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Hockey: Been there, done that

Sam Werner | Wednesday, April 9, 2008

This may be Notre Dame’s first trip to the Frozen Four in the program’s history, but forgive the team if it acts like it’s been there before. Irish head coach Jeff Jackson knows a thing or two about winning on college hockey’s biggest stage.

Jackson already has three national championship rings from his time at Lake Superior State University, two as head coach in 1992 and 1994. The 1993 Laker squad came within one game of giving Jackson a three-peat, falling to Maine in the title game. In total, the Michigan State alum has a 41-10 overall postseason record.

A familiar feeling

While he said every team he’s coached is different, Jackson saw similarity between this year’s Notre Dame team and his 1992 championship team at LSSU. He said the biggest parallel between the two squads is the fact that both teams were expected to win a championship the year before.

In 1991, Jackson’s Lakers went 28 games without a loss, and won 26 over that stretch, before falling to Clarkston in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Last year, Notre Dame went 32-7-3, by far the best season in school history, and was ranked No. 1 in the country heading into the NCAAs. However, the Irish fell in the second round of the Tournament to eventual-champion Michigan State.

After graduating eight seniors from the 1991 team, and losing future NHL All-Star Doug Weight early to the draft, Jackson’s 1992 Lake Superior team finished the season with a mediocre 5-5-2 stretch in its last 12 games. But it got hot at the right time, won the CCHA tournament, and steamrolled through the NCAA tournament, scoring an average of six goals per game during the championship run.

Notre Dame’s second-half struggles this season have been a bit more pronounced – the Irish went 6-8-4 over their last 18 games. The Irish turned it on for the CCHA tournament, tough, and came within 3.4 seconds of beating Miami (Ohio) and advancing to the CCHA championship against Michigan. So far in the NCAA Tournament, the Irish showed a similar late-season scoring prowess to the 1992 LSSU team, as Notre Dame has averaged five goals per game in its two Tournament wins over New Hampshire and Michigan State.

“I don’t know if we had the same kind of struggles [as this year], but we had a tough spell in January,” Jackson said of his 1992 team.

Dave Gilbert, who played on the 1992 Laker team and is now Notre Dame’s equipment manager, said that going into the 1992 Frozen Four in Albany, N.Y., Lake Superior had the same “David vs. Goliath” attitude that Notre Dame has this year.

“It’s a very, very similar situation,” Gilbert said. “The Frozen Four that year was Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, and Lake Superior. You’ve got 2,800 students at Lake Superior and you’re looking at three of the biggest, not only hockey schools, but biggest schools in the country.

“It’s Notre Dame versus North Dakota, Boston College, and Michigan; teams that have won multiple national championships and been to the Frozen Four a gazillion times, and here’s us, making our first appearance.”

The road to South Bend

After Jackson resigned from Lake Superior in 1996 to coach the U.S. National Junior team, he took his recipe for tournament success with him. In 1997, the Michigan native led the U.S. team to the silver medal at the World Junior Championships – its best finish ever at the time. But, being Jackson, he only viewed the success as a chance for him to become a better coach.

“It was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up from a learning perspective, to coach the highest-level players in the highest-level events internationally, and to try to help American hockey. There was a little bit of patriotism involved in that, too,” Jackson said.

After stints as head coach of the Guelph Storm from the OHL and as an assistant with the New York Islanders in the NHL, Jackson arrived at Notre Dame, ready to turn around a program that had won five games the previous season. He never thought that they’d get here this quickly, though.

“Realistically, I expected it to take us five years,” Jackson said. “But that was accelerated by a great group of kids.”

Upon taking the job behind the Irish bench, Jackson sought to recreate the championship atmosphere he created at Lake Superior. That meant bringing some familiar faces back with him. Soon after he was hired, Jackson contacted former LSSU assistant coach Paul Pooley and, in June, 2005, Pooley was named Notre Dame’s associate head coach. The former Providence head coach worked with Jackson at Lake Superior from 1992-1994 and was a key to success on both championship teams. Pooley said the Jackson coaching at Notre Dame is no different than the one that led a small, northern school to glory in the early ’90s.

“Of course every coach continues to evolve,” Pooley said. “But I think his philosophy is the same and from what I’ve seen, being away from him for such a long time and coming back together, it’s very similar.”

Doing the little things right

That philosophy, of course, means playoff success. Pooley attributed Jackson’s spectacular postseason résumé to his ability to get players to band together come Tournament time.

“The main thing is his ability to get the guys to play together as a group and focus on the team aspect and the commitments necessary to be successful in the NCAA Tournament,” Pooley said.

Jackson’s focus on the team is evident in this year’s squad, as Notre Dame’s 10 tournament goals have come from eight different players. Gilbert said that diverse scoring distribution was another similarity this team has with his 1992 Lakers.

“When it came down to the Tournament time, we just really banded together and got scoring from a lot of different guys,” he said. “Kind of similar to what we’re getting from this team.”

Oddly enough, one of the main factors both Gilbert and Pooley pointed to when asked why Jackson’s teams have a habit of turning it up a notch in the NCAA Tournament was the fact that Jackson doesn’t change anything for the postseason.

“How he approaches things is the same from week to week, which is good because if you don’t, you get out of whack – you get too high, you get too low – but he’s been very consistent,” Pooley said.”

Gilbert remembers that steady style from 1992, and says that, while Jackson didn’t make any alterations, he was able to get the players to step up their focus and tune into him more.

“I think it was more change in the guys, to be honest with you,” Gilbert said. “I think his message stayed pretty true throughout the year, and I can kind of see that now.”

The main idea Jackson tries to communicate to his players is that if you concentrate on doing the little things right, greater success will follow. The head coach said this message is even more important in the NCAA Tournament.

“You have to have guys that are focused and disciplined and all the things that we preach all the time,” Jackson said. “They get magnified in the playoffs. If they elevate those things in the playoffs, then we stand a better chance of doing well.”

So far, Jackson has led the Irish to their first CCHA Championship, their first back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and their first Frozen Four. All that’s left is to win Notre Dame’s first National Championship. The players will look to Jackson to help them achieve that goal this weekend.

“I think it will [help],” senior captain Mark Van Guilder said. “I mean a lot of people say we’re an inexperienced team, it’s our first time or whatever. I think having coach Jackson, who’s been there before, I think that’ll definitely help, maybe calm us down a little bit.”

Jackson has already talked to his players about the off-ice distractions they will face upon arriving in Denver. He told the team to get things such as tickets and hotel rooms out of the way before they leave.

“The bandwagon has been jumped onto,” Jackson said. “They have to be prepared for the hoopla that’s going to happen in Denver. It’s going to be chaotic around here, so staying focused, in this environment is probably the most important thing, not allowing the distractions to impact how you perform in practice. Your mind has to be on the game.”

Pooley said all his NCAA Tournament history has taught Jackson how to best get his players to focus on the game at hand.

“One thing that coach always does is make sure everything’s under control and there’s not too many distractions,” Pooley said. “Some things we can’t control, but the things we can control, we’ll make sure that we control them.”

Jackson said that success this weekend would be a huge boost to the growing Notre Dame hockey program.

“There’s no question, getting to the Frozen Four will help us. That day we win a national championship, whether it be this year or future years, it’s going to help us continue to grow this program.”

With his fantastic NCAA Tournament pedigree, Jackson seems to be the right man to oversee that growth, and, possibly this weekend, an NCAA title.