SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame, which may have benefitted from St. Lawrence’s COVID-19 issues in receiving an NCAA hockey tournament invitation last Sunday, was forced to withdraw from the 16-team event Thursday because of its own positive test results.
Coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish were already in Albany, N.Y., the site of the NCAA Northeast Regional and where Notre Dame was set to play No. 1 seed Boston College Saturday afternoon, when the decision was made.
In a release received shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday, the university said, “Due to positive COVID-19 test results within its Tier I testing group (coaches and players) and in accordance with University of Notre Dame policies, the NCAA and the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee, the Notre Dame hockey team will no longer participate in the 2021 NCAA Championship. This decision was made in consultation with the Albany County Public Health Department and the NCAA Medical Advisory Group.”
The announcement came four days after Notre Dame (14-13-2) received a berth in their fifth straight NCAA tournament despite falling 6-3 to Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament March 14 at the Compton Family Ice Arena.
“It’s an unfortunate situation and I feel for our guys, especially our seniors,” Jackson said in the release. “The team was excited about returning to the NCAA tournament and ready to continue competing after earning the opportunity. But with the multiple positives and subsequent contact tracing it became clear that for the safety of our team and the others in the tournament we could not proceed.”
After their loss to the Nittany Lions, the Irish still had hopes of receiving an at-large NCAA berth. Jackson had his team practice March 17-20 while remaining in Big Ten protocols, hoping the team’s 4-1-1 season finish and 4-7-1 record against the league’s top three teams — tourney champion Minnesota, runner-up Wisconsin and semifinalist Michigan, the Nos. 2, 4 and 8 teams in the latest USCHO.com (media) rankings — made Notre Dame a viable tourney candidate.
The NCAA selection committee would eventually make Minnesota and Wisconsin No. 1 seeds in the West Regional (Loveland, Colo.) and East Regional (Bridgeport, Conn.), respectively, and Michigan a No. 2 seed at the Midwest Regional (Fargo, N.D.) to the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed North Dakota.
But prior to revealing the 16 teams in the field Sunday night, COVID-19 reared its ugly head against the St. Lawrence hockey program. Coach Brent Brekke’s 6-8-3 Saints, who had scored a stunning 3-2 overtime victory at then 10th-ranked Quinnipiac in the ECAC Tournament championship last Saturday to gain the league’s automatic tournament bid, forfeited the chance of playing in the tournament late Sunday afternoon after positive COVID-19 test results among its Tier I personnel.
No one knows for sure if St. Lawrence’s misfortune turned into temporary fortune for Notre Dame, though Jackson and many thought it did Sunday.
“We were fortunate to get in on St. Lawrence’s misfortune by the sounds of it,” Jackson said Sunday evening. “First of all, I feel for Brent Brekke, he’s a good man. … We’ve all gone through this COVID stuff.”
Despite seven rounds of testing in seven days before departing for Albany Wednesday, COVID wasn’t through with the Fighting Irish.
This year’s tournament field and pairings became official 24 hours after the bids went out Sunday night, which means none of the other teams on the bubble will have a chance to replace Notre Dame.
Saturday’s game against Boston College, which has a 24-20-2 lead in its hockey series with Notre Dame, including a 4-1 victory in the 2008 national championship game at Denver, becomes a no contest, moving Jerry York’s Eagles into the regional title game against the winner of Saturday’s first-round game between No. 2 seed St. Cloud State and No. 3 seed Boston University, BC’s Hockey East rival.
The Irish tied for the regular-season NCAA lead with 28 games played and played a 29th without a COVID-19 delay.
Officially, it is Notre Dame’s fifth straight NCAA appearance, including four prior to last year’s tournament being canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning. Two of those prior four appearances were trips to the NCAA Frozen Four in 2017 and 2018, the latter ending with a 2-1 loss to Minnesota Duluth in the championship game at Saint Paul, Minn. This is the 12th NCAA tournament appearance for Notre Dame and 11th under Jackson.