SOUTH BEND — Jeff Jackson likes having “adults” in Notre Dame hockey locker room.
In senior captain Cal Burke, Jackson has a good one as he starts his 15th season behind the bench when the eighth-ranked Fighting Irish open against visiting Air Force Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 3 on the Charles W. “Lefty” Smith Rink ice in the Compton Family Ice Arena.
The Irish, who have qualified for the NCAA tournament the last four seasons and twice made it to the Frozen Four, won’t lack for leadership from the speedy, 5-foot-10, 184-pound Burke. Though missing four games because of a midseason appendectomy, Burke still managed to finish third in scoring (12 goals, 17 assists, 29 points) on the 23-14-3 Irish, who won their second straight Big Ten Tournament title.
Jackson, whose 501 career victories trail only Jerry York of Boston College (1,067) among active college hockey coaches,
believes Burke is special.
“Cal has the potential to be one of the best captains we’ve ever had,” said Jackson, who listed Burke among his favorites, along with current pro players Erik Condra, Anders Lee and Steven Fogarty.
“They’re the ones who are the adults in the room surrounded by a bunch of boys,” Jackson said. “Cal has the maturity, is well-spoken, is a very intelligent kid who does great in the classroom (and) is very well-respected by his teammates because he works as hard as anyone. He’s a bit of a rock star on the other side of campus with his duties on the student-athlete advisory committee and with the Rosenthal leadership group.”
Burke, whose sophomore brother Cam is expected to make a big contribution among the Irish forwards, just wants to do his part.
“Our success has been good, and our culture has been good,” the Massachusetts native said. “I just want to build on that.”
He and the Irish, whose 27-player roster features 17 sophomores and freshmen, learned a little about themselves last Sunday in an exhibition against the U.S. National Under-18 team at Plymouth, Mich. Notre Dame trailed 2-0 midway through the first period but rallied for a 4-2 victory with Burke scoring the game-winner off a feed from fellow senior Mike O’Leary, who had two goals.
“Being able to come back was encouraging,” Burke said. “Our guys were really calm.”
Jackson believes he has enough talent on the forward lines to improve on last year’s average of 2.8 goals a game (29th of 60 teams in Division I). The Irish return both Burkes, O’Leary, sophomore center Michael Graham, senior Cam Morrison, junior Colin Theisen and the Steeves brothers, junior Matt and sophomore Alex. The Irish coach has been impressed, too, with freshmen Jesse Lansdell and Max Ellis.
“We need to get over three goals a game,” said Jackson, who believes the Irish can with productive power-play units that are still to be identified. Three key members of last year’s units are playing professionally in defensemen Bobby Nardella and Andrew Peeke and winger Dylan Malmquist.
“I know we’ll have good goaltending,” Jackson understated. And plenty of it. Once senior All-American Cale Morris returns from an upper-body injury that will keep him out of this weekend’s series with the Falcons, the Irish will be solid between the pipes.
Freshman Ryan Bischel stopped 17 shots in the exhibition game, and junior Dylan St. Cyr, who was expected to be the starter this year before Morris decided to return, will likely be redshirted. Bischel will start Friday’s game against Air Force. A fourth goalie, Nick Sanford, has shown improvement and could get the start Sunday.
The defense will be led by senior alternate captain Tory Dello and junior Matt Hellickson, returning sophomores Nate Clurman, Spencer Stastney and Nick Leivermann and freshman Ryan Carmichael. Leivermann has the offensive moxie to ease some of the loss of Nardella.
Air Force, which plays in Atlantic Hockey, is coached by Jackson’s long-time friend Frank Serratore and features 12 freshmen. The Falcons went 16-15-5 last season but has reached the NCAA regional championship the previous two campaigns.