ORONO — No college sports program glitters quite like Notre Dame’s.

They charter, when you fly commercial. They negotiate national TV contracts, while you shore up your local radio deal. When they join your conference, it’s obvious they’re really in a league of their own.

University of Maine hockey fans will get a first-hand look at the golden helmets Friday and Saturday when the Fighting Irish invade Alfond Arena. It will be the first time Notre Dame has competed in Maine since 1991.

Much has changed in the sport since then, with big-name schools starting programs, conferences realigning, national TV exposure increasing, and pressure building on smaller-budget schools like Maine to try to keep pace.

The Black Bears are expecting their largest crowds of the season to greet the Fighting Irish, Hockey East newcomers. And, since it’s Notre Dame, both 7 p.m. games will be televised – Friday on NESN and Saturday on WPME (with Fox College Sports sending that feed out nationally).

“For a lot of casual fans, there’s a mystique to the name of Notre Dame,” said Dave Hendrickson, a Maine native who has been covering the league since 1996 for U.S. College Hockey Online. “And that means exposure. Recruits from some of the Canadian areas, for example, they’re not as familiar with the Hockey East teams that we know inside and out. But there aren’t many kids who haven’t heard of Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame fills arenas. It joined Hockey East a year ago and made an immediate impact at the ticket booths. Its 11 conference road games each drew more than the host team’s normal attendance in league games, with an average of 782 additional fans paying their way in.

There is also more national TV exposure than ever for college hockey, and Notre Dame is driving its share despite a middling record (11-14-3, 6-5-3 Hockey East). NBC Sports Network is airing 19 games this winter, 12 of them Fighting Irish home games. The Black Bears were on the network Dec. 6, an overtime loss at Massachusetts-Lowell. Many of those games are also picked up by TSN in Canada, prime recruiting area for Maine.

Fox College Sports is showing nine Maine games. NESN has a four-year deal with Hockey East that includes one trip each season to Orono. Is it a coincidence that this year’s matchup features Notre Dame?

“The more college hockey games we get on TV, the better,” Hendrickson said. “The teams at the bottom aren’t going to get as many TV games as those teams that are the elite programs. Maine’s had a bit of struggles at this point (10-16-2, 5-8-1), but if they start winning like they did in the past, they’ll get more TV exposure, and that can only help.”

HARDER TO COMPETE

Notre Dame joined Hockey East after a shakeup in college hockey that began with Penn State becoming a Division I program and thereby enabling the Big Ten to form its own six-team league. The Fighting Irish were in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which had to disband when Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State left for the Big Ten. That move also raised the profile of the sport – the Big Ten is televising 27 games on its own network this year.

There was more movement this year. Connecticut became the 12th member of Hockey East and Arizona State recently announced it was bringing Division I ice hockey to the desert Southwest within three years.

Where does all this leave Maine? The Black Bears were one of seven original members of Hockey East in 1984, and won national championships in 1993 and 1999. They have long done battle with powerhouse programs such as Boston College and Boston University.

Notre Dame and UConn, with much larger athletic budgets, have upped the ante.

“To bring maybe the most famous college brand in the country to our campus in Orono is kind of amazing. To be associated with Notre Dame is never a bad thing. They just bring with them a certain gravity,” said Maine Athletic Director Karlton Creech. “It shows that we are competing at the highest level nationally in hockey. Having a school like Notre Dame on our campus proves that.”

But Notre Dame, UConn and Boston College are among major universities that intend to offer so-called “cost of attendance” athletic scholarships under new NCAA legislation approved last month. That means giving athletes money for transportation and other personal expenses in addition to tuition, housing and books. Creech said the budget he’s submitted for next year does not include that expense and he’s not sure Maine and other universities its size will ever be able to do so.

He recognizes what a recruiting challenge that may present.

“We’re competing directly in conference, and in hockey really for national championships, with better-resourced programs. Naturally, it’s a concern, it’s on your mind, Creech said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t compete or you won’t compete, but it’s just an added layer of advantage for schools with more resources. It all adds up.

“I think it is a sport where there’s enough players, there’s enough depth, and there are so few teams nationally (59), that you can compete without having the most money.”

Still, Maine announced in October an effort to raise $2 million over the next five years for an endowment for its men’s hockey team. It’s the program with the most potential to make money, but even hockey currently runs at a deficit, Creech said. An endowment would give the Black Bears a shot at keeping up with the big boys for the long-term.

“It’s getting out of the almost living paycheck to paycheck. We want a savings account and we want investment income,” Creech said. “The goal is to alleviate the pressure that we feel every year.”

MARQUEE SCHOOLS BRING EXPOSURE

The addition of Notre Dame and UConn has been a boost for Hockey East, Commissioner Joe Bertagna said. The league had to reduce the number of conference games from 27 to 22 to make the scheduling work. There is extra travel for teams accustomed to being able to bus to arenas in the league, which is not an option when visiting South Bend, Indiana. Hockey East had to allow the Fighting Irish to be the only school with its own TV contract, although Bertagna pointed out that it benefits all league schools since they also get more national exposure. Eight of Notre Dame’s 12 NBCSN games this year are against Hockey East rivals.

“The qualitative growth of having kind of a marquee name program has meant more visibility, bigger crowds,” Bertagna said of bringing in Notre Dame. “Our depth, from top to bottom, is as good as it’s ever been.”

Bertagna said there are no plans to expand beyond 12 teams, but he would consider any university that brings additional value to one of the nation’s premier hockey leagues.

The growth of the sport is heartening to Bertagna, but also cause for concern. As new schools like Arizona State come on board, will that mean more conference realignment or, worse, retrenchment? In the shuffle two years ago, some smaller schools were forced to act in haste. The National Collegiate Hockey Conference was formed at that time.

“Now they’re finding it’s a little more expensive than they bargained for,” Bertagna said. “If we lose programs because of rising costs, that’s not a good thing. To add a Penn State and Arizona State and lose three or four teams would be upsetting.”

Maine won’t fall by the wayside, said Red Gendron, in his second season as the Black Bears’ head coach after serving as an assistant 20 years ago. Yes, it’s harder to compete in this era because there’s more parity and more money being spent. But he is quick to mention that the previous two national champions – Union College and Yale – don’t even offer scholarships.

Bring on the behemoths.

“I think one of the neatest things is that the University of Maine can compete with the likes of Notre Dame, Penn State, the University of Michigan, in a sport like hockey. Whereas it would be much more challenging to compete successfully in football or basketball or baseball,” Gendron said.

“We win games against those schools, it’s a big deal. People will notice.”