Jackson hopes Notre Dame hosts outdoors game again

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Jeff Jackson wouldn’t mind seeing another outdoors hockey game at Notre Dame during his head coaching tenure.

He would, of course, like to see a different outcome than Michigan’s 4-2 victory over his Fighting Irish last Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium before 23,422 – the largest crowd ever to see the Irish play a home hockey game.

Now in his 14th season, the 63-year-old Jackson, who readily admits he’s lost a step or three keeping up with his players, liked everything about the game that was branded “Let’s Play This Outside 2019” to celebrate Notre Dame’s longest competitive rivalry (it was the 143rd game between the Irish and the Wolverines).

“You like to see the kids win so they can walk away and have this as a real positive memory,” Jackson said. “That didn’t happen. But the event itself was really good. The weather was good for us, the ice was good … (we played) a good opponent — everything was positive in that regard.

“It was a good crowd considering the circumstances,” Jackson added.

Those circumstances? When the National Hockey League agreed to bring its Winter Classic to renovated Notre Dame Stadium in November 2017, it was with the understanding that the ice sheet would be maintained by the NHL after the Jan. 1 game (won by Boston over Chicago, 4-2) so that Notre Dame could play outdoors as well.

But the NHL wanted to get a significant head start (Aug. 28) toward selling out the stadium (which it did with 76,126 fans) before it would allow Notre Dame to officially announce the game with Michigan (Oct. 29) and start selling tickets for it (Nov. 5).

A last-week surge in sales (tickets were priced at $20) and unseasonably warm weather (it was 49 degrees at faceoff) contributed to a better-than-expected turnout.

There were plenty of Notre Dame athletic officials whose smiling lips hid clenched teeth when they thought of the marketing opportunities lost.

Nevertheless, Jackson would like Notre Dame to play host to another outdoors game, especially when school is in session — either during the off-week of the football season (musician Garth Brooks filled Notre Dame Stadium with an Oct. 20 concert) or during the second semester.

“I’d love to do this again someday, and do it as our own event,” Jackson said. “The only reason I’m saying that (was) it was so late for us to get the word out about tickets, and our students aren’t here (and) the band’s not here.”

Jackson’s alma mater, Michigan State, hosted Michigan on Oct. 6, 2001 in the first stadium outdoors hockey game ever. A crowd of 74,544 watched at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing when the two rivals skated to a 3-3 tie.

“Now this was great as it was — don’t get me wrong,” Jackson said. “But like Michigan State did, the first time it happened … to just make it our own event instead of piggybacking on the NHL, which was great by them because they did a great job in helping us through this process.”

Both Notre Dame and Michigan had new uniforms for the occasion — the Wolverines’ all-white uniform made them look like “Star Wars” stormtroopers — and Jackson’s counterpart Mel Pearson said his team enjoyed the whole experience.

“I hope at some point we can have another one at the Big House (Michigan Stadium),” said Pearson, whose employer has hosted a pair of college games in 2010 and an NHL Winter Classic. “I think the fans would love it. I know our players would love it. But it takes a lot of work, and I’m sure Notre Dame will tell you (that). It takes a lot of work, a lot of people, to pull it off, and they did a great job. These guys will remember this the rest of their lives. It adds a little extra sweetness to it when you win.”

Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson would like to see another outdoor game in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish fell to Michigan, 4-2, on Saturday in the football stadium.