Notre Dame pioneer: Fargo Shanley grad started Fighting Irish hockey in '60s
FARGO — The first practice was on St. Mary's Lake near the Notre Dame campus and the players trying out for the newly-formed Fighting Irish club hockey team spent the first half hour shoveling snow off the ice. That's when coach Ralph Cardillo blew his whistle and told the players to gather around.
At that point, it was becoming obvious there was too much weight in one area and the ice started cracking.
"People were crawling off the ice and some of the guys we never saw again," said Leo Collins. "Some who came out in figure skates — we never saw them again. It was an interesting start I guess."
Interesting, to say the least. When Notre Dame takes the ice for its Frozen Four matchup with the University of Denver Thursday night, April 6, it will mark the third time to the NCAA championship for the Irish. That's three times to celebrate the beginning of a program that Collins, a 1963 Fargo Shanley graduate, helped start in 1963.
It was a club sport in Collins' first two years and was designated a "minor" sport his last two, which served as two years of transition from club hockey to full varsity status. That's when Collins really put his stamp on the program.
His title of sorts was player-general manager. He was the team's goalie who once had 72 saves against Boston University that stood as a record until current goalie Cal Petersen had 87 against Massachusetts in 2015. Collins stopped his shots in three periods while Petersen's effort took four overtimes.
As the GM, Collins did the scheduling and coordinated the travel. It was like a business internship.
"I was setting up contracts and renting out arenas," he said. "It was quite the experience and I learned an awful lot. We played all varsity teams and required them to pay us. It was a good start to the program."
Collins went to Notre Dame to play football and was on the 1966 Fighting Irish national championship team. His legacy, however, is with hockey.
He said a group of four or five students first started talking about starting a team, so they put a notice out telling students to bring their hockey gear back with them after Christmas. They discovered there were more former high school hockey players on campus than they thought.
"We got together with some hockey fans and said we need hockey at Notre Dame," Collins said. "Four of us originally started the program and all four of us still stay in touch."
He'll be hanging with one of them, former roommate Tom Heiden, this weekend in Chicago. Heiden is part of a Chicago sports group that is hosting the Frozen Four at the United Center. Collins' son, Coley Collins, is on the committee that selects the Hobey Baker Award winner and will also be there.
It's a long way from shoveling snow off a lake to find ice to practice. It wasn't long before they practiced at an outdoor rink in downtown South Bend, Ind., that had artificial ice. But only on Sunday mornings or after 8:30 p.m. at night when it was closed to the public.
"It's pretty neat to know we kind of built that program," Collins said. "They built on our foundation."
Collins isn't the only Fargo connection to Notre Dame hockey this weekend. Junior Peter Mark, son of Doug and Katie Mark who recently moved to West Fargo, is on the roster and redshirting this year for the Irish. Katie Mark is a 1982 graduate of Fargo South.
These days, Collins is retired from 33 years as a stockbroker and living in the Twin Cities. He was the last hockey coach at Macalester College before the school dropped the sport in the 1970s. If the Scots ever wanted to start it up again, Collins has some experience.
Those Notre Dame years turned into a lifetime of school hockey pride.
"It's been gratifying to see how the program took off and now to see them at the Frozen Four," he said.