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

Puck Of The Irish

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

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Jeff Jackson 8 206 74 30 .713
(Notre Dame, Lake Superior State)
Red Berenson 23 597 283 63 .666
( Michigan)
Don Lucia 20 481 242 58 .653
( Minnesota, Alaska-Fairbanks, Colorado College)
Dick Umile 17 381 190 62 .651
( New Hampshire)
Mike Schafer 12 229 115 39 .649
( Cornell University)

When Jeff Jackson was hired as Notre Dame's hockey coach 19 months ago, he immediately made his mark as the team's newest enforcer. Jackson, who coached Lake Superior State to NCAA titles in 1992 and '94, instituted 6 a.m. workouts, midnight curfews and a dress code that included neatly coiffed hair. He benched stars who didn't hustle and made players analyze more tape in a week than they had in their careers. He also worked to instill camaraderie and pride, switching the helmet color from blue to gold to match the football team's, putting up pictures in the rink of current seniors and the 14 Fighting Irish alumni who have played in the NHL, and issuing a new motto: Where we go one, we go all.

The result of Jackson's efforts? The Irish's sizzling 11-3-1 start and No. 5 ranking this season. 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 before Jackson arrived--the Irish had its worst record (5-27-6) in the program's 47 seasons. "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, seven assists). "He devotes every waking moment to the team, so nobody wants to let him down."

Growing up in Roseville, Mich., Jackson was a hockey fanatic who dreamed about attending Notre 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, Jackson went to Michigan State. (As a freshman he walked on to the Spartans' hockey team but never played.) Jackson got his first coaching job in 1986, when he was hired as an assistant at Lake Superior State. He spent 10 seasons there, including a three-year stint as the Lakers' athletic director, before leaving to 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 the New York Islanders before returning to the college ranks. "I'd always wanted to be at Notre Dame, so I jumped at the chance," he says. "Just thinking about how the program was a diamond in the rough, I figured I could help make it as excellent as everything else at the university."

Last season Notre Dame won only three of its first 13 games but jelled down the stretch and finished 13-19-4. This year the Irish have exceeded even the 51-year-old Jackson's lofty expectations and have beaten traditional powerhouses Michigan State, Ohio State, Providence and Boston College. "Jeff has the team playing 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 style is aggressive. When they don't have the puck, they forecheck and backcheck with a vengeance, and when in control, the players cycle the puck with quick, sharp passes. As a result Notre Dame led the nation through Saturday in penalty killing (92.2%) and was third in goal differential (2.20). Another key has been senior Dave Brown, who is ranked second among NCAA Division I goalies with a stingy 1.42 GAA. "Coach has given us the structure and tools to face anything," says Brown, a potential Hobey Baker candidate. "He's molded us into winners."

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

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

Winners' Circle
The Division I college hockey coach with the highest career winning percentage is Alfred Winsor Jr., who had an 86--27 record (.761) at Harvard from 1906 to 1917 and in '22. But among active coaches who have been behind the bench at least five years, Jeff Jackson heads the list. Here are the top five.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]