By the time Jeff Jackson left Michigan to become a professional hockey coach, he had already established himself as one of the most successful coaches of his generation at the college level. In ten seasons of coaching at Lake Superior State University, Jeff coached the Lakers to four NCAA Frozen Four appearances and three NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championships, with Jeff leading the charge toward the last two championships as the head coach.
Since returning to the ranks of collegiate coaches, this time at Notre Dame, Jeff has continued his winning ways by guiding the Fighting Irish to multiple CCHA Championships and NCAA Frozen Four appearances.
Given all of Jeff’s coaching success, it comes as no surprise that he regularly hears from young hockey players that are intent on making it onto the ice for a top college hockey program. With that in mind, Jeff shared five things with us that hockey players should do if they ever want to tie on their skates and take the ice for a Frozen Four contender.
1. Make Your Intentions Known
It’s a popular misconception that college athletic programs have unlimited time and resources to spend recruiting young talent. They don’t. Programs like Notre Dame tend to concentrate on recruiting a certain talent profile within a targeted region of the country. But if you live far away from the school of your choice, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to remain off of its recruiting radar. According to Jeff, if you want to get recruited, sometimes all you have to do is ask.
“It never hurts for kids, if they have an interest in a school, to reach out and send a letter or an email to express an interest,” Jeff said. “In most cases, we go out and watch kids. Some of it is word of mouth, but sometimes we hear about a kid that’s a good player who has an interest in Notre Dame. That’s how we got Riley Sheahan who is now playing for the Detroit Red Wings; we heard that he had an interest in Notre Dame, so we went out and saw him play.”
2.Learn To Be A Playmaker At High Speed
Developing skills during practice is all well and good, but unless you can execute during an actual hockey game, those skills are meaningless. Not only should aspiring hockey players play in as many truly competitive games as possible, but Jeff actually suggests limiting the space you have to play in while you practice. That way, you’ll force yourself to assess situations and react quickly, and this ability will make you a more reliable playmaker for your team.
“The game is really about mastering time and space, both offensively and defensively,” Jeff said. “At every level you move up, there’s less time and less space to make plays. You can work on your skills, but until you can do those things with pressure in competitive situations, then you can only incrementally improve. These things are developed over time. This is why kids need to try to do things at a high pace when they’re practicing and training.”
3. Make Yourself Strong
Not only does the time and space on the ice shrink on every new level as a result of your opponent’s increased speed and skill, but it also decreases because your competition is physically larger as well. In order to compete with opponents for that decreased ice space, hockey players that truly wish to be competitive will have to get bigger and stronger in their own right. And in order to do this, lifting weights is absolutely necessary.
“Physical strength and explosive power are huge,” Jeff said. “When kids get to that age when they can start training their strength, they should. Some strength is natural and develops over time, but usually it can be developed with weights. Kids should focus on Olympic-type lifts like squats, cleans and deadlifts, and also things that focus on the hockey-type areas between the chest and the knees. A true 18-year-old freshman may end up competing with 24-year-old seniors, and if you’re 150 pounds trying to complete with a guy that weighs 230 pounds, that’s a challenge.”
4. Learn To Stay In Shape Off The Ice
Let’s be honest; not everyone is blessed enough to grow up with a hockey rink in their backyard like Wayne Gretzky was. For most people, ice time comes with a financial cost, and even then, time on the ice is limited by a rink’s availability. Compounding the problem is the fact that hockey players need to have tremendous conditioning in order to get up and down the ice quickly while maintaining that speed throughout a shift. As Jeff will tell you, the best hockey players find a way to stay in shape even when ice access is limited.
“There are aerobic and anaerobic types of conditioning, and hockey players need to have both,” Jeff said. “A lot of conditioning can be done off the ice as long as you are willing to pay the price. There’s running, or there’s the treadmill. Hockey may be an anaerobic sport where things are done in short shifts, but you have to have an aerobic base first. It’s important to be in the top shape of your life to prepare for hockey season, but there’s maintenance done during the season and a lot of that is done off the ice. You can help yourself a lot by going at a high tempo in practice, but if you only go at three-quarters of your speed in practice, you’re not helping yourself very much.”
5. Get Used To Monitoring What You Eat
If you’re still living at home with your parents, or even if you’re living on your own, you might be able to get away with eating whatever is put in front of you regardless as to how it may influence your body. At a top-tier NCAA program, this is not the case. So, if you’re not making disciplined dietary decisions right now, you should get used to it. Otherwise, it’s going to come as a rude awakening when the school nutritionist starts doling out the meal plans.
“When we have a specific player that may need to cut bodyfat, maintain their weight or even gain weight, that player is put on a specific type of diet, and that may be paired with supplements,” Jeff said. “We have things like the training table, which all the athletes attend, and we have pre-game meals and post-game meals that we all have together. So, we can track and monitor what a player eats and what they’re putting into their bodies as far as protein drinks and supplements go. It’s a big part of what we do, and we have people to monitor that for us that are professionals.”
The Meijer State Games of Michigan is a multi-sport, Olympic-style event(s) that welcome athletes regardless of age or ability level. The Games embody the values of participation, sportsmanship and healthy living.