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Irish Hockey Insider: Culture change

Kyle Cassily | Friday, November 10, 2006

There is very little in the way of decoration inside Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson’s office.

There is the obligatory team photo hung behind his desk and a framed picture of the first Irish hockey team on a side wall. The rest of the office is bathed in the off-white of its bare walls.

But in the front of his desk, within constant view of him and anyone that enters to speak with him, are five smaller pictures hung on the wall. One is off-set to the left from the others and is differently sized, while the other four sit in identical frames and are aligned in a straight, vertical line.

The off-set picture shows then-Lake Superior State assistant coach Jackson shaking hands with President Ronald Reagan during a reception in the White House for the 1988 national champion Lakers.

The top photo in the row shows that 1988 Lakers team assembled in the Oval Office with President Reagan. The one below it displays now-head coach Jackson’s 1992 champion Lakers team standing in front of Air Force One with President George Bush Sr., and the third picture in the line shows the 1994 champion Lakers with President Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden.

But there is something different about the lowest frame. There is no picture inside it, only a piece of paper centered within blue matting. The paper was typed by Jackson and is printed in gold lettering.

It reads, ‘Place Picture Here’. Then, in smaller font just below that, it continues, ‘The courage to follow your dreams is the first step towards destiny’.

“[They’re] the only pictures that I’ve taken with me everywhere, obviously I don’t like living in the past,” Jackson said. “I don’t wear my championship rings. To me, I’m more concerned about the next one, than the ones that are in my safety deposit box.”

The Irish have already begun the process to take that first step. It started not long after Jackson took over in May of 2005 and is centered on what the team refers to as a complete ‘culture change’.

Attitude revamped

Jackson took over the Irish in the spring of 2005 after the team had finished one of its most miserable seasons in history – five wins and not a single one after Jan. 2 – and found that the team’s attitude needed a drastic overhaul.

He recognized that very few players had the confidence in themselves or the team to win, that the commitment to devote themselves physically, mentally and emotionally to hockey was not there and that the passion and fire to play the game needed to be drastically increased.

He also noticed that many players had dramatically underachieved in their careers at Notre Dame – something he was determined to reverse.

“I think that a lot of players two years ago, after the poor season, had lost a little bit of their dream as far as having a chance to play hockey beyond college,” Jackson said. “And that goes back to the confidence – I was trying to rebuild that belief that they could play the game after college.”

To start, Jackson established specific rules geared toward increasing team discipline and challenged the way the players lived. He said that discipline came – and still persists – in the form of early morning training workouts, committing to curfews and always being on time to meetings, practices and school.

“[I am] always focusing on making sure they understand there are a set of standards you have to live by in order to be successful,” he said. “One of them is my priority that they’re on time, they’re ready and that they do what’s right as far as the way they live.”

In addition to the drastic change, Jackson was forced to cut two players who had been on the team the previous season and a scholarship freshman to reduce the team to 26 players – the golden hockey number of five forward lines, eight defensemen and three goalies. Sophomore Vic Oreskovich then left the Irish over differences and rejoined his junior team. But a majority of the team wanted to buy into the attitude change, even if at first they couldn’t figure out how.

“We wanted to buy in as fast as we possibly could,” junior Mark Van Guilder said. “It was harder for some guys than others. It was night and day from my freshman year, just the coaching philosophy and everything, the systems were completely different. I think everyone wanted to buy in, but it was harder for some than others to adjust to the new systems.”

Buying in

It was clear at the beginning of last season that the team struggled to fit into the new systems and attitude devised by Jackson, as it was 3-8-1 after the first two months of the season. From December on, however, a noticeable upswing was evident and the team finished the regular season 10-11-3.

The Irish had held team-building exercises at the beginning of the year, but it was not until the second half of the season that the team’s attitude started to form to his expectations, Jackson said.

“I think they started to walk the talk as soon as they came back from Christmas break,” he said. “They had another team building function that really brought out some differences. And part of building a winning culture is that players hold each other accountable.”

Irish captain T.J. Jindra, who was named captain last year as a junior, was the first player that Jackson saw had fully bought into what he was trying to build with the Irish. Jackson said that Jindra was a mature, team-oriented player and showed leadership early on helping his teammates adjust to the extra discipline, work and willingness to pay the price to win.

It took several months before Jackson and Jindra were able to fully trust each other, Jackson said, but ultimately Jackson had found the right man to helm his team.

“T.J. kept the room together throughout the transition,” Jackson said. “I thought he really made an effort to help everybody realize that this is a great opportunity, a great experience – we’re at Notre Dame, we’re getting a great education and that we can also do well in hockey, that we can make this a successful environment.”

Jindra leads by example and will lay his body on the line every game to accomplish all the little things that the team respects, Van Guilder said. He said that Jindra is not a captain that stands up in the locker room and gives a speech, but the way he plays speaks more than his words.

“[Jindra’s] been a nice buffer for us between coach,” Van Guilder said. “They kind of translate for each other – Jindra to [Jackson] from the team, [Jackson] to us. He does a good job of letting us know what coach expects from us and what we have to do to be successful.”

The team and coaching staff will all agree that Jindra has been instrumental in the attitude change this season that has created early success, but the Irish captain defers all praise to his classmates.

“This year we have eight seniors – we could have eight seniors and be terrible, just cause you have eight seniors doesn’t mean anything – but the credit goes to those guys,” he said. “They really stepped up, in my opinion. They’ve gotten guys to follow [them].”

Gold Standard

A new display adorns the wall outside the Irish locker room this season – and it is yet another part of Jackson’s vision to create an atmosphere of excellence in Irish hockey.

‘The Gold Standard’ is painted high on the wall and a row of plaques extends on both sides, honoring Irish hockey greats for their achievements in the program’s modern era. The names of current Irish players can be found on the same awards plaques as Irish great Brian Walsh or current NHL players Rob Globke or Brett Lebda.

And ‘The Gold Standard’ isn’t just a phrase, it has meaning.

“That’s the standard that we set, the rules and goals that we set as a team that we have within our locker room,” Van Guilder said. “That’s the gold standard that we have to live up to – the level that we expect ourselves to play at.”

Jindra said that the ‘The Gold Standard’ display and the awards banquet the Irish held at the conclusion of last season – which he said impressed the team – is all just another way that Jackson helps his players to see his vision.

“The golden dome, the golden helmets – gold is the most precious metal that there is and to me it represents excellence,” Jackson said. “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.”

And with a 6-1-1 start this season, including a 7-1 thrashing of No. 1 Boston College, the attitude changes that were made in the spring of 2005 are now producing dividends. But despite the success, there are a lot of changes still to be made and a lot of buying in left to do.

“I don’t know if I want to say that everybody fully sees [Jackson’s vision],” Jindra said. “We haven’t done anything yet, it’s still early in the season.”

Jackson said that the team is making remarkable strides to buy into his philosophy, but some of what is left to do has to happen naturally.

“Until we have every guy in that locker room willing to make that physical sacrifice for each other, and I’m talking about physical sacrifice on the ice – that’s when I know that we have totally bought in,” he said.

Jackson, however, doesn’t know how long that will take.

“It’s hard to say. It depends on how badly this group wants to win, how badly this group wants to make those sacrifices to be successful,” he said. “This group has the potential, but there are no guarantees – there never is.”

But if the Irish can fully buy into the gold standard, Jackson may have to remove the piece of paper from his empty frame and fill it with his fifth White House photo – maybe on the South Lawn this time.