When Jeff Jackson was negotiating with Notre Dame about the vacant head coaching position at the end of the 2004-05 season, Jackson said he wouldn’t coach at Notre Dame without two key men to assist: Paul Pooley and Andy Slaggert.
Pooley had served as an assistant under Jackson at Lake Superior State and was the head coach at Providence for 11 years. Pooley was also, by Jackson’s own account, the coach whom Jackson trusted the most and Jackson’s best friend.
Slaggert, however, had served as an assistant at Notre Dame since the 1993-94 season, first under Ric Schafer and then under Dave Poulin, who resigned at the end of the 2004-05 season. During Poulin’s last year, the Fighting Irish put up a record of 5-27-6. To the casual observer, a clean sweep would seem to have been the most logical choice for Jackson when arriving in South Bend, but anyone who knows anything about college hockey knows Andy Slaggert’s worth, and Jackson wasn’t about to let go of someone so important to the rebuilding of that program.
“When I knew I had the opportunity to take this job, I knew in the back of my mind that Andy Slaggert was the guy I wanted to be with me,” said Jackson. “I look at the chemistry of a staff as having a direct impact on the players, being on the same page and speaking the same message. There was no question in my mind that Andy had those qualities of loyalty, work ethic.
“I thought that he had done an excellent job, just from a distance, watching some of the players that he had brought into Notre Dame, all the way back from when I was with Lake Superior. When I was with the U.S. National Team, the players that he was picking from our program — he didn’t get them all — but [from] a number of the ones that he did go after I knew he was a bright guy as far as having an eye for talent, an eye for character.”
Slaggert himself is a modest man who is more comfortable under the radar. Like most second assistants in Division I programs, Slaggert spends a good deal of his time on the road, recruiting for the Fighting Irish and keeping his eyes peeled for trends in the game.
Two players whom Slaggert had a hand in recruiting — Mark Eaton (Pittsburgh) and Bret Lebda (Detroit) — are currently active in the NHL, and there are dozens of other former Irish players playing pro hockey somewhere who came to South Bend in part because of Slaggert.
From the beginning with Jackson, Slaggert also recognized the good coaching chemistry. “We kind of fell into a good rhythm with how our staff operates,” said Slaggert, who describes Jackson as “detail-oriented.”
“He has a he has a tremendous attention to detail in every aspect of the program,” said Slaggert of Jackson, whose cool demeanor on the bench is something of an unintentional trademark. “We put in a lot of hours and that calm comes from the knowledge that he’s done everything possible before the game.”
When it comes to one of his primary jobs, recruiting, Slaggert said that he and the Notre Dame staff are trying to build a trademark of another kind.
“We like kids that compete,” said Slaggert. “I would say that’s a high priority for us, [and] kids that have hockey sense. We’re not too hung up on size.
“I think that the overriding factor is that they do play hard and they know the game. I guess I’m hopeful and I’d like to get to a point as a program that when people see players they say, ‘That’s a Notre Dame player. He skates well, gets around the rink, plays hard, is smart, and has tremendous character.’
“I don’t know if we have great players but we have great players who have great character.”
One of those players is senior captain Mark Van Guilder, who came to Notre Dame as a recruited walk-on in 2004. Slaggert said he was checking in on current Notre Dame juniors Luke Lucyk and Christian Hanson of the Tri-City Storm (USHL) when he noticed Van Guilder.
“It was late, I would say it was in February,” said Slaggert. “It was just a mid-week game, and I … talked to the coaches and they couldn’t recommend [Van Guilder] more highly. I couldn’t believe that he had been overlooked. I talked to him really quickly after that game, and told him that it would have to happen fast.”
“It happened pretty quick,” said Van Guilder. “I had a few options but when he walked up to me and I saw the ‘ND’ on his jacket I was pretty excited. Without any disrespect to any other program, I was like, ‘Notre Dame, this is awesome.’
“When I told my folks and my dad just told me, ‘Don’t screw this up, son. This is a heck of an opportunity,’ it took maybe 15 minutes to decide that that was where I wanted to go.”
“I would say that the whole process probably took a couple of weeks,” said Slaggert. “I couldn’t be prouder of a kid than I am of him. I’m so happy that he decided to come and that I made that trip. I mean, it was late in the year and I was thinking, ‘Do I really want to get on a plane and head to Nebraska?'”
Without that trip to Nebraska and without Slaggert’s instincts, the Irish might be sitting this weekend out, watching Michigan State defend a national championship rather than making their first bid for one themselves. It was Van Guilder who scored the game-winning goal at 14:06 in the third period in the NCAA West Regional.
“I’m so proud of him,” said Slaggert. “It’s pretty rare for a walk-on to play every single game.”
And Slaggert’s eye for the kind of player that Notre Dame wants to attract, said Jackson, is part of the reason why the Irish have gone from a team that won five games in Van Guilder’s freshman year, the year before Jackson arrived, to a team making its first-ever Frozen Four appearance in just its third NCAA tournament bid, its second under Jackson.
“I think one of the reasons why we’ve been able to turn the corner as a program sooner than I expected is because of the quality of players and the quality of the players and the quality of the character of the kids that he’s brought in before I got here,” said Jackson.
“Even our first year, I thought that there needed to be a change in the discipline and the attitude in the kids in the program, but the kids in the program had the willingness and desire to make the changes necessary.”
Slaggert, who monogrammed for the Fighting Irish twice and graduated from Notre Dame in 1989, says that watching young players develop has its own rewards — but Van Guilder said that the rewards process goes both ways.
“I think seeing the smile on his face this weekend [at the West Regional] was just priceless,” said Van Guilder. “Every once in a while I go up to him and say, ‘Coach, thanks for bringing me here.’ Who knows where I’d be? I’m so happy for him because he’s been through a lot as well. It’s not just our class and the players; he’s been through a lot with the program. We’re so happy for him.
“He does a lot for this team. He wasn’t around as much in the early part of the season, but having him around now is huge. It loosens up the guys a little bit. Just seeing him after the game Saturday was awesome, the smile on his face.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Coach Slaggert,” said Van Guilder. “That’s the truth.”
And without Andy Slaggert, perhaps, the Irish wouldn’t be in Denver.