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.
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.]