April 11, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Welcome Back JJ

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Audio Spotlight
  • ND coach Jackson post-semis
    Jeff Jackson ruminates on the past, present and future after his team's 5-4 OT win in the Frozen Four semifinal, Thursday, April 10, 2008.

Whatever your allegiances, consider it a treat to have someone like Jeff Jackson back on this stage.

Jackson won two national titles with Lake Superior State, in 1992 and 1994. Now he'll get another shot, with Notre Dame, thanks to a thrilling 5-4 overtime win against Michigan on Thursday.

There are so many great coaches in college hockey these days, and so many of them are such great people too. The man who will be on the other bench for Saturday's final certainly fits into both categories — Boston College's Jerry York. What a pleasure it will be to sit back and appreciate the two of them going at it.

But this is about Jackson, because for 10 years we didn't have him in the college game. He'd won two national championships, and then he left — for the national program, the OHL, then the NHL, before he searched for an opportunity to return.

When he did return, it was to a program considered a sleeping giant — Notre Dame. Certainly the school has the resources to win if it wanted to, but with a tiny, antiquated building, it didn't much ever seem to want to. Until the hiring of Jackson and proclamations of a new building in the works signaled a new era.

Jackson himself has said repeatedly that he figured that "new era" would take five years to flourish. His team is now in the national championship game in just his third year.

And so we get to hear Jackson talk hockey for another couple of days.

The man (he's never been married) is literally married to hockey. Few coaches if any will give you such honest, insightful, intellectual critiques of the game. You might think that combination sounds like the makings of a hockey nerd. But Jackson is able to pull all of this off while also being incredibly personable. You could talk to this guy all day.

Jackson himself was too focused on Thursday's events to think in historical terms, but it was hard not to think about one of his past entries in the Frozen Four, back before it was called the Frozen Four. In 1993, his Lake Superior team was the defending champs, and held a 4-2 third-period lead in the final — until the storied Maine team, that lost one game all season, scored three straight goals, all by Jim Montgomery, two of them set up by Paul Kariya, and won the game.

"That game was totally different in a lot of ways," Jackson said. "But it was a similar situation."

Like Thursday's game against Michigan, Maine coach Shawn Walsh pulled his goaltender to give his team a spark. Berenson pulled a possible future pro player in Billy Sauer, while Walsh pulled a long-time future NHL player in Mike Dunham. But the difference was stark from there.

"Red put in a freshman goalie (Bryan Hogan), and Shawn put in Garth Snow," Jackson said, with a sardonic grin, before adding, "... who I got a (text message) from today."

Oh, what a small hockey world it is. Snow was the backup goalie for the New York Islanders when Jackson was an assistant coach there, before Snow became team general manager and then subsequently became public enemy No. 1 in college hockey for signing Kyle Okposo in the middle of this season.

But Snow was writing to say good luck, not contacting Jackson to take any of his players.

"No, not yet. I'm sure that's going to change now," Jackson said, with another grin.

More close to home, it was hard not to think about the two-goal lead that Notre Dame blew in Yost Arena in January. That was the game that completely turned the Irish's season around on a dime. They led 2-0 before Michigan scored three straight, including one in the closing seconds, to win the game. From there, Notre Dame's season seemed to go in the tank. Then it lost its leading scorer for the season, and squeaked into the NCAAs by the skin of its teeth. And then somehow — we're still not sure how — the team turned it completely around in the NCAAs.

"We've been through that all year," Jackson said. "We've come from behind from three goals this year too. This is a funky game. Michigan's too good of a team to hold them down. I knew they would come back, but ... when we scored the third one I felt pretty good, because we didn't score the third one at Yost.

"We've had our share of tough losses. I usually don't use excuses like bad breaks — you usually make your own breaks. But these kids, some of the kids, what they've gone through this year, it's been incredible. It continues on. We had injuries tonight, and guys coming back. Running the bench was a fiasco."

Christian Hanson was injured during regulation, he tweaked his knee again at the beginning of overtime. But Jackson expects him to play in Saturday's championship game.

When it was all said and done, Jackson went through the handshake line, and took a particularly long time chatting with Michigan stars Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter — surely finding just the right insightful, forthright, personable things to say.

"They're great players and I give them so much credit," Jackson said. "They were predicted to be fourth in our league — and those two kids did such a tremendous job of leading those freshmen kids, because those freshmen are like sophomores now. What I appreciate most is, a guy like Porter plays every situation. He plays defense, he comes back, he backchecks. ... He plays a whole game and he's a quality kid. ... I just wanted to let him know.

"I know how it felt because we went through that kind of season last year."

Like we said, we could talk about this stuff all day, and keep finding good nuggets of chit-chat.

But let's save the rest for Saturday.

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