In just his second season at Notre Dame, head coach Jeff Jackson is firmly focused on making hockey a priority at a school traditionally devoted to two things: God and football. While winning goes a long way, Jackson’s plan picks up where on-ice success leaves off.
Almost as important as a winning tradition, Jackson and his staff are building a hockey culture in South Bend — something no one could have envisioned after a 5-27-6 season in 2004-05.
“[Coach] has been successful at every level of hockey, and he brought that great knowledge to our program and was able to communicate that to every position — to myself as a goalie, defense, offense,” said senior goaltender and Hobey Baker finalist David Brown.
“He instilled the sense of professionalism that he brought with him. He really helped us to regain that pride in the program that we’d been missing, and changed the culture that we had currently. He improved that dramatically and really had everyone take more pride in wearing the Irish uniform.”
First and foremost, the Irish are working toward securing a new hockey facility as quickly as possible, to get ND hockey out of the Joyce Center, which only seats 2,667 at capacity. Just this week, Jackson spoke with an architectural design firm to discuss plans for the new building.
While a new arena is a priority for the future, the hockey program has done many things to re-instill the pride and tradition that is Notre Dame. The first steps in doing so required stealing a play from the football squad, as Jackson painted his players’ helmets a shimmering shade of gold.
“Look at the tradition that is there,” said Jackson. “In our league, you see Michigan and Michigan State and even Lake Superior. When you see the anchor or the Michigan helmet or the green and white you immediately know who it is, and we need people to identify Notre Dame with college hockey.”
This state of mind — this culture change — is also embodied in an inspirational phrase that Jackson had painted in the locker room: The Gold Standard.
“The golden dome, the golden helmets. Gold is the most precious metal that there is, and to me it represents excellence,” said Jackson. “And we need to set that standard of excellence.
“I want people to know that our desire is to get to that point where we can win a championship — that’s the gold standard.”
Most recently, Jackson was confronted with a decision in the CCHA tournament title game. With the championship tilt being played on St. Patrick’s Day, many expected to see the Irish take the ice donned in their “special” green jerseys, but Jackson recognized the honor and value in wearing the home white jerseys in Joe Louis Arena and what it meant to his program.
“We can’t wear the green because we’re busy trying to build an identity. We’ve got four different jerseys and it’s hard enough to keep them all straight without coming out in our biggest game this season wearing green,” said Jackson.
Long before helmets and sweaters were an issue, the Irish adopted an extremely challenging offseason workout routine to begin a commitment to the Gold Standard.
“There were many days when we thought that this dude [Jackson] must be crazy,” said sophomore forward Erik Condra. “He had us up before the sun, and that might be when he gets up, but we never get up that early.”
College hockey, like most sports, is a game of trends. Just as many football teams have several coaches on staff that are more than capable of being head coaches elsewhere, Notre Dame’s assistant, Paul Pooley, served as the head coach of Providence before Jackson insisted on bringing his longtime friend and former assistant at Lake Superior State with him to Notre Dame.
Pooley brought nearly two decades of experience coaching the college game to South Bend, including that in Providence. A former standout in the CCHA at Ohio State as a winger, Pooley has the ability to coach skilled players as well as teach the defense-first mentality that he learned from Jackson and instilled at Providence.
Still, rather than trying to supplant Notre Dame hockey with his own tradition, Jackson also relies heavily upon one of the most respected assistant coaches in the CCHA, Andy Slaggert, who has coached for 13 seasons following his playing days for the Irish. Slaggert, an outstanding recruiter, is an important and often underestimated link to Notre Dame’s recent past and hockey tradition.
Jackson’s plan is comprehensive, one that is built for building a successful program and a hockey identity at Notre Dame. Although 2006-07 has been a magical season for the Irish, this season is laying the groundwork for much more to come.
“It’s our first NCAA win in history. It’s all new stuff, it’s all baby steps, and right now every step we take helps build that tradition that we’re trying to build over the next few years. We’re playing for the now, but everything this team’s done is laying footprints into the ground for us for the future,” said Jackson.
Notre Dame’s hard work is already paying off in more than just winning games, as Jackson and his staff are winning recruiting battles for some of the best talent in the country. ND has five commitments from players on the U.S. National Developmental Program teams, including defenseman Ian Cole, who is widely regarded as the premier American blueliner with a 1989 birthdate, as well as several top-flight players from the USHL.
To borrow from a popular ’80s song, the future is so bright in South Bend that the Irish gotta wear shades.