SOUTH BEND – On the last evening of November, with his Notre Dame teammates struggling to score goals and to win hockey games, Alex Steeves was unable to do a thing about it.
The sophomore right wing was in the Slater Family Ice Arena at Bowling Green Nov. 30, but instead of wearing a Notre Dame’s away blue jersey, Steeves was wearing a suit and tie.
Notre Dame head hockey coach Jeff Jackson was sending the 5-foot-10, 188-pound Eden Prairie, Minn., resident a message much like legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight used to send his un-responding Indiana Hoosiers — a seat on the bench.
To paraphrase (or clean up) the Knight quote: “The greatest motivator in the world is your (butt) on the bench. (Butt) meets bench, bench retains (butt), (butt) transmits signals to the brain, brain transmits signals to the body, body gets (butt) off bench and plays better.”
The 64-year-old Jackson, whose coaching credentials — two NCAA titles at Lake Superior State and four trips to the Final Four in 14 seasons at Notre Dame — can’t be questioned, decided that Steeves needed to watch a game from the stands, away from the Irish bench and his teammates.
“(Steeves) was going through a little spell there in which he was trying to do too much and was getting a little cute,” Jackson said. “So I took him out of the lineup for a game. Since then he’s figured things out a little bit. Sometimes that has to happen.”
Steeves got the spinal message.
“I never experienced anything like that before; I tried to take it to heart and learn from it,” Steeves said. “Everyone has been through it and it sucks. I just tried to look into the mirror and see where I could be better to help this team win more games.”
The Irish, who had started the season 7-0-1, were in the midst of a six-game losing streak when Jackson delivered his DNP (did-not-play) message. Since then, Steeves has responded with four goals and three assists in six games, including two goals and two assists in Notre Dame’s tie (1-1) and victory (4-1) against non-conference foe Western Michigan.
Notre Dame is 2-0-1 over its last three, with Steeves claiming a goal in a 3-0 Irish victory over Penn State that ended the first semester on an uptick. In 19 games this season, Steeves has six goals, nine assists and 15 points, third on the team to seniors Cam Morrison’s 18 and Mike O’Leary’s 17.
“I thought he had lost his intensity, especially away from the puck,” Jackson said. “Once he got that back, his skills started showing up. He has good skills, good instincts and a good shot. Both of his goals Sunday were off his stick in a hurry, and that’s what he has to do — he needs to receive the pass and then shoot it.”
Playing with more physical linemates in 6-foot-3, 214-pound left wing Morrison and the 6-foot-1, 198-pound sophomore center Michael Graham, Steeves knows he’s going to get his chances to score goals, something the Irish have struggled in doing this season.
“Cam is playing like an animal right now and Mike is so much fun to play with because he sees the ice so well,” Steeves said. “I’ve tried to change my game to be a little more effective. I’m trying to be like more of a dog on a bone, trying to be a little more aggressive out there, be a little less of a prototypical skilled guy.”
Get puck, shoot puck. The Steeves-Graham-Morrison line didn’t waste time last Sunday, scoring four goals in a span of 7:27 of the second period to take the pressure off Irish goalie Cale Morris. Besides Steeves’ two goals and one assist, Morrison had a goal and two assists and Graham had three assists.
“That was a fun second period for sure,” Steeves understated.
Jackson hopes their scoring is contagious as Notre Dame begins a stretch of seven Big Ten series starting tonight (Friday) and Saturday against Michigan at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.
“If we get some guys feeling good about themselves and some chemistry offensively, that’s certainly a positive,” the Irish coach said. “Timely scoring is going to help us the rest of the Big Ten season.”