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Senior athlete of the year: Jordan Pearce

Matt Gamber | Friday, May 15, 2009

Ask Jordan Pearce about rewriting the Irish hockey record books, and he’ll smile, brush it off, and say the next goaltender in line will top his eye-popping career numbers.

Ask him about his astronomical grade-point average and otherwise impressive accomplishments off the ice, and he’ll sound the same, saying academics have always been a top priority.

Even ask him about his obvious snubbing by the CCHA’s coaches, who only chose him as an honorable mention to the all-conference team. He’ll laugh again, sing the praises of the first- and second-team choices, and tell you he’s just happy to be playing in the CCHA championship.

“He always stays at an even keel, and it really helps him,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “Humble and quiet – great goalies are generally that way. They’re unassuming.”

From backing up All-American David Brown for two years to leading the Irish to another CCHA semifinal appearance, Pearce has done it all with the same levelheaded demeanor that has helped him enjoy so much success.

“He doesn’t have to talk or have people talk about him, he just does it with his numbers and the wins,” junior defenseman Kyle Lawson said. “He lets his play speak for itself, and I think there’s a lot to be said about that. He’s somebody who doesn’t need to go out and boast about himself or have that cockiness about him.

“You can say what you want, but Jordan Pearce is going to be Jordan Pearce, no matter what happens.”

And what exactly does that mean?

“He comes to work every day with the same attitude, the same demeanor,” Jackson said. “He works hard and competes hard every day, and he doesn’t complain. He just shows that level of humility and yet strength in character and mental toughness that you hope every goaltender can develop.”

Man on fire

Nothing is more important in tournament hockey than hot goaltending, or so the old saying goes.

So with four shutouts in his last five games leading up to the CCHA championship – including two in Notre Dame’s CCHA quarterfinal sweep of Nebraska-Omaha – was there any playoff goalie hotter than Pearce?

“No,” senior captain Erik Condra said before the CCHA Championship. “He doesn’t get enough credit. When playoffs hit, your goaltender needs to be your best player, and he definitely was over the weekend. He stepped it up, and he was unbelievable.”

That’s been a familiar story over the past two years for Pearce, who, after riding the pine for two seasons, earned the starting gig as a junior. To say he ran with it would be an understatement.

Pearce’s career goals-against average (1.97), save percentage (.919) and winning percentage (.680) are all tops in the program’s history, and he set the career wins record (57) in Saturday’s 1-0 victory, when he also tied Brown’s career shutout tally with 12.

This season, he led the nation in wins (30), goals-against average (1.68) and shutouts (8).

“So much of it has to do with consistency,” Jackson said. “He does it every night, and he doesn’t have bad games. He’ll occasionally give up a soft goal – very seldom though – and even if he does, he comes back and plays well. He doesn’t get rattled by it.”

In four years as his coach, Jackson hasn’t found a way to break Pearce’s focus – even when he deliberately tries to do so.

“I wish he had a little bit more flair to him because he’d get more recognition,” Jackson said. “I try to pump his tires as much as I can because I think he deserves to be recognized as one of the top players in the country.”

At the end of the season, Pearce’s contributions within the team were acknowledged when he was named team M.V.P. for the second consecutive year.

As Lawson said, Pearce is Pearce. He’ll almost admit that he enjoys the personal accolades – “It’s always nice to get those,” he said – but he quickly qualified that statement by saying that individual honors aren’t his primary focus.

“To me, it’s more important to be there playing [in the CCHA championship] than it is to receive your awards [the night before],” Pearce said.

As for the school records – well, he doesn’t need those, either.

“Only having two years to play here, it’s nice to be making all these records,” Pearce said. “But with the coaching staff and the way this program is going, I’m sure that the next goalie in line will probably just keep on breaking all the records that I set.”

Learning from the best

Even if that’s the case, though, it will be with Pearce’s help.

“I didn’t understand it my first couple years, but now I know exactly what he was going through being behind somebody who’s that good,” junior backup goaltender Tom O’Brien said. “Just watching him, you learn so much about how to handle every situation you can imagine. He learned from the best, and I have the opportunity to learn from the best.”

With Pearce’s departure at the end of this season, O’Brien will battle sophomore frontrunner Brad Phillips, who missed the entire season after preseason knee surgery, to become heir to the Irish goaltending throne.

“He (Pearce) works hard in the weight room, works hard on the ice and is a good leader in the locker room,” Phillips said. “He’s a good goalie to follow after and look up to … I just want to follow in his footsteps, and hopefully I can do the same thing.”

And it’s not only in games that Pearce makes some of the spectacular saves to which his teammates have become accustomed.

“Even in practice he’s unconscious,” O’Brien said. “I can’t beat him in any [scrimmage] games, it’s unbelievable.”

It might not have always been that way for Pearce, who said it took him a year or so to deal with his role as a backup. Once he came to the realization that when Brown graduated, it would be his job to lose, his view on the situation changed.

“It was a long two years being behind David Brown, but I learned to adapt and I learned that by kind of pouting and moping around, you don’t get anything accomplished and you’re not making yourself better,” Pearce said. “I tried to change my attitude, get better every day and be a better teammate, and that helped me a lot in practice and I improved.”

Though Pearce learned a lot from Brown about handling the pressure of being the go-to guy in net for the Irish, Jackson said there aren’t many comparisons to be made between the two.

“Jordan’s a bigger man, he’s as athletic as David, and he’s learned to be better in the situations that was he was weak at when he first started,” Jackson said. “It’s really his competitiveness that mirrors David Brown’s competitiveness. And his demeanor is probably better than David Brown’s, as far as his ability to react to adversity. He has the tendency to be able to respond better.”

What’s next?

Even if the NHL doesn’t come calling, Pearce’s future is bright.

With a 3.816 grade point average and a spot in Notre Dame’s Academic Honors Program, the anthropology and pre-med double major has already begun to interview for medical school.

“I wanted to pursue med school so that option would be there if I wanted to go that route,” Pearce said. “We’ll see if the hockey offers come my way. I’d love to go play hockey, and you only get one chance to go pursue a dream to play professional hockey. If the opportunity comes, I’d be excited to play.”

It looks like Pearce may get that chance. On April 10, he signed a two-year contract with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. Ironically enough, Pearce’s professional career will begin where his collegiate one ended, as he was assigned to Detroit’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. Pearce played in one game for the Griffins, giving up five goals in a loss.

Growing up in Anchorage, Ala., Pearce’s parents instilled in him a staunch commitment to academics, and that has stuck with him at Notre Dame, he said.

“You always have to have that safety net,” Pearce said. “Academics was always the top priority in my life. I’ve learned over the years that you don’t have to sacrifice your athletic performance or your attitude just to accomplish good things in the academic world. You can do both, you just have to be dedicated and know how to manage your time.”

Easier said than done, but Pearce has got it under control. But that’s no surprise to those who know him.

“The kid’s probably smarter than all of us, and he’s the No. 1 goalie here at Notre Dame,” Lawson said. “The kid’s got as full a plate as you can get here, and he just goes about his business quietly. I’m just glad I don’t have his schedule.”

As for that rock-solid demeanor – well, that might be an important quality to have as a doctor. And as it turns out, it works for a goaltender as well.

“From where I was with him as a freshman or sophomore, wondering how hard he was going to compete or how hard he would work, he’s a kid who has probably made the biggest turnaround from my perspective of him,” Jackson said. “I had him wrong. I didn’t know how hard he really wanted it, and I watch him now and he competes as hard as any goalie I’ve ever coached.

“It’s just his nature, and that demeanor is what makes him even better. That low-key [attitude] that I was looking at as a negative was actually a positive, because it’s a great trait in a goalie to be emotionally under control.”

This story originally appeared in the March 20 edition of The Observer.