Jackson’s goatee not only new look about No. 18 Irish hockey team

By John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – With the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully behind him and his hockey team, Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson decided a new look was in order for the 2021-22 season which begins Sunday afternoon at 5 with an exhibition game at the Compton Family Ice Arena against the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team.

The 66-year-old Jackson, who begins his 17th season by the Irish bench at the Lefty Smith Rink as the school’s winningest coach at 348-219-66, was sporting a neat goatee.

“Just like ‘Slap Shot,’” Jackson said referencing the 1977 sports comedy starring the late Paul Newman. “Makes me look mean.”

Notre Dame’s Landon Slaggert (19) is shown during a hockey game against Arizona State on Jan. 9 in South Bend.

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Of course, Jackson is one of college hockey’s true gentlemen in the profession and the Michigan State graduate’s record is impressive – two national championships and a runner-up finish at Lake Superior State from 1992-94 and four Frozen Four appearances at Notre Dame, including runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2018.

The goal remains the same each year for Jackson and his associate head coaches Andy Slaggert and Paul Pooley — to hang an NCAA Championship banner from the rafters at the 5,022-seat Compton, which last season was mostly empty because of the pandemic and one reason why the Irish struggled through a 14-13-2 season which included a 12-10-2 fourth-place finish in the Big Ten race. 

The Irish, ranked No. 18 in the USCHO.com preseason poll, were one of a handful of teams which completed their entire regular-season schedule without missing a game because of COVID, but then after receiving an NCAA bid to play Boston College in the Albany (New York) Regional, they had positive tests and the game was declared a no contest.

This season, there are plans to welcome fans back — with masks — and to start things off, Sunday’s exhibition against the U.S. Under-18 team will have free admission.

“It’s been fun again to actually coach without a mask and worrying about social distancing,” Jackson said. “All of our guys are vaccinated with the exception of one. So, it’s a lot different environment when you’re coaching and practicing — more back to normal. Obviously, we’re still a little cautious in some situations, but it’s certainly been a much different environment this year than it was a year ago.”

The Irish will begin the season without three forwards who were expected to help the ND improve on the offensive output. Last year Notre Dame averaged 2.90 goals a game (26th of 51 teams). But expected incoming freshman Sasha Pastujov, who led last year’s U.S. Under-18 team in scoring with 30 goals and 65 points, opted to sign with the NHL Anaheim Ducks, who drafted him in the third round (66th overall).

Junior Michael Graham, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound forward who scored 18 goals and 52 points in 87 career games and was a mainstay on Notre Dame’s power play, elected to end his Irish career because of a history of concussions. The Eden Prairie, Minnesota, native will continue his studies while helping the program as a volunteer student coach.

Senior Jake Pivonka, one of the team’s best faceoff players, is currently rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon suffered during summer workouts. Pivonka said he was hopeful to be back with the team after the first of the year.

“Michael made a conscious decision that it was time to stop playing; he made the right choice,” Jackson said. "We’re going to miss him because he was a very skilled and gifted offensive player. Jake was working out with his father’s (Michal Pivonka, a former Washington Capitals player) old club in the Czech Republic when he got hurt. He obviously leaves a little hole in our lineup, too.”

But Jackson’s 2021-22 team does return the Slaggert brothers — senior Graham and sophomore Landon — on the forward lines along with junior Max Ellis, and the defense is anchored by seniors Spencer Stastney and Nick Leivermann with goalie Ryan Bischel returning for his junior season.

The Irish also may have struck some gold in the transfer portal with the addition of goaltender Matt Galajda (Cornell), defensemen Adam Karashik (Connecticut) and Chase Blackmun (UMass Lowell) and 6-foot-6, 218-pound forward Jack Adams (Union and Providence). Galajda was a two-time finalist for the Mike Richter Award that former Irish All-America goalie Cale Morris won in 2017-18. Karashik captained the Huskies last season, Blackmun flashed his offensive abilities at the blue line and Adams appears to have put the knee injury he suffered at a Detroit Red Wings prospect camp that cost him his 2019-20 season at Union. 

Notre Dame’s Graham Slaggert (18) and Colin Theisen (13) celebrate with Jake Pivonka (20) after he scored during the Michigan at Notre Dame hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.

“Andy did a great job following who was available in the portal,” Jackson said. “They’ve made a significant impact on our team in the locker room, and I think they probably will on the ice as well.”

Following Sunday’s exhibition, the Irish prepare for their opening game of the regular season Saturday, Oct. 9 against visiting Long Island. Faceoff in the Compton for that game is 6 p.m. It’s the first of 20 home games at home. The Irish, picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten, begin conference play Oct. 29-30 at favored Minnesota, which is ranked No. 4.

NOTRE DAME HOCKEY

Who: No. 18 Notre Dame vs. United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team in exhibition.

Faceoff: 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Lefty Smith Rink in Compton Family Ice Arena (5,022) at Notre Dame

Admission: Free (must have mask)

U.S. Under-18 team: Three future Notre Dame players – forwards Maddox Fleming and Logan Cooley and defenseman Tyler Duke – are expected to play. … U.S. team is 3-1 and plays host to Michigan State Saturday night at its home in Plymouth, Michigan Saturday night.