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March 22, 2013

by Kyle Kujawa -

NCAA hockey is coming to Grand Rapids, as Van Andel Arena will host the West Regional of the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament on March 29 and 30! Four of college hockey’s top teams will compete in West Michigan to secure a spot in next month’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, and fans can purchase a two-day, three-game pass for just $65 by clicking here. Several Griffins have participated in the NCAA tournament, and we’ll highlight their experiences throughout March.

Not many schools have a longer hockey history than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but they never had much to show for their efforts since the late ‘60s, when they revived a program that had operated from 1912-27. The school didn’t appear in the NCAA tournament until 2004, and it was unsuccessful in advancing to the Frozen Four until 2008.

But recent success has paved the way for the program to make appearances on a more regular basis, says current Grand Rapids Griffins center Riley Sheahan.

“I think it’s helped the program,” said Sheahan, who played three seasons with the Fighting Irish from 2009-12. “This year they went on a really good run. The big thing in college hockey is the experience. If you have guys who have been on that high stage before, it definitely helps.”

Led by another Griffins connection in goaltender Jordan Pearce, the Fighting Irish came into the NCAA tournament as the top seed in 2008, when they lost in the finals to Boston College. The next year, they landed a regional appearance in Grand Rapids as the top seed, in the tournament's most recent visit to Van Andel Arena. They were upset by a Cinderella Bemidji State team, but expectations grew the following season.

Sheahan said the Fighting Irish failed to deliver during his freshman season, though, leading a very young team into uncertain waters as a sophomore. “Going into the season, I don’t think we were on the radar,” said Sheahan. “We were underdogs and we had 12 freshmen. I think the attitude we had was just to have some fun. We didn’t have too much pressure on us, so it was more or less a relaxed environment.”

Notre Dame reclaimed its spot among the nation’s elite teams in 2010-11. Unlike basketball’s March Madness, which invites 68 teams to its tournament, hockey only allows 16. Winning your conference is the easiest way to get in, but the Fighting Irish fell flat in the CCHA playoffs. Still, they found a spot in the NCAA tournament based on their regular season success.

“We started to believe in ourselves once we started playing teams that we knew were competitive,” said Sheahan. “Once we got to that point, we really buckled down. We realized we could do some damage in the tournament. Even though we lost both games in the CCHA tournament, we earned a berth from our season ranking and wanted to take advantage of that.”

Notre Dame upset Merrimack in overtime to open the tournament, and Sheahan helped the team secure its spot in the Frozen Four with two assists in a 2-1 win over New Hampshire in the regional final.

“It’s kind of intimidating, especially having a younger roster,” said Sheahan. “But it was something we experienced the whole year, so it wasn’t too much of a burden.”

Those two wins led to a match with Minnesota-Duluth to open the Frozen Four. Minnesota was the site of the Frozen Four, so a largely hometown crowd cheered Minnesota-Duluth to a victory over Notre Dame and, eventually, a National Championship.

“We got into some penalty trouble,” said Sheahan. “But we kept it a close game; we lost 4-3. All in all, just playing in front of that many people in a hockey environment like Minnesota was awesome. You’re sharing the experience with your closest friends in your teammates, so it was pretty fun.”

It wasn’t the result Sheahan wanted, but he remembers it as an educational experience. Although Sheahan bowed out after his junior season to turn pro, he still keeps very close tabs on his former teammates and hopes that they’ll get another shot in the near future.

“We had a lot of great personalities on that team and good coaching too, so they made it a lot of fun,” he said. “It helps with the experience that they have now, that the freshman who played in that tournament (in 2011) are juniors.”

Sheahan, who has ranked among the AHL’s top 15 rookies in scoring for most of the season, credits much of his development and transition to pro hockey to his experiences in South Bend.

“The biggest thing is the pace of the game and bigger bodies,” said Sheahan. “Guys in college tend to play a little more physical. I think that part of it helped me prepare for this style. There are older guys here who are bigger and stronger, so things like protecting the puck and the defensive game have come a little easier to me than if I went somewhere other than Notre Dame.

“The tournament is really, really intense,” he continued. “When you have guys that are playing just two games a week, the intensity rises because you have more rest and a lot more time to analyze your opponent. Lots of big hits and fast play can be expected.”

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