Notre Dame to host Big Ten post-season hockey tournament

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — In a sports year like no other affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Notre Dame learned Tuesday afternoon that it would be the host for the Big Ten Hockey post-season tournament in March.

Now in its fourth season as a hockey member of the Big Ten and champions during its first two seasons in the league, Notre Dame will host the single-elimination tournament Thursday, March 18 through Saturday, March 20. Games will be played at the 5,022-seat Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.

The tournament will consist of six games — three on Thursday, two semifinals on Friday, March 19 and the championship game on Saturday. Game times will be set at a later date.

Notre Dame made the announcement in a short four-paragraph release late Tuesday afternoon to local media outlets. The release said that the schedule of games, television plans and possible attendance would be made at a later date.

Seven schools are members of the Big Ten – Notre Dame, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. The tournament seedings will be set by how the teams finish the regular season, with the regular-season champion receiving a first-round bye into the Friday semifinals. The other six teams, seeded two through seven, will play opening-round games on Thursday: No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5.

Last season’s Big Ten Tournament never got past the first round. Regular-season champion Penn State had a first-round bye while the other six teams were paired off for best-of-three series.

After winning back-to-back Big Ten Tournament championships at the Lefty Smith Rink in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish finished fifth in the 2019-20 regular season and ended up playing fourth-seeded Minnesota at the 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.

The Irish won the opener March 6 1-0 but then lost 2-1 and 3-2 to Bob Motzko’s Golden Gophers, who were scheduled to play at Penn State in the March 14 semifinal. No. 2 Ohio State was to host No. 3 Michigan in the other semifinal game.

But the Big Ten canceled the tournament on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic. As summer moved into fall, COVID-19 changed a lot of the college landscape, including football where Notre Dame, an independent for 131 years, joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, where Notre Dame’s other varsity sports compete, to play football.

When the Big Ten announced on Oct. 6 that this hockey season would consist of 28 games — 24 league contests (from home-and-home series) and four non-conference games at home against independent Arizona State — it announced that it would return to a single-elimination tournament at a campus site.

Before Notre Dame joined the league as a hockey member, the Big Ten post-season tournament consisted of the six league schools playing at alternating neutral sites — the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit — in a single-elimination format.

The Compton Family Ice Arena, a $50 million two ice-sheet facility which opened officially for the 2011-12 season, was the host to the 2015 Midwest Regional. RIT beat Minnesota State 2-1 and Omaha eliminated Harvard 4-1 on March 28 with Omaha beat RIT 4-0 the next day to advance to the Frozen Four at TD Garden in Boston. Omaha was eliminated by eventual champion Providence, which beat Boston University for the national title.

Other possible reasons for Notre Dame becoming the designated host were the Compton’s two rinks — the 200 feet-by-90 feet Lefty Smith Rink and a 200 feet-by-100 feet Olympic ice sheet which can be utilized for practices — and the school’s central location in the league.

Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena will be the site of this year’s Big Ten hockey tournament March 18-20.