The noise level was low inside a cavernous, mostly empty Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on a recent Friday night. But tensions were running high.
Even after scoring 20 goals the previous weekend, the Minnesota Gophers were eager to prove that they were back on track, two weeks after unexpectedly losing a pair of home games. And versus an opportunistic Ohio State team, the visitors had promptly taken a penalty less than six minutes into the game.
Part of what happened next was predictable, with high-flying forwards Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin taking advantage of a Buckeyes turnover and creating a short-handed rush. Buckeyes goalie Tommy Nappier stopped McLaughlin’s initial shot, and briefly appeared to survive the threat unscathed. Then a third maroon jersey came swooping into the frame to corral and shoot the rebounded puck, and just like that, the visitors led 1-0.
Seeing sophomore defenseman Jackson LaCombe jump up into the play offensively for the Gophers has become a more common sight in the 50 career games he has played for head coach Bob Motzko’s team. The next night versus the Buckeyes, he did it again, scoring short-handed for LaCombe’s third goal of the season — two of them with a Gopher in the penalty box.
Offensive defensemen are not uncommon in college hockey, with three of them — Will Butcher from Denver, Cale Makar from the University of Massachusetts and Scott Perunovich from Minnesota Duluth — among the last four Hobey Baker Award winners. They are also a priceless commodity, and a role that LaCombe is playing successfully for the Gophers. He was named the Big Ten’s Third Star of the Week after the sweep at Ohio State.
Switching to defense
Until the end of his bantam youth hockey career, LaCombe was an undersized forward toiling on the third line. Then, he grew quickly, and due to a lack of blueliners on his Shattuck-St. Mary’s team, coach Jason Horstman moved LaCombe to defense. It was an instant hit.
“He could always see the ice really well, and being on the back end helped him slow the game down and play at his own pace,” said Horstman, who coaches Shattuck’s AAA boys program. “I watch Jackson a lot now and it’s interesting to see how offensive-minded he is, but I also think he’s a better defender than people give him credit for. He’s not in the wrong place very often.”
As a collegian, his coaches see a player constantly in attack mode, on offense and on defense. He takes care of the defensive end and loves to close the gap on opponents carrying the puck, but LaCombe’s roots as a forward still come through frequently for the Gophers.
“He’s very comfortable with the puck on his stick and knows what to do with it,” said Gophers assistant coach Garrett Raboin, who directs the team’s defenders. “He’s not a guy that tries to get it to the red line and put it deep. When he gets to the red line, he’s looking to make a play and the offense is just beginning for him at that point.”
Early on in LaCombe’s college career, the offensive side of the game came with considerable risk. At the holiday break last season, he was the team’s leader in assists, but also was a co-conspirator on a young team that was 5-9-4 and prone to coughing up pucks at inopportune times. At least one high-expectation Gopher fan on social media labeled LaCombe as a “turnover machine.” Looking back, he admits there was a learning curve.
“Going from high school to college is a big jump, and I’ve got to say I was a little bit nervous playing in front of these crowds and jumping up to the different style and speed of the game,” LaCombe said. “I wasn’t fully comfortable doing everything I could. I think Christmas break was the turning point, and that’s when our team started turning it around too.”
The Gophers are 28-8-3 since then, came within one win of sharing the Big Ten title last season, and they have spent more than a month ranked atop the national polls in 2020-21. LaCombe says that part of the change has been the play of goalie Jack LaFontaine, who is the Big Ten’s leader in most statistical categories. Having solid goaltending allows defenders to make plays with confidence that a mistake isn’t necessarily going to end up in their own net.
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Others point to the solid play of the entire defensive unit, which is deep and experienced. And those who watch LaCombe on a regular basis point to his skating ability, developed in part while working with Olympic speed skaters Dave Cruikshank and Bonnie Blair. LaCombe’s first collegiate game, in October 2019 at Colorado College, was played against their son, Tigers forward Grant Cruikshank.
"The first thing that stands out is his skating ability. He makes it look effortless," said Todd Marchant, the director of player development for the Anaheim Ducks, who picked LaCombe 39th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. "He doesn't really dig into the ice. He's kind of on the top and glides over the top of the ice which makes him very efficient. And the one thing we're seeing this year is his confidence in the offensive zone."
The youngest of four children, all of whom played hockey in Eden Prairie, Jackson was the kid “being dragged around to rinks” to watch his older brother and two older sisters play. His family moved to Los Angeles for a year where he played youth hockey in the L.A. Junior Kings program, then they returned to Minnesota and settled in Chaska. As a bantam, he tried out as a forward and was cut from the Chaska bantam team. The path then changed.
LaCombe ended up at Shattuck, ended up playing defense, and is now filling a vital role, offensively and defensively, on one of college hockey’s top teams. The Gopher coaches gave him time to make mistakes, to grow in confidence and to do what he does. The results, so far as a sophomore, have been top notch.
“It’s just confidence. He’s always had the green light,” Motzko said of LaCombe’s offensive tendencies. “He knows when to jump up. He’s got ice in his veins with the puck, he wants to be part of the offense. He was just playing high school ball two years ago, and he’s just coming into his own now.”