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Hockey a possibility at ND Stadium

Jack Swarbrick said he couldn’t imagine a better venue for an outdoor college hockey game than Chicago’s Soldier Field, but the Notre Dame athletic director isn’t ruling out trying to top it in South Bend.

Notre Dame Stadium might one day host a college hockey game, according to athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

Shortly after watching No. 12 Notre Dame skate to a 2-1 victory over No. 3 Miami Sunday afternoon in the first outdoor game in the program’s history, Swarbrick said he thinks there will be a “time and a place” to host a similar event in Notre Dame’s football stadium.

“It’s a major undertaking and, as I say, there is nothing even remotely planned. I just think somewhere down the road it will make sense for us,” he said.

Sunday’s game, which was followed by another college hockey rivalry match-up between Minnesota and Wisconsin, took two years for an independent sporting event company to put together. The process of plannin an outdoor game and building a safe ice surface is cumbersome and expensive. The total cost for the rink at Soldier Field was approximately $300,000.

A rigid schedule and the forces of Mother Nature also make creating these outdoor games difficult. Notre Dame attempted for several years to find the right setting for such an event before agreeing to join the Hockey City Classic lineup at Soldier Field, according to associate athletic director Tom Nevala.

Nevala, who serves as the general manger of the year-old Compton Family Ice Arena, said the biggest concern with hosting tens of thousands of hockey fans is parking. Many fans that attend football games in the fall park on grass fields that would likely be covered with snow during hockey season.

“As great as our stadium would be for it, the time of year you would want to host a game in there, I’m not sure we could park all the people that would want to come,” Nevala said in an interview last January.

The Soldier Field doubleheader sold 51,052 tickets this past weekend, although the number of fans inside the 61,500-seat stadium never appeared to approach that kind of capacity at any one point during the day. Notre Dame Stadium seats 80,795. The all-time attendance record for a hockey game was set at an outdoor college game between Michigan and Michigan State in December 2010, which drew more than 100,000 spectators to the Big House.

Swarbrick said he spoke previously to the folks responsible for hosting college hockey games at Boston’s Fenway Park last January. Those conversations along with Notre Dame’s experience in Chicago gave him an understanding of what bringing a game to South Bend would entail.

Irish coach Jeff Jackson would be happy to get the chance to play inside the campus football stadium after getting his first taste of coaching outdoors this weekend.

“As long as the weather is like today,” he said when asked if he would do it again. “We were very fortunate. It was great weather and a great crowd. It was a fun event, my first opportunity to be in an outdoor game. I hope the kids enjoyed it.”

Sunny skies and temperatures that stayed a shade below 30 degrees on Sunday made for a chilly experience for fans, but a smooth operation on the ice. Warm temperatures and the elements can and have caused unavoidable problems in previous outdoor settings.

Mother Nature cooperated in Chicago and helped to provide a unique experience for those that attended. The two games filled a void in a hockey-loving city that hosts no major college programs and provided a new atmosphere for fans.

“You don’t get a game day atmosphere like this in hockey,” Swarbrick said. “I think that’s one of the great things — the fans from the four schools out there tailgating and having fun with each other. That’s an additional element to the atmosphere around college hockey, which I think is really neat about something like this.”

There have been 15 college hockey games played outdoors since Michigan and Michigan State started the trend in 2001. Swarbrick said the Irish need to be careful not to “overdo it” and ruin the novelty, but freezing the field at Notre Dame somewhere down the road seems more likely than not at this point.

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