October 25, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Team of the Week: Notre Dame

Fighting Irish Outscored Two Hockey East Teams, 13-2, at Their Buildings

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Last weekend was a time for the "road warriors," where numerous road teams went into hostile territory and came away with sweeps.

Among them was a most impressive performance by Maine, which swept North Dakota at the Ralph — convincingly. Then there was Michigan Tech winning two games at sold out Gutterson Fieldhouse in Vermont. And New Hampshire was another Hockey East team to beat up on a WCHA foe, winning its first two games of the year at Colorado College. And Minnesota went to Ohio State, and crushed the Buckeyes in two games.

But for its impact in the national scene, and all that it symbolized, Notre Dame's two routs of Hockey East teams this past weekend was enough to earn CHN's Team of the Week. Two years ago, goalie David Brown stood on his head as Notre Dame upset Boston College, 1-0, in Chestnut Hill. This year, however, was no fluke — the Irish routed the Eagles, 7-1. That was followed up by a 6-1 thrashing of Providence.

"We just wanted our team to play well," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, now in his second year with the Irish. "The previous (win over BC), Brown had to make 50 saves. I didn't want to win that way. I wanted to compete with them. David still played well, but he wasn't the only one out there."

No, there was Mark Van Guilder and his hat trick, and a goal and two assists from sophomore Erik Condra.

"I think everyone was shocked," Condra said. "We played our game, played our system and every bounce went our way. They probably took us a little lightly. ... I don't know if we figured (BC goalie Cory Schneider) out, but we had bounces and had pretty goals."

There's a long way to go for Notre Dame to be where Jackson wants it to be. But if this past weekend was any indication, the Jackson Way is paying dividends.

"Last year, he had to set the standard and this year he's excited about this year, and we all are," Condra said. "So he's still stands for what he believes in, but he knows we understand it and he doesn't have to be as hard on us."

Jackson wasn't working with any of his players when he got here, and that's still true, by and large. So the only thing Jackson, assistant Paul Pooley and holdover assistant Andy Slaggert could do was improve the culture of the program. That was the place where the staff had control.

"Part of that is playing the system, but it's really about a mindset of paying the price," Jackson said. "You have to pay a price to play a system.

"Talent alone doesn't win, but the key ingredient to the freshmen this year and the next three we already have committed, is they have talent but also pay the price. They're not afraid to take a hit to make a play."

In players like small, tough and speedy Kevin Deeth, and Ryan Thang (Condra's two linemates), and Dan Kissel, who had a hat trick against Providence, Jackson has players who understand the game and him. But the credit there goes mainly to the old staff, including Slaggert.

What Jackson did was implement a strict regiment of discipline and conditioning, something that was tough on his players at first. He's still hard on them, though perhaps they are more used to it. Twice a week, they have 6 a.m. conditioning sessions.

"I thought it was part of the culture change," Jackson said. "And we're at Notre Dame, and I need to give these guys as much time academically. They need late afternoon and early evening for studying. If we lifted in the afternoon then practiced, they wouldn't get home until 7:30.

"You think I enjoy getting up at 5 in the morning? But that's discipline. They've been good soldiers so far, and I'm not expecting to let up. I didn't come here to not have a winning program."

In installing this culture, Jackson said the rewards will come through wins. But along the way, he paid a price too, losing the talented Victor Oreskovich last year when he decided to go to major junior after getting benched. A player like Wes O'Neill, on the other hand, stuck it out.

"He got the dividends because he was night and day better," Jackson said.

Jackson was known with Lake Superior State to be a team that grinded wins out, worked along the wall, and out-muscled opponents. Some people expected to see that style with Notre Dame too. But Jackson is doing things differently, not just because hockey is being officiated differently, and not just because he has different talent, but because of the experiences he's had since then.

After leaving LSSU, Jackson coached the U.S. Junior National program, where he had to go against the best international teams. Then he coached in the Ontario Hockey Major Junior League, and then as an assistant in the NHL.

"I've added to my philosophy," Jackson said. "When you're playing internationally against Russians, Czechs, Swedes, Finns, and in the Canadian Hockey League coaching 68 league games, you learn a lot about practice prep and game coaching.

"But it's still a matter of getting your players to buy in."

Last year, Jackson tried to implement an up-tempo system out of the gate, but had to scale it back after a 3-9 start. The team improved down the stretch. This year, with more horses, he's trying it again, sending two forecheckers in deep most of the time.

"I want to be a great defensive team, but also a great transitional team," Jackson said. "From defense comes offense."

Things are going in the right direction. While previous coach, Dave Poulin, was able to reach into his contacts to get some talented players, Jackson has raised it to another level. He recently got a verbal commitment from a high school freshman, Cam Fowler, who many consider the best player at his age in North America.

But to truly reach the elite level, Jackson believes Notre Dame must build a new hockey arena to replace the long-outdated and dilapitated Joyce Center.

Towards that end, Jackson believes it's a matter of when, not if. In fact, he wouldn't have taken the job or kept it if he didn't believe that.

With the school's new basketball facility now fully funded, the school's efforts can be concentrated on the hockey facility. Poulin, who stayed in the program despite being let go in favor of Jackson, is one of those in charge of raising funds. Jackson said they're halfway there.

"Dave's done a good job," Jackson said. "Hockey's on the frontburner."

Jackson said the building could be on track for completion in two to three years if everything goes right.

For now, Jackson would like to see the fans come back to the Joyce Center, a building that despite its issues, used to get filled. And it can still be used to the Irish's advantage.

"It actually helps us," Condra said. "We're used to playing like that. The more we win, the more students will fill that place. So it's our own fault. If we win, the students pack it, and they'll have to build a new place."

In one sense, the building blocks are already there.

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