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The Pied Piper of South Bend

Now that one "super-genius" coach on Notre Dame's campus has been exposed as a complete fraud, allow me to suggest that that title is more deserving of another coach at Notre Dame.

If there's one type of article I hate writing, it's writing an article talking about how wrong I was. But in this case, I think it's justified. Last summer I said that hiring Jeff Jackson would likely turn out to be a mistake for Notre Dame , but so far, the decision to bring Jackson back to college hockey has been anything but. Jackson is starting to bring out some of the untapped potential in the long-dormant program.

Jackson's impact at Notre Dame was immediate. People never really questioned the talent brought in by previous coach Dave Poulin, but there were serious questions about Poulin's ability to get the most out of talented players. In Poulin's last season, the Irish only won 5 games and finished in last place in the CCHA. Notre Dame only graduated three regulars off of that team, meaning Jackson inherited largely the same team, but Jackson was able to lead the team to 13 wins, and an 8th place finish in the CCHA.

But more importantly than the transition Jackson made last year, is the groundwork that Jackson has laid for the future of Notre Dame's program. Starting in 2007, Notre Dame should have one of the top recruiting classes in the country. He will bring in two excellent defenseman from the NTDP, in Ian Cole and Teddy Ruth, as well as the starting goalie from the U18 team, in Brad Phillips. Notre Dame will also be bringing in three solid forwards in Ben Ryan, Bill Maday, and Calle Ridderwall. The following year, he already has one of the best forwards off the U17 team committed to come to Notre Dame in Patrick Gaul, and the next year, Cam Fowler, one of the best prospects in the world for his age, will be coming to Notre Dame.

People love to point out that scouting and recruiting is not an exact science, and getting commitments from these players is no guarantee of success. But teams like Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and North Dakota don't finish near the top of the standings nearly every year by accident. They finish at the top of the standings because they are bringing in the top players nearly every season. Jackson has brought Notre Dame's reputation to a level that they are competing with these top schools, and getting top prospects.

What's even more amazing is that Jackson has been doing all of this without the arsenal of resources that many other coaches do. The conventional thinking is that a team needs a palace-like ice rink to impress top recruits. Notre Dame's Joyce Center Rink has 2700 seats worth of portable metal bleachers, with a blue cloth curtain seperating the rink from the rest of the large gymnasium it is housed in, and the ice surface is slightly faster than your average beach volleyball court. There was brief talk this summer of renovating the Joyce Center or building the hockey team their own facility, but it was never seriously pursued. And in all likelihood, unless Notre Dame wins multiple hockey national championships, or the football team decides they want to start training on ice, I doubt the Irish will build a new facility.

So how has Jackson done this? His first step was to steal a couple of recruits out from under the two big school in the state of Michigan. He offered scholarships and got commitments from Brighton, Michigan's Ben Ryan, and Ann Arbor, Michigan's Ian Cole. Both Michigan and Michigan State were interested in both players, but were also more interested in other top prospects, and weren't willing offer a scholarship as early as Jackson was. Similarly, neither Michigan nor Michigan State needed a goalie for the 2007 season, so Jackson was able to get a commitment from Farmington Hills native Brad Phillips.

Jackson also did a nice job of picking up players from Notre Dame's most natural recruiting ground; the Chicago area. Jackson picked up commitments from two of the best players off the Chicago Chill AAA team in Bill Maday and Calle Ridderwall. He followed that up by getting a commitment from Illinois native Teddy Ruth, who is playing for the U18 team. AAA hockey in Illinois has been growing in quality recently, and if Jackson can continue to get the best talent out of Chicagoland, the Irish should remain successful.

His latest two commitments, however, show the growing confidence in Notre Dame from around the hockey community. Gaul, who is a Pittsburgh-area native, has the potential to be an excellent college hockey player. The same goes for Fowler, who could have committed to any school in the country that he wanted to. He may only player a year or two at Notre Dame, if he makes it there at all, but beating out all the other national powerhouses for a commitment from one of the best recruits in the country makes a statement that Notre Dame is no longer a school that doesn't take hockey seriously. Once a few big time players commit, it will be easier for Jeff Jackson to sell the Notre Dame program to other top players.

The turnaround for Notre Dame is far from complete. I picked them to only finish 5th in the CCHA this season, and even that is a stretch by most accounts. But Jeff Jackson certainly seems to have Notre Dame on the right road, and it looks as though they will soon be competing with Michigan and Michigan State has one of the premier programs in the CCHA.