Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson talks NCAA Frozen Four, Big Ten expansion

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson watches during the Notre Dame vs. Minnesota NCAA hockey game Friday, Jan. 13, 2023 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — This past month has been a difficult one for Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson.

Since his 19th-ranked Fighting Irish dropped a pair of 4-2 decisions in early March to Michigan State to lose their best-of-three opening series in the Big Ten Postseason Tournament two games to one, Notre Dame has been idle. 

For the first time since an 18-19-5 finish in the 2014-15 season, a Jackson-coached Notre Dame team did not receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Despite a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten and a 16-16-5 overall record while playing the nation’s strongest schedule, Notre Dame finished 17th in the PairWise rankings of teams and narrowly missed receiving its seventh straight invitation to the 16-team tournament.

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But Jackson, who coached a pair of NCAA championship teams at Lake Superior State and has taken four Irish teams to the Frozen Four in 18 seasons, will be an interested spectator of this week’s culmination of the college hockey season. Two of Notre Dame’s Big Ten rivals — top-ranked Minnesota and No. 2 Michigan — are in this year’s Frozen Four. 

Thursday’s first semifinal at Amalie Arena in tropical Tampa, Fla., features the Golden Gophers (28-9-1) against No. 4 Boston University (29-10-0) of Hockey East at 5 p.m. That will be followed at 8:30 p.m. by the game between the Wolverines (26-11-3) and No. 3 Quinnipiac (32-4-3) of ECAC Hockey. The winners will meet Saturday night at 8 p.m. All three games will be televised by ESPN2.

While working to put the disappointment of the recent season behind and getting the Irish ready for his 19thseason behind the bench at the Compton Family Ice Arena, Jackson took some time last week to answer a variety of questions in this first of a two-part series which concludes Friday.

Sizing up this year’s NCAA Frozen Four

JACKSON: “Our league (which had four teams in the tournament) makes each and every one of our teams better.

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Ohio State (which lost to Quinnipiac 4-1 in the Bridgeport, Conn. Regional) could have easily been there (in the Frozen Four). Quinnipiac’s goalie (Yaniv Perets) was the difference in the game (he made 34 saves, 26 in the final two periods). 

“If Penn State and Michigan had been in separate regionals (Michigan won the Allentown, Pa. Regional from Penn State 2-1 in overtime), the Big Ten could have had four teams. 

“Boston University (which won the Manchester, N.H. Regional from Cornell 2-1 and beat Notre Dame back in November 5-2) has the potential to bite Minnesota. They’ve got one of the best goalies in the country in (Drew) Commesso and one of the best rookies in the country in that defenseman (leading scorer Lane Hutson).

“If I had to pick somebody right now, I would probably say Michigan or Minnesota, and I only did that in alphabetical order.”

More teams, possibly 24, for the NCAA Tournament

JACKSON “I think the automatic qualifiers should be the regular-season champion (of the Big Ten, Hockey East, ECAC, NCHC, CCHA and Atlantic Hockey Association), not the playoff champion. That would ensure that the teams that have the best regular season for the most part are going to be in the tournament.”

Notre Dame payers celebrate goal during the Michigan State-Notre Dame NCAA hockey game on Sunday, March 05, 2023, at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana.

NOTE: RIT, which won the regular-season title of the Atlantic Hockey Association but was knocked out of the league’s postseason tournament in the semifinals by Holy Cross, ended its season 25-13-1 and with a PairWise ranking of 22. Canisius, with a PairWise ranking of 41, beat Holy Cross in the AHA championship 3-0 to win the NCAA automatic bid. 

Colgate, ranked 28th in PairWise before starting the ECAC postseason tournament, upset Quinnipiac and Harvard to win the league’s automatic bid. In the process, Colgate knocked out independent Alaska (22-10-2), which had a PairWise ranking of 15 just ahead of 18-18-2 Michigan State (16th) and Notre Dame (17th).

JACKSON: “If you look at PairWise or RPI of the teams left out of the tournament, we were only .03 away from being the 14th or 13th team. … If we get the top 24 right now, you would have an extremely good tournament.”

A postseason NIT tournament for hockey

JACKSON: “I’m not a big fan of the NIT in basketball. When I spoke to (former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach) Mike Brey about the potential of that happening for hockey, his concerns were the same as my concerns about it. In hockey, it's not unusual for kids to sign within a few days after the end of the hockey season. So, if you're not making the NCAA tournament, you may lose players prior to playing in the NIT. The other thing is the motivation level to play in the secondary tournament.

“We actually gave our opinion that we wouldn’t be interested in participating this year when it was originally brought up about doing it. I spoke to our leadership group about it, too, and they agreed with that decision. So, it wasn't just us as coaches. The players didn't necessarily feel that was a great idea either.”

Expanding the Big Ten to eight teams or more

JACKSON: “It’s really kind of gone quiet since COVID. We were hoping Illinois would be that eighth team. But COVID impacted that whole process. I know it’s a topic of discussion among the higher-ups within the hockey side of the Big Ten. I would be surprised if it happens here in the next few years. But it hasn't been a real hot topic in the last year.

“But there's a lot of expansion going on in college hockey right now, which is probably not a bad thing for the potential of us adding another Big Ten member or another affiliate member (like Notre Dame). But they’re going to have to go through the process that we went through, ensuring that they’re a good enough school academically. The (Big Ten) presidents made sure when we came in it was because of our high quality of education.”

Coming Friday: Jackson breaks down the 2022-23 season, the roster changes, the return of goaltender Ryan Bischel and next season’s incoming freshmen class and schedule.