Nov. 18, 2005
By Tim Connor
Notre Dame sports fans have had the opportunity this fall to watch one high-profile coach – Charlie Weis – turn around the fortunes of the Notre Dame football team.
Hockey fans will be looking for more of the same this winter when their high-profile coach – Jeff Jackson – gets a chance to turn the fortunes of the Irish hockey program.
Jackson took over the program’s reins on May 6, 2005, when he replaced former Irish and NHL standout Dave Poulin, who stepped down after 10 seasons behind the Notre Dame bench to move into a role in development in the Irish athletic department.
Poulin’s decision caught Jackson’s attention while he was sitting out the NHL lockout as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders.
“I’ve always liked Notre Dame. As a kid, I wanted to come here when I was in high school, but couldn’t at the time. I’ve always liked the University and what it represents,” says Jackson.
“When the position opened up, it was like a second opportunity for me to get to Notre Dame. So, I was very interested in the opportunity.”
And the Irish were interested in Jackson, especially with the resume he brought to South Bend.
In making the announcement, Notre Dame director of athletics, Kevin White said, “Jeff Jackson has a first-hand appreciation of what it takes to be successful at the very highest level of the collegiate hockey world.”
“We’re excited that he’s coming to Notre Dame and I think it’s fair to say that he’s excited about the opportunities ahead of him with our program.”
The highly respected Jackson brings over 20 years of coaching success at all levels of the game, but it was his six years at Lake Superior State (1990-96) that stand out.
During that time, his Laker teams were 182-52-25 for a .751 winning percentage – currently, the best winning percentage among active college coaches. They won two CCHA regular-season titles, four CCHA postseason championships and advanced to the NCAA tournament in all six years. Lake Superior played in three straight NCAA Frozen Fours, winning the championship in 1992 and 1994. As impressive as his .751 career record is, Jackson’s record in the CCHA tournament is incredible as his teams were 24-2 with the two losses coming to perennial power Michigan in league championship games.
The architect of the U.S. National Developmental program in Ann Arbor, Mich., Jackson believes that Notre Dame has the ability to make its mark in the world of college hockey.
“I really do think that Notre Dame is a sleeping giant in the college hockey world,” says Jackson.
“This was an outstanding coaching opportunity, taking over a program that has so much potential. Recruiting is such a major part of college hockey, as it is in every sport, and I think the only thing that has held it back here is the building. When the renovations (on the Joyce Center) are completed or the building is done, there should be no more excuses. The education and the University itself should be enough to attract recruits, but in today’s college hockey market facilities have become such a huge factor.”
Returning to the college ranks is something that Jackson looked forward to.
“I had an interest in getting back to the college game because I enjoy having the chance to teach and work with young people,” says Jackson.
“The day-to-day preparation, the chance to teach in practice and having an impact on young people’s lives as far as the decisions they make, not just in hockey but off the ice as well. Coaching is about relationships, it’s no different than teaching. Finding out what motivates kids, what makes them tick. Coaching at the college level lets you be much more involved practice-wise in a teaching environment. There are a lot of things that make college hockey much more attractive to me than any other level. It was just a matter of finding the right fit as far as where I would want to come back to.”
Jackson’s teams have always played a disciplined, hard-working style. That recipe for success will be no different now that he’s behind the Irish bench.
“Our goal this year is simple,” explains Jackson. “We want to be the hardest working and the most disciplined team in the CCHA. If we can do that, we’ll be moving in the right direction.”
Jackson also took a page from Weis’ book when it came time to build a veteran coaching staff during the summer. He brought in former Providence head coach Paul Pooley as his associate head coach, retained long-time Irish assistant Andy Slaggert and added former Maine All-American Jim Montgomery who just finished a 12-year pro career as the volunteer assistant.
Pooley’s move to Notre Dame reunites him with Jackson as the two spent three years together at Lake Superior State from 1992-94 on those Frozen Four teams. The former CCHA standout as a player at Ohio State (1980-84) spent 11 seasons at Providence where his teams were 185-187-40 with a Hockey East championship in 1995-96 and two NCAA appearances.
“Paul Pooley is someone who I’ve admired since I hired him at Lake Superior and even before from a distance at Ohio State. He’s got great integrity, a strong work ethic, a good understanding of the game and an ability to evaluate talent. He’s a guy I can rely on to act as a head coach when I have him working at one end of the ice or I’m on the road recruiting,” says Jackson.
“I thought it was important to have someone like Andy (Slaggert) on this staff. He’s an alum and represents the institution. He has the `ND’ branded on his heart. There is nobody better to sell this hockey program. He’s done a great job in representing this University,” says Jackson.
“I’ve known Andy for many years from the other side of the ice and have always respected him. He’s a sharp young man who loves recruiting and has done a good job here in the past. I’m real happy with our entire coaching staff and our support staff.”
After the first six games of the season, the Irish record stands at 1-5-0 with four of the losses coming to No. 4 Colorado College, No. 9 Denver and two versus No. 3 Michigan. All three schools have been ranked No. 1 in the nation at some point this season.
Jackson, a 1978 Michigan State graduate, actually got to coach his team for the first time on Oct. 1, the first official day of practice. In the six week’s since, he knows that this Irish squad is still a work in progress.
“I think that we are making progress, but just like Pavlov’s Dog, they haven’t responded to the bell everytime,” says Jackson with a laugh.
“We did some things really well versus Colorado College in the first period and then we lost it. At Denver, we played real good five-on-five hockey and struggled on special teams. Versus Princeton we got into some run-and-gun habits in the second period (of the 5-3 loss) and at this time we can’t play horse-race hockey.”
He adds, “At this point, we have to take the good things and keep building on them and play a controlled, sound defensive game. We just have to keep repeating things until we become more consistent in what we do.”
Consistency is something that Jackson has proven to be throughout his career – a consistent winner. If he can continue that at Notre Dame, Irish hockey fans will be thrilled to see one giant awaken from its slumber.