the first game at the $50 million, 5,000-seat Compton Family Ice Arena, which has been under construction for the better part of two years on the south end of campus.

The Fighting Irish have certainly legitimized themselves on the ice over the past five seasons, reaching two Frozen Fours, and the new rink should only help to cement their status as a collegiate hockey powerhouse.

“I think it’s the last piece to the puzzle,” Jackson said.

Associate coach Andy Slaggert has been a part of the Notre Dame hockey for longer than anyone. He played for the program’s first coach, Lefty Smith, in the late 1980s, and he has worked for every head coach the Irish have had since — Ric Schafer, Dave Poulin and now Jackson.

Slaggert had been selling recruits on the promise of a new arena for years, and he’s excited about the possibilities now that the building is finally in place.

“It definitely removes what was the biggest question about our program — ‘What about the facilities?'” Slaggert said. “That was obviously a pretty standard question during the recruiting process, and that’s just not there anymore. It wasn’t something that was insurmountable … but it was a question. It’s going to go from not being a question to being a major positive.

“I think a facility is a physical sign of the importance of a program to the university, so I think this really shows … that hockey is important at Notre Dame.”

The main arena — surrounding a rink named for Smith — boasts two levels of seating, with a club section and plenty of standing room on the upper level. A second rink, an Olympic-sized sheet, will be available for student and community use as well as national team training. The Compton Family Ice Arena also includes upgraded locker rooms, offices and training facilities, including a weight room.

All of the coaches and players admit that they’re leaving the Joyce Center with some fond memories of the program’s meteoric rise, but they’re certainly looking forward to bringing Notre Dame hockey to the next level.

“I think it’s a huge step,” senior defenseman Sean Lorenz said. “I think when kids come and visit the new rink and see what we have to offer, especially with the facilities that we’re putting in, they’re going to be blown away. That’s just going to draw more high-end recruits, and the program’s just going to go up from there. With moving to Hockey East, the TV contracts and all of that, it’s going to be huge for the program.

“Our long-term goal is to have a great program here that’s got a great tradition and recruits for itself, and we’re getting to that point,” Jackson added. “The building will certainly now be a part of that.”

The players have had a handful of chances to practice on the new ice, and the sheet has earned rave reviews. Nearly everything else in the building, however, including the locker rooms, has been off limits due to construction. Therefore, the Fighting Irish are moving in virtually sight unseen, with hardly any time to get settled before the first game — but that hasn’t dampened the excitement at all.

“We know it’s going to be top-end,” Lorenz said. “Everything here is.”

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Video courtesy Notre Dame Athletics