Puck of the Irish

Under the leadership of a disciplinarian coach, once-woeful Notre Dame has become a national contender
December 11, 2006

When Jeff Jacksonwas hired as Notre Dame's hockey coach 19 months ago, he immediately made hismark as the team's newest enforcer. Jackson, who coached Lake Superior State toNCAA titles in 1992 and '94, instituted 6 a.m. workouts, midnight curfews and adress code that included neatly coiffed hair. He benched stars who didn'thustle and made players analyze more tape in a week than they had in theircareers. He also worked to instill camaraderie and pride, switching the helmetcolor from blue to gold to match the football team's, putting up pictures inthe rink of current seniors and the 14 Fighting Irish alumni who have played inthe NHL, and issuing a new motto: Where we go one, we go all.

The result ofJackson's efforts? The Irish's sizzling 11-3-1 start and No. 5 ranking thisseason. Once a laughingstock of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association,Notre Dame has a shot at making just its second NCAA tournament appearance.It's a remarkable turnaround considering that in 2004--05--the season beforeJackson arrived--the Irish had its worst record (5-27-6) in the program's 47seasons. "Coach lit a fire in us," says junior center Mark Van Guilder,who through Saturday led the team in scoring with 16 points (nine goals, sevenassists). "He devotes every waking moment to the team, so nobody wants tolet him down."

Growing up inRoseville, Mich., Jackson was a hockey fanatic who dreamed about attendingNotre Dame. But he didn't get recruited by the Irish, and because his mother,Katherine, couldn't afford to send her son out of state for college, Jacksonwent to Michigan State. (As a freshman he walked on to the Spartans' hockeyteam but never played.) Jackson got his first coaching job in 1986, when he washired as an assistant at Lake Superior State. He spent 10 seasons there,including a three-year stint as the Lakers' athletic director, before leavingto be senior director and coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program.Jackson also coached in the Ontario Hockey League and was an assistant with theNew York Islanders before returning to the college ranks. "I'd alwayswanted to be at Notre Dame, so I jumped at the chance," he says. "Justthinking about how the program was a diamond in the rough, I figured I couldhelp make it as excellent as everything else at the university."

Last season NotreDame won only three of its first 13 games but jelled down the stretch andfinished 13-19-4. This year the Irish have exceeded even the 51-year-oldJackson's lofty expectations and have beaten traditional powerhouses MichiganState, Ohio State, Providence and Boston College. "Jeff has the teamplaying in sync and at a better skill level," says BC coach Jerry York,whose Eagles were ranked first when Notre Dame thrashed them 7--1 on Oct. 20."They have grit."

The Irish's styleis aggressive. When they don't have the puck, they forecheck and backcheck witha vengeance, and when in control, the players cycle the puck with quick, sharppasses. As a result Notre Dame led the nation through Saturday in penaltykilling (92.2%) and was third in goal differential (2.20). Another key has beensenior Dave Brown, who is ranked second among NCAA Division I goalies with astingy 1.42 GAA. "Coach has given us the structure and tools to faceanything," says Brown, a potential Hobey Baker candidate. "He's moldedus into winners."

But work remainsto be done. Jackson is helping raise $15 million to build a new hockey rink toreplace the one at the Joyce Center, a 464,800-square-foot gym. The rink isseparated from the rest of the gym by a blue curtain, and keeping the ice freshis a constant struggle. Despite the second-rate facilities, the Irish now packthe stands; on game days the 400-person student section is overflowing.

Jackson hopes tofill something else soon: the empty picture frame in his office. It hangs nextto snapshots of his two NCAA titlist teams from Lake Superior. "I plan tostay at Notre Dame until I retire," says Jackson. "My goal is tograduate all my players and win a national championship.

Winners' Circle
The Division I college hockey coach with the highest career winning percentageis Alfred Winsor Jr., who had an 86--27 record (.761) at Harvard from 1906 to1917 and in '22. But among active coaches who have been behind the bench atleast five years, Jeff Jackson heads the list. Here are the top five.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)