Another change in conferences will take Jeff Jackson back to his roots.
Jackson graduated from Michigan State with two degrees then started his journey into college coaching at Michigan as a graduate assistant. He rose to prominence as the head coach at Lake Superior State, leading it to a pair of national championships in six seasons while also winning multiple Central Collegiate Hockey Association titles.
Returning to the college game at Notre Dame in 2005, Jackson slid back into the rhythm of CCHA rivalries. Michigan and Michigan State were among the marquee programs until the league disbanded with the departure of those teams plus Ohio State to the new Big Ten.
Starting with the 2017-18 season, Jackson will renew some of those old matchups as Notre Dame announced this week plans to join the Big Ten in hockey as its seventh member. Minnesota, Penn State and Wisconsin round out the league.
Since departing the CCHA, the Irish have been members of Hockey East. They’ll play one more season in that conference before leaving for the Big Ten.
“Obviously, it's a big step for our program,” Jackson said. “Hockey East has been outstanding and we’re still a member of that league for another season. We’re representing her proud right now. Just like the last time we made a move, I’m gonna be sentimental in some ways because you develop relationships. Mostly for me, the coaches. I have strong ties with three or four of the coaches in Hockey East. That’ll continue.
“In fact, they were the ones that called me (Tuesday) night when they caught word of it. We’re gonna have a continued relationship with those programs more in a non-conference role in the future.”
In the end, Notre Dame’s affiliation with Hockey East will finish as a four-year decision.
Starting in 2013-14, the Irish began climbing their way up the league ranks. They finished eighth in the regular season standings that first season then advanced to the semifinals of the league tournament. Last season, they grabbed fifth place.
This season they ended up third in a deep league that sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame is one of them and will open play Friday in the Midwest regional against, ironically enough, one of its future conference partners — Michigan.
Michigan is the only Big Ten team in the national tournament. Right now, perception around college hockey has the league struggling.
Wisconsin just fired longtime head coach Mike Eaves after consecutive last place finishes in the Big Ten and just 12 wins combined during the last two seasons. Minnesota missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. Ohio State and Michigan State both ended with losing records.
“You don’t know where they’re gonna be two years from now,” Jackson said. “I think we’re in with like-minded schools. Not that we weren’t with BC, BU and Providence. But the thing is that I think it’s probably a little bit more tied to our Midwest ties both from our team’s perspective, our players, their parents, our recruiting. If it could’ve happened a few years ago it might’ve happened a few years ago.”
Whatever the league landscape in 2017, Jackson sees long-term benefits for Notre Dame.
First and foremost, continuous flights to the East Coast for road games during the conference season goes away. It also keeps the Irish playing in their own Midwest footprint, which aids recruiting efforts.
Jackson noted the difficulty recruiting prospects in Michigan, traditionally fertile ground, since moving into Hockey East. Just two current players, defenseman Andy Ryan and forward Dawson Cook, hail from the state.
It should also strengthen what has already been productive recruiting in Minnesota. Eight current players come from that hockey rich state.
“We’re gonna start recruiting in Michigan again,” Jackson said. “We’ve been out of Michigan for a few years. Part of it is because of the Ontario Hockey League but part of it is it’s just a hard nut to crack. We’ve been recruiting in Minnesota, it’s probably gonna help us there. I think it’s gonna help us in the Midwest and Ontario potentially. It doesn’t have that much of a change in our philosophy in recruiting. They still have to have good grade point averages.”
But perhaps more than any other benefit, it returns Notre Dame to its traditional hockey roots in the Midwest. Michigan will again be a perennial rival. Local fans will know the schools coming into the Compton Family Ice Arena better, even if they know them through football rivalries.
All that is a net positive for Jackson.
“It’s also a great opportunity for our team,” he said. “I think it’s gonna be great for our fans as far as every opponent coming into our building conference-wise, they’re gonna know. I think at times that's been a factor over the last several years even in the CCHA. There’s just name identification with our fans.”