Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Jackson to face former understudy

Jeff Jackson can still envision Jim Montgomery as a player, especially his performance in the 1993 national championship game. But when they face each other as coaches in the Frozen Four this week they’ll be rekindling an old friendship. Jackson helped Montgomery launch his coaching career.

Jim Montgomery ended his college hockey career by sending Jeff Jackson home empty handed.

Two goals by Montgomery in the 1993 national championship game helped Maine win its first ever title. Powerhouse Lake Superior State was the opponent that day at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, coached by Jackson.

Maine jumped out to a 2-0 lead. Lake Superior rallied for a 4-2 advantage, only to see the Black Bears roar right back for a 5-4 victory. Montgomery scored twice on assists from freshman Paul Kariya, who won the Hobey Baker Award that year before being selected No. 4 overall by Anaheim in the NHL Draft.

Lake Superior won championships in 1992 and 1994. But that one in the middle that slipped away thanks in no small part to Montgomery still rankles Jackson. At least a little bit.

“I’ll never forgive him for scoring a couple goals against us in 1993,” Jackson quipped last week. “Him and Paul Kariya on a line together. He always jokes about that.”

Montgomery, now the head coach at Denver, will get a chance to bring it up again this week. His club faces Jackson, now in his 12th season as the head coach at Notre Dame, on Thursday in the Frozen Four.

As is often the case in hockey circles, Jackson and Montgomery have more common ground than that 1993 championship game. In fact, their paths crossed in a more meaningful way much later. 

Montgomery departed Maine with 301 career points and embarked on a 12-year odyssey in professional hockey, including 122 games played in the NHL. After calling it quits, Montgomery wanted to get into coaching. One of his first phone calls went to Jackson.

Jackson had just taken over Notre Dame for the 2005-06 season. He needed a volunteer assistant coach and recalled past conversations with former Maine coach Shawn Walsh, who was on the bench for Montgomery’s college playing career.

“We’d always get together and have our own little coaching clinics,” Jackson said. “We’d put together kind of crazy topics outside of the normal tactical stuff and that, whether it was our blue line club or (whatever). We had one topic one year that was which former players or current players do you have that you think would be good coaches? I remember Shawn talking to me about Jimmy Montgomery. I had a few players from Lake State that I thought would end up being good coaches.

“He brought up two or three names that he had that he thought would be really good coaches. Cerebral, hockey smart people that also had a passion for the game. I remember him talking to me about Montgomery.”

Montgomery found himself in a unique position ahead of the 2005-06 season. He could either accept a paying gig as an assistant coach or join Jackson at Notre Dame as an unpaid volunteer. Most would take the former.

But Montgomery, fresh off playing professional hockey for more than a decade, chose the latter. He spent that season with Jackson plus assistants Paul Pooley and Andy Slaggert. Together they helped Montgomery launch his coaching career.

Montgomery looks at it to this day as a fortuitous turn of events.

“I think I was very, very lucky that in my first year in the coaching profession I was able to work for and learn under Jeff Jackson and the entire staff that’s there — Paul Pooley and Andy Slaggert,” Montgomery said. “I learned organizational skills. I learned how to cut video. I learned A to Z how to run a program at a high level. I think it was probably the best decision I ever made, going there as a volunteer and sacrificing. I could’ve had a paid job that year as an assistant coach. But I wanted to learn from someone that I thought was great. I think Jeff Jackson is great.”

After one season, Montgomery departed South Bend to start moving up the ranks. Jackson helped him get an assistant coaching job at RPI. Montgomery parlayed that into the head coaching post with Dubuque at the major junior level in the United States Hockey League.

Montgomery won Clark Cup championships in 2011 and 2013 with Dubuque, making him a top candidate for the Denver job when it opened. He’s led the Pioneers to the NCAA tournament in every season since taking over ahead of the 2013-14 season.

Denver is making its second straight appearance in the Frozen Four, a path that takes Montgomery right up against the man that kick started his coaching career.

Jackson sees a future NHL coach in his former understudy. He also sees a Denver program that’s benefitted from Montgomery’s leadership. When Notre Dame hits the ice Thursday it’ll face a team made in its coach’s image.

And if there’s one thing Jackson remembers, it’s how Montgomery used to play.

“Anybody that knows him is not surprised by the success he’s having,” Jackson said. “But he was fortunate to take over a pretty good program. It’s not like that program was downtrodden. He took over good program and, I’m not gonna say made it better, but he got them back into the Frozen Four rather quickly. They’re back again this year and they have a good nucleus of players that he’s built that program around. They play a good college hockey game. They’re fast. They play like he played.”


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