|(above) Dusty Jackson is DU's inspirational leader|
by Rob White
Nothing has come easy for Denver co-captain Dustin Jackson.
Born in Omaha, raised in Sioux City, Iowa, and having spent one year attending Omaha Creighton Prep, Jackson’s hockey journey was only just beginning when he left Omaha.
“My job on this team is to be the voice of experience,” said Jackson, 25. “I’ve been around so long, and I’m quite a bit older than some of the guys.”
Jackson helped Denver to a third-place finish in the WCHA and into the league’s tournament championship game.
“We had played a lot of hockey last week,” Jackson said. “It was nice to get back home (this week) and get a little rest.”
While the DU's NHL Draftees get most of the headlines, Jackson is one of those behind-the-scenes guys who frequently goes unnoticed by outsiders.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound forward has two goals and eight assists for 10 points. He’s blocked 39 shots and is second on the team with 177 hits and 49 penalty minutes.
“He’s the voice of experience in that locker room,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “That means an awful lot nowadays, when rosters are so heavy on the freshman and sophomore side of things. Certainly to have a guy who has been through everything in five years of WCHA play and five years of the postseason, all the training and the challenges and issues that come up ... it’s been great to have his experience and vision.”
Jackson’s odyssey began when he headed for school at prep power Shattuck-St. Mary’s (Minn.) as a sophomore.
“That was a reality check for me, to see how good players were from other parts of the country,” he said. “Just practicing with better players every day made me better.”
He left for juniors hockey when he didn’t make the school’s top team as a senior. He spent three long years in the North American Hockey League, two with Billings (Mont.) and another with Southern Minnesota.
“Anybody who plays juniors wants to be there for one or two years and then get out of there,” he said. “I stayed for three, and going into that final year I didn’t know what would happen.”
He drew some interest from smaller Division I schools before, almost out of nowhere, the prestigious Pioneers introduced themselves and asked him to walk on.
“That was a shock, because usually a school like that will recruit you when you’re pretty young,” Jackson said. “But the first time they talked to me they said they wanted me to come play for them, so that was exciting.”
Through two seasons with the Pioneers, Jackson had eight goals and 17 assists. He became a scholarship athlete as a sophomore.
“During his junior career, he was considered more of a scorer, a guy with a good shot and a big body who could move up and down the ice pretty well,” Gwozdecky said. “At this level, he’s had to change his role considerably, to being a physical presence, to being a good defensive player, good away from the puck, good at killing penalties. That role wasn’t completely foreign to him, but it wasn’t necessarily something he initially liked. But he’s evolved into it.”
Of course, there was still more adversity to overcome. He broke his right leg in preseason practice in September 2009, forcing him to miss the entire season.
“It was awful,” he said. “I went into the boards awkwardly. ... But right now it’s a blessing in disguise because I’ve been able to come back and play another year and get my MBA.”
Jackson returned last season as an alternate captain and had five goals and three assists despite missing the first 12 games with mononucleosis.
Coincidentally, another WCHA captain, Nick Dineen of rival Colorado College, also hails from Omaha.
Jackson and Drew Shore both wear the “C” for the Pioneers this year.
“It’s an honor to be a captain, especially at a place like the University of Denver,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s family still lives in Omaha and he comes back a couple of times a year, for Christmas and the College World Series.
He’s pursuing his master’s in sports management and down the road, maybe, depending on where life takes him, he could see himself as an NHL general manager.
His college playing career is about to come to an end, whether this weekend or at the Frozen Four from April 5 through 7.
Maybe he’ll keep playing professionally. If so, it seems likely he’ll get where he wants to go.
“I’d like that, but I don’t know what opportunities there are for me,” Jackson said. “I’ll have to look at it once the season is over, and if not I’ll be ready to do something else.”