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Hockey: Jeff Jackson brings in winning ways for Irish

Kyle Cassily | Friday, March 28, 2008

I grew up a 20-minute drive away from the University of New Hampshire’s campus, along one of the wooded, two-lane roads that pass for major thoroughfares in my state.

Like someone who was born and raised in Tuscaloosa on ‘Bama football, there was no college team more important than UNH hockey. OK, Alabama football and New Hampshire hockey may differ more than their fans’ accents, but there was no denying that in rural New Hampshire, the Wildcats were king.

They were hockey gods because they were good. From 1992 until the present, the Wildcats have missed the NCAA Tournament only three times (1993, 1996, 2001). They played for the national championship twice (1999, 2003), and tickets to see their games were hot commodities mostly gotten from friends who knew friends who had a couple extra.

UNH players came to skate and teach at our youth hockey practices, and we played a lot of our games on their massive Olympic ice surface at the Whittemore Center. During the winter that the Whit was being built, the Wildcats practiced at our local rink, a 30 second bike ride from my house.

My teammates from the youth hockey league would line around the rink during their practices, hoping for a stray puck shot over the net or trying to snag a broken stick.

The Wildcats were larger-than-life celebrities to kids and adults alike, regarded much in the same way that Notre Dame football players often are.

Not much has changed since then. And that goes for the one stigma that sticks to UNH like wide right haunts Scott Norwood.

The Wildcats choke in the NCAA Tournament.

For a Notre Dame team that struggled the second half of the season and lost two games before backing into the Tournament as a No. 4 seed against No. 1 UNH today, the Wildcats’ Tournament history is a bright spot.

Last year, No. 1 seed UNH lost to No. 4 Miami in the first round regional game played in Manchester, N.H. – a 60-minute drive from their campus.

The Wildcats have lost by scores of 7-1 (as a No.3-seed to No.2-seed Harvard in 1994) and 9-2 (in the first round to No. 6-seed Denver in 1995 as a No. 3-seed). In 2000, auto-bid Niagara wiped them out of the first round with a 4-1 surprise.

Overall, UNH has a 12-20 record in the NCAA Tournament, including losses in the championship game to Maine and Minnesota – the latter a 5-1 slaughter that was never close.

Notre Dame has played a grand total of three Tournament games with a 1-2 record, two games of which came last year with a first-round win before a quarterfinal loss to Michigan State.

The UNH Tourney history book is a leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica volume to Notre Dame’s Chinese food takeout menu. And that experience counts against a lot of teams.

But maybe not the Irish.

Notre Dame has an ace up its sleeve, the king of hearts that took the Irish from league bottom feeder to national contender. That man is Irish coach Jeff Jackson.

Jackson already has won three national championships and seems destined to pack on a few more before he’s done. He knows how to coach his players for the biggest stage in college hockey, which has always been a criticism tossed around UNH coach Dick Umile.

In hockey, the intangibles – the ability to motivate, to instill confidence, to never under or overestimate an opponent – make a huge impact. The truth is any team can win a hockey game, no matter how bad they look on paper. It only takes a weird carom off the corner boards to the front of the net or a lucky deflection to turn a game.

UNH’s Tournament futility could just be a case of bad luck repeated on an endless loop that is finally broken this year. Or Notre Dame’s struggles in the second half of the season could disappear behind a miraculous playoff run.

It could go either way. But if the Irish pull off the upset on Olympic ice and defeat No. 1-seeded New Hampshire in the Rockies tonight, don’t be surprised.

New Hampshire doesn’t always do what it should, trust me on that one.