Jackson doesn't mask excitement for Notre Dame hockey season

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Jeff Jackson has never had a problem getting his message across to the hockey teams he has coached at Notre Dame and Lake Superior State.

The 65-year-old Jackson’s record speaks for itself: two NCAA championships at Lake State in 1992 and ’94 and four Frozen Four appearances, eight conference championships and a school-record 334 victories in his 15 seasons at Notre Dame.

Yep, Jackson has never had a problem communicating — until this COVID-19 preseason.

“I didn’t get into this business not to coach from a communications standpoint effectively,” the Michigan State double graduate said. “It’s so hard to communicate as a coach to your team when you’re wearing a mask all the time.

“Coaching with a face mask,” Jackson lamented with a smile. “My sense of humor is a little sarcastic at times so they can’t see me smiling sometimes when I’m joking.”

Chances are good that Jackson’s 16th Irish team will be ready to go when its COVID-shortened Big Ten season begins this Friday and Saturday nights at 7 when Wisconsin visits the Lefty Smith Rink at the Compton Family Ice Arena.

“There is going to be change,” Jackson said, “whether it’s not having crowds in your building, the manipulation of your lineup based on who’s healthy and who’s not. Whoever handles that adversity the best is going to have the advantage. That’s one of the reasons I’m happy we have a pretty solid returning group.”

The Irish, who were 15-15-7 when the pandemic ended last season in March after a heartbreaking best-of-three 2-1 playoff loss at Minnesota, add just five freshmen to a roster that includes six seniors, nine juniors and eight sophomores.

Gone is Cale Morris, the All-American goaltender who led the Irish to the runner-up finish to NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth in 2018. Jackson spoke highly about the return of redshirted senior goalie Dylan St. Cyr (2.45 goals-against average, .927 saves percentage, two shutouts) who is likely to start against the Badgers and has a highly skilled backup in sophomore Ryan Bischel (2.53 average, .915 saves).

“St. Cyr came back with a fire in his eyes,” Jackson said. “This is the best shape he’s been in since he’s been here. He trained extremely hard coming into this year. He’s in the best shape of his life and he’s looked extremely good in practice. Ryan has had his moments, just not as consistent as Dylan.”

The defense is led by senior Matt Hellickson (5 goals, 11 assists, 16 points) and juniors Spencer Stastney (3-17-20), Charlie Raith and Nate Clurman (the team captain). Junior Alex Steeves (11-17-28), senior Colin Theisen (8-12-20), junior Michael Graham (4-16-20), junior Jake Pivonka (4-7-11) and junior Graham Slaggert (5-5-10) lead the forwards returning.

“We’ve got a good corps of guys back (on defense) and I think (freshman) Zach Plucinski is going to be a surprise to some people,” Jackson said. “There are four forwards (in the junior class) who I hope all take a step this year. I’ve been really impressed in training camp with Jake. He’s had an exceptionally good camp.”

Slaggert’s brother Landon is one of four freshmen forwards on the roster with Grant Silianoff, Ryder Rolston and Brady Bjork the others. Bjork, a walk-on, is the son of Irish All-American Kirk Bjork and brother of All-American Anders Bjork, a standout for the Boston Bruins.

Monday, Stastney was named a second team All-Big Ten preseason selection, Hellickson received honorable mention and the Irish were picked to finish third (along with Ohio State) behind preseason No. 1 Minnesota and No. 2 Michigan. The Badgers were No. 5 followed by Michigan State and Penn State.

“Obviously, the guys are biting at the bit and tired of practicing — they need to play games,” Jackson said. “We started school Aug. 10, started practicing sometime around the 13th. We’ve basically (practiced) for three months and normally it’s six weeks before the first game. The challenge has been to keep our guys engaged and make it fun for them to come to the rink, and that’s hard to do.”

Starting Friday, that finally changes in this year of constant changes.

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said forward Jake Pivonka (20) has “had an exceptionally good camp.”