Notre Dame forward Mark Van Guilder can tell the Fighting Irish hockey team has gained acceptance on campus.
After all, he hasn't been asked in quite a while if hockey at Notre Dame is a Division I sport.
"I think everyone's figured out that we're a Division I program," Van Guilder said with a grin. "I'm seeing classmates and professors at games now. It's fun with all the support. Instead of 'Did you play this weekend?' they're saying, 'It was a great game, we watched every second.'"
Maybe Notre Dame's becoming a hockey school?
The Irish advanced to their first Frozen Four in the program's 40-year history, and will play Central Collegiate Hockey Association rival Michigan in a matchup that sounds like it belongs on the football field.
Although, it's probably best the game's being played on the ice, given the Irish's struggles last season in football _ including a 38-0 loss to Michigan last fall.
"We had a sour year for our football team, so I think everyone is looking for a team to get behind and cheer on," goalie Jordan Pearce said. "We're moving on to a place where we haven't been before, so everyone is wishing us good luck."
The Irish (26-15-4) come in as the upstarts, while the Wolverines possess the experience. Michigan's nine national championships are the most in the country. The team has also made 18 straight NCAA tournament appearances, reaching the Frozen Four 10 times in that span.
What's more, the Wolverines (33-5-4) have beaten Notre Dame twice this season, a 3-2 thriller on Jan. 18 followed by a 5-1 blowout the next night.
"They're a great team," Michigan captain Kevin Porter said. "They're really playing well. They're going to be a tough team to play against."
Porter has Michigan on the verge of its first hockey national championship since 1998. He's also up for the Hobey Baker award, hockey's equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
And yet he can walk around the Michigan campus without anyone recognizing him. Not that he minds. He'll leave the spotlight for football players like quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart.
"Now people know them around campus," said Porter, who has 33 goals and 29 assists this season. "Me? Not at all. But I think people are starting to realize that our program is taking off. It's a large school and not many know about hockey. Obviously, it's a football school. We're second tier to them, maybe basketball as well. But our fans are great and support us."
The same goes for the Irish fans.
"We've come a long way in four years," Van Guilder said. "We went from having a few people in the student section to it being packed for warmups. It's a lot of fun."
So, what's the reason for the turnaround?
"Coach," Van Guilder simply answered.
Jeff Jackson took over the Irish in 2005 and has amassed a 71-41-11 record. Before arriving at Notre Dame, he won two NCAA titles at Lake Superior State.
Whatever Jackson says, they carry out.
"There have been some great players here, but we put it together for whatever reason," Van Guilder said. "I don't know if you can explain it _ Coach just does a heck of a job."
The Wolverines are trying to clear their heads of any negative thoughts concerning the Pepsi Center. They lost to North Dakota 8-5 in the first round last season in Denver.
However, of the nine titles Michigan has won, seven took place in Colorado.
"It's a little deja vu with last year," senior forward Chad Kolarik said. "But it's a different feeling. There's a little more press and a little more nerves. We can't wait for the puck to drop."
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