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Jackson’s Road Comes Full Circle

As the final seconds of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association ticked off the Joe Louis Arena scoreboard in downtown Detroit, Notre Dame’s players came piling over the boards. They shucked their gloves and sticks and raced toward their net to celebrate a conference championship.

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson looks on as his team celebrates a goal in South Bend earlier this year.

Behind them, Irish head coach Jeff Jackson raised one leg on the vacated bench and watched. He shook a couple hands. One member of the Notre Dame support staff coerced a brief hug. Otherwise his arms stayed at his sides. Mostly he stood and silently soaked in the end of an era, his face plastered in a stoic gaze.

“Obviously, we’re thrilled,” he told a rinkside television reporter with all the chutzpah of a teacher checking attendance.

The etymology of the word stoic begins with a Greek philosophical movement in the third century B.C. The Stoics approached the world with an unaffected calm. Their disposition was rooted in a belief that all of life’s events are dictated by a higher natural order. Jackson’s final trip to “The Joe” — this man accepting this conference’s last curtain call in this city — would have made the Stoics smile, or at least peacefully nod in agreement.

The CCHA officially came to an end Sunday afternoon when Notre Dame beat Michigan 3-1 to claim the league’s 42nd conference championship. It was Jackson’s seventh conference title. Michigan’s Red Berenson and former Michigan State coach Ron Mason, the only two men who have won more CCHA tournaments, were both on the ice to congratulate him. His face didn’t show it, but the moment for Jackson was as poignant as it was fitting.

Detroit is where Jackson fell in love with the game of hockey. The coach was born in Davisburg, Mich., a rural town dotted with lakes along I-75 halfway between Flint and the Motor City. In the winter, the lakes would freeze and the kids would learn to skate.

When Jackson was 9 years old his father passed away and he moved with his mother to Roseville, a suburb on the northeast fringe of Detroit. She wanted him to have a male influence in his life, so Mrs. Jackson signed her son up for a Big Brother. Jackson remembers him, Larry was his name, as a kind, middle-aged married man with children of his own. Larry brought Jackson to his first Red Wings game at Olympia Stadium and introduced him to the sport.

“That was the first time I had ever seen hockey,” he said. “We would skate, I grew up on a lake, but we never thought about hockey. I didn’t know anything about hockey.”

He followed the struggling Red Wings religiously through his teenage years, lining up for $5 mezzanine tickets with his high school buddies until the team left Olympia. He took a chair and a brick when they shut its doors and he stills has them today.

An old traffic sign for Olympia Stadium hangs inside the halls of Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

The Wings moved a few miles to the east into Joe Louis Arena in 1979. Jackson says he was there on opening night. He remembers being one of the 21,002 fans in attendance when a 51-year-old Gordie Howe, wearing a Hartford Whalers jersey, returned home a few months afterward for the 1980 All-Star game. Two years later, the CCHA made the Joe a permanent home for its conference tournament finals.

Jackson’s connection to the CCHA stretches back farther than Joe Louis Arena’s. He played in net for Michigan State in the late 1970s shortly before the Spartans became a conference superpower under Mason. He returned to college hockey in 1986 when he was hired as an assistant on Frank Anzalone’s staff at Lake Superior State.

“I made the left hand turn instead of the right hand turn to bring him there, to get him out of the Detroit junior hockey thing and to get his chance,” Anzalone said. “He earned that opportunity. He’s taken advantage of that through the highs and the lows, and for him it’s mostly been highs.”

Jackson took over for Anzalone in 1990 and his teams never missed a trip to Joe Louis in his six years behind the bench there. He won four conference titles in a five-year stretch and added two national championships that at the time seemed almost like an afterthought.

In those days, every team in the CCHA started the year with the goal of making it to Detroit. The conference in its early history was a collection of mostly small Michigan and Ohio schools propped up by two goliaths, Michigan and Michigan State.

The Spartans and the Wolverines were perennial mainstays at the semifinals and drew sell-out crowds in a city that hadn’t yet hit its rough patch. The rest of the league jockeyed for its chance to sling rocks at the local giants and occasionally take them down. The whole season became about playing on that stage. Commissioner Bill Beagan coined the term “Road To The Joe” to capture the sentiment in the mid-80s, and that slogan has stayed with the CCHA ever since.

“If your school got there, it was huge. That was the highlight of the year,” Anzalone said. “If you got to the Joe anything could happen.”

Jackson got to the 1991 finals in his first season as a head coach and let his emotions get the better of him. When the Lakers scored an overtime goal to beat Michigan, he jumped off the bench and hugged his seniors. They were one of the first classes Jackson recruited, full of Detroit-area players that had followed him up to the northern tip of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan.

Irish goalie Steven Summerhays celebrates Saturday after securing a spot in the final CCHA championship game.

“That year was tough to create space because I had been the big brother to those kids, that group of seniors,” Jackson said. “I developed a relationship with them as an assistant coach. It wasn’t until the following year that I tried to create a separation.”

He watched from a detached distance while Lake Superior State raised banners to the Red Wings’ rafters in three of the next four seasons. He looked equally indifferent in 2007 and 2009 when he knocked off Berenson’s Wolverines twice more with a Notre Dame program that had been a non-factor in the CCHA before he arrived.

Sunday he beat Michigan for the last time as a conference opponent. If his face showed any emotion it was more solemnity than joy.

“Coach holds a pretty good poker face. That’s just how he operates,” said the current Irish captain Anders Lee. Days earlier Lee tried to explain the emotions of his even-tempered coach. “We all know in the back of his mind this is more than just a conference tournament. It’s the last one. It’s kind of everything.”

Lee carried the Mason Cup over to Jackson, who was waiting on the bench, after the team finished its victory lap with the trophy Sunday. He all but forced the coach to take a turn lifting it over his head for a final time.

Minutes later Jackson settled into his seat behind a press conference dais to deliver the eulogy of a conference he helped to build. He opted not to answer questions about the impending No. 1 seed his team would lock up later that night in the NCAA Tournament. He said he wanted to keep his focus in Detroit for at least one more day.

“There was a day that this thing meant more than being in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “Winning a conference championship should be special. The CCHA has done a good job of making this special. It’s a great venue for college hockey. It’s a great city for college hockey.”

He left the room and walked back into the factory-like halls beneath Joe Louis’ bleachers. He paused for a minute to answer a question in front of another tombstone of sorts. A giant green traffic sign that once hung above Detroit’s highway was nailed to the wall. “Olympia Stadium, EXIT WARREN AVE,” it read. Directions that started a trip that began a lifetime ago and ended right were it was supposed to.

Here lies the Road to the Joe.

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