Irish hockey team starts workouts for unknown Big Ten season

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — The Big Ten Conference’s decision to postpone its 2020-21 fall sports seasons doesn’t apply to the one sport at Notre Dame competing in the league.

Since Notre Dame’s student body began classes on Monday, Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson, his staff and 28 players have been meeting, working out and skating in small groups no larger than eight at the Compton Family Ice Arena to prepare for an upcoming season that as of yet has no official start or conclusion.

The Big Ten’s announced Tuesday that it would postpone competitions and tournaments in its seven fall sports — football, women’s volleyball, field hockey, men’s and women’s cross country and men’s and women’s soccer – because of health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hockey is considered a winter sport in the Big Ten Conference of which Notre Dame has been an associate member beginning with the 2017-18 season. The Big Ten indicated in its Tuesday release that it would continue to evaluate options for its fall sports, including the possibility of competition in the spring, and that decisions regarding winter and spring sports also would continue to be evaluated.

Notre Dame is the first of the Big Ten’s hockey schools to return to classes. Penn State begins classes Aug. 24 and Michigan State is the last to start classes on Sept. 2.

“So far, so good,” said the 65-year-old Jackson, who is Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach with a 334-206-64 record in 15 campaigns including four Frozen Four finishes. “We’re restricted to small workout groups right now. Being the first team back, maybe we can be a leader and show the way.”

Jackson, his staff and team are masked at all times inside Compton during workouts on and off the ice. The team is practicing protocols as they relate to social distancing when doing non-skating work, mimicking what the football team and Notre Dame’s other fall sports teams have been conducting workouts since early July.

“I’ve told the players we’re going to have to make sacrifices if we want to play hockey,” Jackson said.

The Irish concluded the 2020 season with a 15-15-7 record, including 9-9-6 in the Big Ten regular season. They lost a first-round, best-of-three playoff series at Minnesota, 2-1, dropping their final two games 2-1 and 3-2 on March 7-8 before COVID-19 shut down the rest of the Big Ten season and NCAA playoffs four days later.

Last season, Notre Dame began its season Oct. 2 with an exhibition against the U.S. National Under-18 team and then opened Oct. 11 and 13 against Air Force at the Lefty Smith Rink. This season was to open with an exhibition against the National Under-18 team, but because of the uncertainty of the season, there is no current schedule or opening date.

“I think the season could be delayed at least a month and may not start until the first of the year,” Jackson said.

There has been talk around the league that the schedule would be strictly a conference one and might have an additional couple of games to perhaps 28. If that is the case, the regular-season could go into late March and league and NCAA playoffs into April and later.

“We’re part of the Big Ten and what they decide we will apply,” Jackson said.

Jackson indicated that former Michigan head coach Red Berenson has been hired by the Big Ten to be a special advisor on all hockey matters.

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson talks with players during a game against Michigan on Feb. 29 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.