Notre Dame's Rogers defined by more than hockey

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- What sort of fellow surfs the net, stumbles onto a grassroots organization several states away, and in less than a year is on that group’s board of directors?

That’s just who Joe Rogers is — and has become after four years in the Notre Dame hockey program.

This has been a big weekend for the rarely-used, but highly-valued, senior third-string goalie. Beyond how the Irish fared against Northeastern, Rogers has been the point man for outfitting the team in its Hockey East series.

He brainstormed the idea and helped design the jerseys the Irish wore — white, with a skating leprechaun wearing camouflage on the chest. Now that the series has been completed, those jerseys will be auctioned off at www.und.com over the next week or so, with the proceeds going to Hockey Saves, Rogers’ new-found project.

Hockey Saves is a cause that was born last spring in Fort Benning, Ga. It gives military personnel and families a physical and emotional outlet away from the base. Having gained steam since the humble beginnings of just a few guys at the rink near the base, associations with other college programs, some professional leagues, and even the NHL, has allowed it to take off.

Chapters have already started in Pittsburgh and Nashville, and plans are in the works for Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Colorado.

“I get texts and emails from the (military) guys all the time,” Rogers said. “Whether it’s about hockey or about life, they’ve really kinda taken a liking to me.

“I value what they do for our country. Every day, I’m able to be here and do what I do because of their sacrifices.”

It’s not like Rogers comes from a long line of military heroes and this is his chance to give back. His great grandfather was in World War II, that’s about the extent. Other than that, helping military personnel and their families get ice time and equipment just seemed the right thing to do.

Again, that’s just who Joe Rogers is.

At least, part of who the 5-foot-11, 191-pounder is.

Defining Joe

Rogers won’t be defined by his time between the pipes at Notre Dame. As his senior year enters the stretch drive, Rogers has played a relief role in just two games, surrendering three goals while seeing 15 shots.

He also won’t be pigeon-holed by what he can’t do. Rogers, who will graduate with a 3.071 GPA as a finance major in the Mendoza College of Business, hasn’t let a birth defect that kept his right hand from developing hold him back.

“He’s a passionate kid about life,” said Irish hockey coach Jeff Jackson. “Maybe because he was born with a disability, he’s overcome that. He’s recognized that maybe there are more important things (in life) than having a right hand.

“I’m really proud of this kid. He’s been a great ambassador for this program, and probably will be for many years to come.”

That sentiment, echoed by coaches, teammates, and anyone else who knows Rogers, is why he is one of 18 nominees for the BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award that will be presented at the Frozen Four in April. The award recognizes college hockey’s “finest citizen.”

This time next year, plans are for him to be trading stocks on Wall Street for a New York firm.

Besides going all-in with a relatively obscure cause hundreds of miles from home, the native of Marysville, Mich., has also been a big part of the South Bend community. He is regularly involved with the River City Sled Rovers, and isn’t a stranger with the kids in the Irish Youth Hockey League.

“Some of my favorite times (while at Notre Dame) were going down to the Ice Box on Sundays and being with the Sled Rovers,” he said of the hockey program developed for people with lower body disabilities. “It’s something to see the big smiles on their faces because they’re able to play the game. It’s really inspiring to me.

“I tried it out one time. It’s kinda tough. I give them a lot of credit. Just to see the happiness and joy hockey can bring to people who have already overcome a lot.

“Every time I go down there it puts a smile on my face and puts things into perspective.”

An advocate

After forming a relationship at a young age with Jim Abbott, a former Major League Baseball pitcher with a similar disability, Rogers has become an advocate with others with challenges to overcome. Rogers and Abbott still share regular communication.

Rogers has correspondence with many people, mostly youngsters, battling disabilities. In the past couple years, four families have reached out to visit him in person. One he saw while the Irish were playing in Kansas City, and three others — from Iowa, Ohio and Texas — made the trip to South Bend.

“I went along my whole life like: My hand is who I am,” Rogers said. “I still believe that. I just went out there and (played hockey) because I wanted to. Now, it’s my chance to give back while I’m on this stage.”

Backstage is another place where Rogers can work his magic. Along with being a very visible figure in the world of overcoming adversity, in the confines of the Irish locker room, he is someone who is very accessible.

“I had to write a letter of recommendation for the humanitarian award,” said Jackson. “When I did that, I just sat back and said to myself, ‘Wow, what a great kid.’

“All the things he’s done, from a service perspective. People don’t see behind the scenes. He’s got a tremendous attitude and character to him. He’s always smiling. You feel good when you’re around him. That’s a rare quality for a young guy like that.

“To magnify that: Let’s face facts, he’s not a starting player for us. He’s a depth player; he’s a role player; he’s our third-string goaltender. He’s accepted that role, maybe stubbornly, but not negatively. He still competes hard every day in practice. He works extremely hard in the weight room, with his limitations.

“He’s a great team guy. In many ways, he’s as valuable as any player that we have on this team — and, he hasn’t played much hockey.”

“I’ve come into the role of being a team guy; being a locker room guy,” said Rogers. “The guys, they often come to me if they’ve got to talk to somebody away from the rink, at the rink, wherever. I like to be that guy who’s there; be a helpful shoulder who can listen; can tell when guys are down and can pick them up. Just bringing a positive spirit to the locker room is what I’ve tried to do. The team is truly bigger than one individual.”

Big brother

Counseling sessions can happen at the strangest times. Within the Irish program, players that don’t see regular game action on Fridays and Saturdays are required to go through “extra skates” several hours before the puck drops for the game. Rogers has served as the goaltender for those workouts for four years. He knows the frustration and has worked through it.

“For kids that don’t play a lot, it’s easy for them to throw up their arms and say it doesn’t matter anymore,” said Jackson. “(Rogers) comes to work every day. That’s a great example for all our players.

“It makes you realize there’s more in life than just hockey. Joe exemplifies that.”

“I want to be like a big brother, I guess,” Rogers said. “I can see when guys are (not playing) they get really frustrated or down. Me just showing them, by the good attitude, just keep working hard is all you can do. You’ll get your chance.”

Rogers’ chance never really materialized. But that hasn’t kept him from staying positive toward the future.

“Looking back, I had high hopes of getting in the net and being that starting guy,” Rogers said. “I haven’t given up on that. I still come to practice every day and do everything I can to make myself better. In turn, that makes my teammates better.

“I know I’m at the end of my time here. I can say that I’ve given it my all. In my time at Notre Dame, I like to say I’ve lived with no regrets and have eliminated the word ‘if’ from my vocabulary.”

Even wondering “if” the opportunity would ever happen?

“It was tough last year not getting in any games,” Rogers said. “Even at the start of this year, things were tough. I was battling, trying to get into a backup role; maybe into the starting role.

“I realized my time’s running out. You definitely can’t waste it. There’s lots of people out there who would kill to be in my position. That’s where I realized it’s silly not to accept where I’m at and keep working hard. That’s how I got through those tough times.”

For Rogers, it has been more about the journey than the destination. Getting to Notre Dame and being an integral part of the Irish program for four years has been the culmination of a dream. Conquests along the way included the doubters and skeptics.

“I’m happy because, when I was 9 years old, I told my dad I was going to play Division I college hockey,” Rogers said. “For 11 years, I pursued that. When I got here to Notre Dame, I achieved that dream. Along the way, many people told me it couldn’t be done and it was kinda crazy. I knew it was something I wanted to do. I achieved it. In a couple months, I’m going to have a degree from one of the most recognized universities in the country.”

And he’ll have the satisfaction of knowing he left the program in a better situation than it was when he got there.

That’s just who Joe Rogers is.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6318

Notre Dame hockey player Joe Rogers poses with Sarah Lewis of the River City Sled Rovers. Rogers has played little at ND but his impact has been vast. (Photo provided)