By JOHN FINERAN
Special to woodypaige.com
One spring-like Monday in late February on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in northern Indiana, two students walked back to their car parked near the usually frozen Saint Mary’s Lake carrying their fishing equipment.
“Catch anything?” I asked the two students, who shook their heads negatively.
“Not much in there to catch,” joked one, who happened to be wearing a windbreaker with “Notre Dame Hockey” written on it.
“You play for the hockey team?” I inquired.
“We both do,” said the other.
Small talk soon ensued between us. The two players, whose names escape me, found out that I am “a sort of” Notre Dame hockey alumnus – I worked in the school’s sports information office as a student, spent my senior year at school covering the team for the school newspaper, The Observer, and then spent years covering the team for the South Bend Tribune.
“You know what would really make me happy?” I asked these present-day Fighting Irish as they seemed to be in a hurry to get in the car and make their getaway from the old guy feeding the ducks.
That question stopped them both. “What would that be, sir?” one asked.
My reply was quick: “That you win this year’s NCAA Championship for the guy whose name is on the rink you skate on every day.”
“You guys owe him,” I said. “Win One for Lefty.”
They nodded. Though they never met him, they are reminded of him every day because “Lefty Smith Rink” is painted in the ice in front of both benches at the school’s Compton Family Ice Arena, which opened two months before Smith, the school’s first coach and one of the great human beings God ever put on this planet, was called to his heavenly home on Jan. 3, 2012.
“You know, Notre Dame is the host for this year’s Frozen Four in Chicago,” I reminded them. “You need to get there and Win One for Lefty.”
Now Knute Rockne, I’m not. Rockne, as some of you know, is Notre Dame’s most famous football coach (though 93-year-old Ara Parseghian, still kicking butt at age 93, is, in my opinion, Notre Dame’s greatest) and died tragically in a place crash on March 31, 1931 near Bazaar, Kan.
In the 1940 movie, “Knute Rockne All American,” Rockne, played by actor Pat O’Brien, receives a deathbed request from Notre Dame’s first All-American George Gipp, played by former President Ronald Reagan. Gipp, who played football and baseball when he wasn’t playing pool in downtown South Bend’s speakeasies, is dying of pneumonia and requests that the team, when it’s up against all odds, to “Win One for The Gipper.”
One of the funniest scenes in the movie, however, is when Rockne testifies before a panel concerned about the violence of football. A committee member wonders if football could be replaced by a less-violent sport – hockey.
“Why, as a matter of fact, I suggested that very idea to Father Callahan, our president,” replied Rockne (O’Brien). “He was downright interested until we came to the use of sticks, and then he threw up his hands. He said, “No, that game is not for our university. Notre Dame will never endorse any game that puts a club in the hands of an Irishman.”
In 1968, Notre Dame finally did. When it went looking for a head coach, the name that kept popping up was Charles W. “Lefty” Smith Jr., who grew up near the stockyards of his hometown, played baseball and hockey at South St. Paul (Minn.) High School, worked his way through college at nearby St. Thomas delivering beer to the taverns for those stockyard laborers, and then became a teacher and hockey coach at his high school alma mater.
Smith loved to tell the story of his final interview with Father Edmund Joyce, the school’s vice president, and legendary athletic director Edward “Moose” Krause. Smith and wife Mickey flew to South Bend early in the morning and expected to be back home that night.
Only a snowstorm interrupted their return plans.
“They sent us to the Morris Inn (the school’s on-campus hotel),” Smith said. “We had no luggage when we showed up at the front desk to register. When the guy asked our names, I told him, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith,’ and he looked at us very suspiciously.”
Smith, who had eight children with Mickey, got the job, and with the help of friend Tim McNeill, another knowledgeable hockey coach from Minnesota who became the team’s chief recruiter, Notre Dame quickly became a college hockey power but never at a risk to the school’s clean NCAA reputation or its players’ work in the classroom.
I got to know “Lefty” and “Righty” (McNeill) because they taught my freshman physical education skating class in 1970. When I returned home for Christmas break in 1970, the little snot-nosed kids who used to steal my puck as I wobbled on the ice at Little’s Pond in Livingston, N.J., soon found out that I could now skate (Thanks, Righty) and that I learned how to use my Victoriaville hockey stick around their unguarded shins (Thanks, Lefty) whenever they came after my puck.
In 1972-73, my junior year, Notre Dame enjoyed a magical season on the ice and was a series away from going to the NCAA Tournament at the legendary Boston Garden, where the Bobby Orr-Phil Esposito Bruins played. The championship game was scheduled for Saturday evening, March 17, 1973. Could you think of a better way to spend St. Patrick’s Day than in Boston watching the Irish win the first one of many for Lefty?
But it didn’t happen. Wisconsin happened. On March 10 at Notre Dame, the Badgers would eliminate the Irish, 8-7, to end a hard-fought, two-game, total-goal series. A week later Wisconsin would win its first national title for legendary coach Bob Johnson, who would coach the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, lend his son Mark to Herb Brooks’ 1980 “Miracle on Ice” gold medalists and then coach the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 1991 Stanley Cup championship before succumbing to cancer.
It was the closest Notre Dame ever got to play for the national championship under Lefty. Late in his 19-season tenure, Notre Dame downgraded the program from varsity to club status so that it could use the scholarships for its women’s programs. Lefty hung up his skates and whistle for good following the 1986-87 season with 307 victories.
As a team, Notre Dame won the Great Lakes Invitational in 1981 and had six players named All-Americans. But Lefty’s true trophies were the 126 players who played all four years for him and received their degrees. When he moved over to run the Loftus Center, Notre Dame’s indoor track and football facility, Lefty’s office walls were covered with pictures of those players and their growing families who stayed in touch until his retirement shortly before his death at 81.
One of those players, defenseman Don Lucia, has coached the University of Minnesota’s hockey program to two national championships, utilizing much of what he learned playing for Lefty in South Bend. When the Gophers played at Notre Dame after Smith’s death, Lucia paused while crossing the ice to his team’s dressing room and pointed skyward. And he saluted his old coach another time by wearing a pink tie — the color of Smith’s favorite bench sweaters.
Lefty’s door was always open – to all athletes and coaches at Notre Dame, to the South Bend community, and to a former student he taught how to skate who later became a frequent golf partner. Lefty, an old blueline defender, went after a golf ball as if he was slapping a shot from the point on a power play. And you never knew where his golf ball was headed, but it would be an adventure getting there.
One time during a scramble, Smith slapped one off a tee, the ball disappearing into a heavily leafed tree before finding its trunk. The braches and leaves literally shook, the ball re-emerged as if propelled by a tree elf, and it headed its way back before bouncing on an asphalt cart path and coming to a rest behind Smith and the tee.
“You pig! You rotten pig!!” Smith screamed at the ball as his partners, rolling on the ground, laughed non-stop for minutes.
Soon, Lefty joined in. But then, he always joined in to make things fun. It was he and McNeill who started the Irish Youth Hockey League, which flourishes today.
And it was Lefty who lobbied Notre Dame to play host to the 1987 International Special Olympics Games. I can tell you he announced those swimming events enthusiastically and with so much love – I was there with him. It was fun.
No one was happier than Lefty to see Notre Dame re-emerge as a hockey power under current coach Jeff Jackson, who in 11 seasons has taken Notre Dame to six NCAA tournaments and two Frozen Four appearances, finishing runner-up to Boston College in the 2007-08 season.
This past St. Patrick’s Day evening, ironically in Boston, a hot Notre Dame team, 7-1-2 in its last 10 games coming in, lost to Massachusetts-Lowell, 5-1, in its last Hockey East Tournament before becoming the seventh member of the Big Ten Hockey Conference next fall.
Nevertheless, Notre Dame received one of 16 NCAA tournament berths and ironically was paired to play Lucia’s Minnesota team, the No. 1 seed in the Northeast Regional at Manchester, N.H., about 30 minutes from the campus of UMass-Lowell.
Last Saturday, the Gophers jumped to a 2-0 lead 30 seconds into the second period but Notre Dame rallied to tie the game 2-2 with a pair of goals 54 seconds apart late in the second period by Andrew Oglevie (on a feed from goalie Cal Petersen) and Anders Bjork, whose father Kirt was an All-America forward for Smith in 1982-83. Bjork then scored the game-winner midway through the third and Petersen made 31 saves.
Then on Sunday, the Irish got a rematch against UMass-Lowell, the winner headed to the NCAA Frozen Four in Chicago April 6. Notre Dame trailed 2-1 with under 5½ minutes remaining in regulation when Bjork and Jake Evans assisted on Cam Morrison’s game-tying goal. Then Bjork – a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy, and also a finalist for the Humanitarian Award for his work with South Bend school children – fed Oglevie for a one-timer from the slot at 2:44 of overtime for a 3-2 victory.
Next up for Notre Dame (23-11-5) is another familiar face and a former foe – coach Jim Montgomery, a former volunteer assistant on Jackson’s first Notre Dame staff in 2005-06, and top-ranked Denver (31-7-4), an old N.D. foe when the teams played in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The Irish and Pioneers face off at 9:30 p.m. EDT. Thursday following the semifinal between Harvard (28-5-2) and Minnesota-Duluth (27-6-7) that faces off at 6. Harvard, an ECAC Hockey Conference member, has won its last 16, while Duluth, a rival of Denver in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The winners play for the national championship Saturday, April 8 at 8 p.m.
With Denver, Harvard and Duluth ranked 1-2-3 in the last polls released before the tournament, 12th-ranked Notre Dame clearly has the odds against it. But then Rollie Massimino and Villanova were heavy underdogs when they upset John Thompson’s No. 1 Georgetown team that included Patrick Ewing, 66-64, to win the 1985 championship.
This will be Notre Dame’s third trip to the Frozen Four under Jackson, who won a pair of national titles at Lake Superior State. The Irish lost both times – 4-1 to Boston College in the 2008 championship game at Denver and 4-3 in the national semifinals at St. Paul, Minn., to eventual champion Duluth.
But it was their success under Jackson that made possible the building of Compton Family Ice Arena and its 5,022-seat Charles “Lefty” Smith Rink. The old coach and his assistant McNeill helped to paint the lines and faceoff circles and dropped ceremonial picks before Notre Dame beat Rensselaer, 5-2, on Oct. 21, 2011.
A little over two months later, on the day Notre Dame was to host the Russian Red Stars in an exhibition game, Lefty passed away two days short of his 82nd birthday. When he failed to show for the game, his son Tom drove to Lefty’s home near campus and found him sitting on the couch with the television on.
In Lefty’s hands was a rosary.
Notre Dame sees Lefty every day in Heaven, but the Notre Dame friends he left behind miss Lefty every day.
So, Irish, “Win One for Lefty.”
John Fineran finally has come clean after more than 40 years covering a variety of sports following his graduation from Notre Dame. One of his assignments was college hockey and the Fighting Irish used to make annual trips to play Denver and Colorado College where Fineran acquired a taste for Coors, the Banquet Beer. Not being able to buy Coors east of the Mississippi River, Fineran smuggled it back to South Bend in his suitcase to quench his thirst. What do you think about that, Bandit?