Notre Dame's Graham scoring in new role as No. 11 Irish hockey team visits Wisconsin

By John Fineran
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Michael Graham (15) skates down the ice during the Michigan at Notre Dame NCAA hockey game Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021 at the Compton Family Ice arena in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND —  It was a little over three years ago that Notre Dame freshman hockey forward Michael Graham celebrated a month-long, coming-out party against Wisconsin.

In four games during a 30-day span, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound right wing from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, scored two goals in each of three games against the Badgers, and it appeared coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish had a future star in the making.

“I can’t explain it,” Graham said. “Sometimes you just get lucky against certain teams.”

Unfortunately for Graham, the luck ran out. A series of concussion injuries that started before his arrival on the Notre Dame campus and continued afterward have forced Graham to make a different contribution to coach Jeff Jackson’s 11th-ranked team (20-8 overall, 12-6-0 Big Ten for 32 points and fourth place) that will be in Madison this weekend.

Michael Graham

► Notre Dame:Hockey series rescheduled because of COVID issues at Wisconsin

► Fighting Irish:Trevor Janicke’s goal spree has others taking notice at Notre Dame

After his Badgers skate out onto their home ice in the 15,327-seat Kohl Center for the series-delayed opener Saturday night at 9:30, Wisconsin coach Tony Granato will once again see Graham on Jackson’s bench. Only this time, Graham will be wearing a jacket and tie and not the No. 15 uniform he wore while accumulating eight goals and three assists in eight career games against Wisconsin over three seasons.

Graham, as an undergraduate assistant, will be helping Jackson with the line changes during the series with Granato’s 8-19-3 Badgers, who have lost six straight and are now tied with Penn State for fifth place at 5-14-1 for 17 points.

Graham, of course, would much rather be jumping over the boards to help Notre Dame improve their standing in the Big Ten. But it was after missing the final six weeks of last season with his latest concussion injury that Graham made the difficult decision to put his playing career behind him.

“Last January at Penn State in the Friday game, I got hit and I had a ringing in my ear, a symptom I never really had before,” Graham recalled. “The ringing persisted for about a month. It was horrible. I couldn’t sleep. In the back of mind, I could hear my parents saying, ‘This should be it for you.’ But even then, I never really thought I was going to quit.”

But Jackson was more concerned about Graham’s off-ice future, a bright one as his 3.4 grade-point average in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and his acceptance into the school’s one-year post-graduate MBA program will attest. Stephen Johns, a former standout for Jackson who had a promising NHL career derailed because of concussions, came up in the discussions Graham and Jackson had last spring, and Jackson put Graham in touch with former Irish defenseman Eric Ringel, who stepped away from his Notre Dame career because of his own concussion issues.

“I let Michael know he’d still be part of our program whatever decision he made,” Jackson said. “For me it was important to know that it was okay to give up the game for your long-term health. There’s so much still unknown about concussions. I put him in touch with Eric, who had gone through the same thing and whom we made an undergrad assistant coach, and Michael made the mature choice. I’m glad he made the decision he did for his life and his future.”

Notre Dame’s Michael Graham (15) shoots during the Michigan at Notre Dame hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.

During games, Graham keeps stats in the press box at home and works the bench on away games when associate head coach Andy Slaggert is away recruiting and volunteer assistant Jordy Murray replaces Slaggert in the press box. But Graham also is on the ice during practices, and Jackson puts his goal-scoring touch – he had 18 goals, 34 assists and 52 points in 87 career games – to good use. Graham fires pucks at goalies Ryan Bischel and Matthew Galajda, the best tandem in the Big Ten with their combined four shutouts, 2.08 goals-against average and .924 saves percentage.

“He’s not necessarily building their confidence,” Jackson quipped. “We’re proud of him, and I’m happy Michael is happy.”

Graham will be even happier if the Irish can make a deep run in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament and receive their sixth straight NCAA Tournament berth. In his freshman season, Graham had the game-winning goal in overtime which allowed Notre Dame to win 2-1 over Minnesota on its way to a second straight Big Ten Championship.

''We have speed on every line and our defense is stingy,” Graham said. “If we stick to our game plan, we’re going to be a tough out.”

A long postseason run could make for an even better party than Michael Graham can ever imagine.