SOUTH BEND — There aren’t too many youngsters who would get up well before sunrise with a big smile during Christmas break.
But there they were — a steady stream of kids with parents and grandparents in tow — dressed in Irish Youth Hockey League jerseys and pulling along oversized bags of gear as the sun was casting its first light Thursday morning on Notre Dame Stadium.
It didn’t matter that it was early. It didn’t matter that it felt a lot colder than the mid-20s inside the stadium.
It was a chance for the kids to skate on the same ice that was used on New Year’s Day by many of their heroes during the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and inside the same stadium where they have watched Irish football teams take on opponents from across the country.
“We’ve never done this before,” said Brian Troester, president of the local hockey league to one of the youngsters as he was preparing to take the ice. “We’ll probably never be able to do it again, so you better enjoy it.”
After they learned Notre Dame would host the Winter Classic, Troester and Mike McNeill, manager of programming and instruction at the Compton Family Ice Arena, went to work trying to figure out a way for area youth to enjoy the NHL ice inside the stadium.
Signing liability waivers and paying a fee for stadium security, the hockey league was able to offer most of its teams the opportunity to play games or at least skate on the ice on Thursday and today before it’s prepared for the 3:30 p.m. Saturday matchup between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the University of Michigan Wolverines.
The NHL, which is maintaining the ice through the completion of the Saturday game, also provided about 150 tickets to the local youth league and included the South Bend Symphony Orchestra and other organizations in its Winter Classic presentation while the Blackhawks presented a $100,000 check to the Robinson Community Learning Center.
But on Thursday, it was all about the NHL rink and Notre Dame Stadium.
“It’s pretty cool,” said a wide-eyed Ethan Haas, 9, a forward for Irish Select, as he prepared to walk into the legendary stadium. “It’s pretty exciting. It’s awesome.”
Eli Shumaker, 10, a goalkeeper with the Irish Select, said it was like getting another huge Christmas present under the tree when he learned they would be able to skate on the same ice where he watched the Chicago Blackhawks face off against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday.
“They’re going to remember this for the rest of their lives,” said his father Jason Shumaker, of Mishawaka.
That’s the hope of Troester and McNeill.
“It’s still the Winter Classic,” shouted a youngster at the top of his lungs as he walked down to the rink.