Feb. 16, 2006
Notre Dame, Ind. – By Tim Connor
There’s an old saying that goes, “Good things come to those who wait for them.” For Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson, the wait may finally be over as his Irish hockey team heads into the last two weeks of the CCHA regular season schedule.
As the Irish travel to Bowling Green for this weekend’s big road series versus the Falcons, they are right back in the hunt for home ice in the CCHA playoffs. Last weekend’s home-and-home series sweep of the Ferris State Bulldogs has given them momentum heading into the final four games of the regular season.
The sweep improved Notre Dame to 11-16-3 overall and 9-12-3 in league play, good for 21 points, just one point behind Ohio State and Northern Michigan, who are tied for the final home ice slot with 22 points. Not bad for a team that just one year ago won only five games.
Since Dec. 3, the Irish are 8-7-3 and playing their best hockey of the year behind strong goaltending from junior David Brown, solid defense and some timely scoring by a group of forwards who are starting to find confidence on the ice.
Jackson took over the coaching reins at Notre Dame last May, looking to move the Irish hockey program among the elite teams in the college hockey world.
“As a sophomore (2003-04) we had a lot of senior leadership. Those guys really took charge and we went places that Notre Dame hockey had never gone before,” says senior goaltender Rory Walsh.
Senior goaltender Rory Walsh is a three-time monogram winner for the Irish.
“Last year, those seniors weren’t here and even though we had a good group of guys, we just didn’t seem to get any breaks or have any bounces go our way and as the season went on, things just started falling apart. We lost our confidence,” adds Walsh.
In 2004-05, the Irish struggled at both ends of the ice, finishing the season with a 5-27-6 record. Jackson’s first job would be to get his new charges to buy into his way of doing things.
A success at the collegiate, junior, international and professional level, the three trademarks of Jackson’s coaching style are discipline, work ethic and his ability to teach the nuances of the game.
“I think the most important thing that Coach Jackson did coming in was changing the attitude on the team,” explains senior alternate captain Mike Walsh.
“The team chemistry is a lot better than in the year’s past. We understand the commitment that everyone is making. I think guys respect each other more and we don’t have the problems that we had in the locker room in other years.”
Senior Mike Walsh has 10 goals this season, including a CCH-leading four game winners.
Walsh also points out that Jackson and his staff has included the entire team in their rebuilding efforts, not just working with younger players with an eye to the future.
“It’s been a great opportunity to learn under Coach Jackson. He hasn’t spent any more time with any one group; he let everything come from the top on down from the seniors. I appreciate that he gave the senior class a chance to show what we can do,” says Walsh.
The Irish have tightened up their defense this season and are slowly starting to turn on the offense. After scoring just two goals last season, Walsh already has 10 lamplighters this year, including four game winners. The Northville, Mich., native credits Jackson for helping him regain his confidence.
“I’ve learned more from Coach Jackson in the last six months that he’s been here than I did in my last six years of playing hockey. From a developmental standpoint, I had really lost my confidence last season. By executing the system that he has put in place and working within the boundaries that he sets for us, I feel that I’ve improved and we’re seeing the results of my confidence coming back,” says Walsh.
“Anyone who plays in this system is going to develop his game and your chances of moving on in hockey, if that’s your goal, are so much better.”
Another Irish player who has found the offensive touch after being a role player his first two seasons is junior center Josh Sciba. The Westland, Mich., native has career highs in goals (14), assists (12), points (26) and power-play goals (9) and is second on the team in scoring.
Josh Sciba has career highs in goals (14), assists (12), points (26) and power-play goals (9) in his first year under Jeff Jackson.
“The coaches have really shown a great deal of confidence in me,” says Sciba.
“Putting me on the point on the power play really gave me confidence in my game and makes you want to produce more. I have to credit my line mates and the position that the coaches have put me in this year for the success that I’ve had. I want them to have confidence in me every time I step on the ice.”
All the players talk about buying into the coaching staff’s new system. For some that has been difficult, making the change from one coaching style to another. They talk about the new discipline on the team and the fact that everyone is held accountable both on and off the ice.
“From my standpoint, the most important thing that Coach Jackson has brought to this team is the discipline. I thought we were lacking that last year,” says sophomore defenseman Brock Sheahan.
“I don’t mean discipline in not taking penalties, it’s in every aspect of the game – on the ice, off the ice and in systems. It’s really made a huge difference and made us a much better team.”
Mike Walsh adds, “The system is more disciplined. Players are held accountable. It’s not like we weren’t prepared before, it’s just now we are held to a higher standard and held accountable and that’s the major difference that I see. It’s what the coach expects of us.”
Sciba also points to how Jackson and his staff have made hockey fun again.
“I think that the coaching staff has really prided themselves on our discipline and work ethic and how we jell together as a team. That’s done wonders for all of us. Everyone is ecstatic to come to the rink everyday. It’s a lot more fun this year. We feel that anytime we step on the ice, we are going to improve and that we are making progress,” says Sciba.
As far as teaching the game, Jackson has assembled a veteran staff with former Providence College head coach Paul Pooley, 12th-year Irish assistant Andy Slaggert and volunteer assistant coach Jim Montgomery who just finished a 12-year pro career.
As a second-year defenseman, Sheahan has become a vital cog on the Irish blue line, usually teamed with junior Noah Babin, to match the opponent’s top scoring line.
“This group of coaches is constantly teaching. Their attention to detail, the little things that help you get better, is incredible,” says Sheahan, a native of Lethbridge, Alb.
“Coach Jackson and coach Pooley have worked with me on little things like stick position, body position, things that have helped make me a better player. Since coach Pooley works with the defensemen, every practice, every game, he’s giving me little tips, stuff that will help make me a better player in the future.
Rory Walsh, the team’s third goaltender also points out the coaching staff’s game preparation as a factor in the Irish success.
“The coaches do a great job of scouting opponents and using video to show what they are going to try to do against us on a Friday night, which has been very helpful. As players, we just have to go out and execute the game plan,” explains Walsh.
With a better work ethic, a disciplined style of play and great teaching, the future of Notre Dame hockey looks bright.
“I can’t explain how excited I am and a lot of the other guys are not for what we can do in the future, but what we can accomplish the rest of this season,” says Sheahan.
“If we keep making progress the way we have this year, we definitely will be in the hunt for a CCHA title sooner than people expect.”
As a senior Mike Walsh’s days as a member of the Notre Dame hockey player are coming to an end. After six months with Jackson behind the bench, he wishes things could be different.
“I wish I was a freshman again,” says Walsh with a laugh.
“He’s really creating something special here. He talks all the time about `leaving your legacy.’ He’s cultivating that himself. There’s no doubt this program has a bright future.”