Collegiate players are a unique breed in the hockey world. All, if not, most of them develop a lifelong connection to the program and institution that they become a part of, regardless of their length of stay.
And then there are players like sophomore defenseman Kyle Lawson.
To say that the New Hudson, MI native loves being a representative of the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish is an understatement.
"It’s a dream come true to be able to come to an institution like this that is so well respected and held to a higher standard. It’s just a special place to me."
"He came to Notre Dame and I think it was something that he always wanted to do," said head coach Jeff Jackson. "I know in his freshman year, we’d always kid about the fact that he’s living his dream and I think that says a lot about him. He cares a lot about the success of the team, sometimes to excess."
In 2006-07, Lawson enjoyed a stellar rookie season that culminated with being named to the CCHA All-Rookie team after posting 19 points (four goals, 15 assists). His selection to the U.S. team for the 2007 World Junior Championship in Sweden raised a few eyebrows, but his strong performance with Team USA quickly silenced his critics.
Following up that freshman season has been quite a test for Lawson. And with the losses of stalwart veterans Noah Babin (CAR) and Wes O’Neill (COL) to graduation, Lawson suddenly finds himself thrust into more of a leadership role this season as a sophomore. Though it has been challenging, Lawson sees it as a valuable learning experience that had gotten gradually easier as the season has gone along.
"This has actually been almost a tougher year than last year was just from the standpoint of leadership because instead of having someone to look up to, you have the younger guys looking up to you now," he said. "And you’re setting the standards for what needs to be done around here. It’s definitely been a learning experience. It was a tough first half just finding the comfort zone and what not, but since the (Christmas) break it’s been a lot easier and things are starting to fall into place."
As one of the veterans on the blueline for Notre Dame, Lawson has been given the assignment of playing with one of the rookies. His partner for much of the season has been Ian Cole (STL). As Lawson explains, Cole’s high-end skills have made the task of adjusting to and working with him much simpler.
"I’d say that Ian is probably the most talented defenseman that I’ve ever played with," Lawson said. "He’s a great partner, that’s basically what it comes down to. He makes it easier to play with him. He communicates well and moves the puck well. At the beginning of the season, it’s always tough to get adjusted to a new partner. We went through our problems, but hopefully we’ve worked all of that out."
Jackson feels that Lawson’s strong leadership quality was one reason that he paired Cole with Lawson.
"I felt that Kyle could help Ian grow as a player," Jackson said. "He could maybe help in some ways by just coaching Ian through some specific situations, probably more so from a defensive perspective than offensively. I think that the success that both Cole and (Teddy) Ruth (WAS) have had is probably partially due to the fact that they’ve had good, solid partners that have helped lead them in a real positive way, and Kyle has been instrumental in that."
Some have labeled Lawson as an offensive defenseman, and the description is a bit misleading. While the sophomore rearguard possesses superb offensive skills, his defensive skills are almost equally as impressive. His hockey sense and great vision are two attributes that have served him quite well on both sides of the puck. What separates Lawson from many young defensemen in the NCAA is his ability to make those around him better.
"That’s kind of a rare quality for a defenseman," said Jackson. "When he’s on the ice, regardless of whether it’s with his defensive partner or whatever line that he is out on the ice with, I think there is a strong ability for Kyle to make the people around him better because he finds open people and he can make good decisions under pressure. When you can do that, generally that allows you to be a creative player and also be responsible at the same time."
Lawson has been one of Notre Dame’s most consistent performers this season, despite having gone pointless in the last five games. He has played in all 28 games thus far and leads the Fighting Irish in defensemen scoring with 15 points (three goals, 12 assists). His 12 assists and plus-11 are both tied for second on the team. Lawson has already garnered two CCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors, both of which came in consecutive weeks back in November.
Though he has been given more of a leadership role, the change has done little, if anything, to negatively impact Lawson’s ability to contribute offensively. However, given Notre Dame’s recent offensive struggles, particularly on the power play, Jackson has been pressing his defensive corps to be more involved in the offense. It is a point that certainly hasn’t been lost on Lawson.
"That’s been one thing that he’s been harping on us about lately," Lawson said. "He started to get on us defensemen about getting up into the play a lot more. Once you feel more comfortable defensively, then I think that’s when it’s best to start looking at going offensively. It’s something that we’re starting to focus more on here."
As good as Lawson is offensively, he doesn’t see himself as an offensive-minded defenseman. So how does Lawson describe himself?
"I definitely like to play offense, but I’d say that I’m a defensive defenseman that joins the rush a little more frequently," he said. "I wouldn’t go completely with an offensive defenseman. I take more pride in preventing the other team from scoring goals than scoring goals myself. As far as my offensive game goes, it’s definitely something that I’d like to work on so that I can be more effective there. I’d say that other areas that I also want to improve are getting better, quicker feet and learning to have better body positioning and angles on those bigger guys.
"Becoming a good two-way defenseman is definitely the goal. I just want to get better each year. Hopefully down the road, that’s something that I can develop into but there’s a lot of work to be done before then."
Jackson also feels that Lawson could blossom into a very good two-way defenseman as his development and career progresses.
"I think Kyle is going to be a guy that has great instincts as far as having the potential to break a team out of their zone," Jackson said. "He’s got the type of instincts and capabilities to be a well-rounded defenseman at the next level. The first and biggest things that have to improve are his overall body composition and his skating. I think that they’re connected. Kyle needs to get stronger and can be a little bit tighter physically. I know that he works at it. He’s the kind of kid that can accelerate with lower body fat and a high conditioning level because he logs a lot of minutes and it’s important for him to be at the ultimate condition. I think his strength is going to help his skating. His skating needs some work from a strength and agility perspective. As he gains strength, because he competes extremely hard, and that combined with his instincts defensively, I think will allow him to be a very solid two-way defenseman."
As a student-athlete at Notre Dame, one of the unique challenges that Lawson faces each year is living up to not only the high athletic standards set by his coach, but also the equally high academic standards that are synonymous with the university. It was a hard lesson learned in time management and knowing priorities for the sophomore defenseman.
"Last year I struggled with it greatly, especially that first semester," he said. "When I first came to Notre Dame, it was a big wake-up call for me because I didn’t really know what to expect. When I saw the workload, it was pretty overwhelming at first. When you first get here, they have a structured study hall system set up for you, so you have to get in a certain number of hours in with a supervisor and then a certain amount of hours on your own. I feel like they’ve trained me well because being in that system for a year you learn what is expected of you and what you need to do on certain days in order to get the workload down."
Lawson was a seventh-round selection (198th overall) of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. While he is thrilled to have been selected by Carolina, Lawson takes it all in stride and understands that being drafted is just one step in the long road to potentially playing in the NHL. He was unable to attend last summer’s prospects camp, but he hopes to do so this coming summer.
"I spoke with Ron Francis and he had mentioned that he felt that it would be a good idea if I did go out there, so it’s definitely something that I’m looking in to doing," Lawson said. "It just depends upon when school starts and when the camp is."
Lawson lists Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom as his favorite NHL player and the one that he tries to pattern his game after.
"I idolize Nicklas Lidstrom. I do try and emulate what he does, but it’s tough to try and compare yourself to probably one of the greatest defenseman ever," he said. "The patience that he has and the decisions that he makes, and just the little things that he does that almost go unnoticed is what makes him so great."
Most collegiate players develop family-like bonds with their coaches, and it is certainly evident at Notre Dame. Head coach Jeff Jackson has been able to establish and maintain the delicate balance between being the tough, demanding mentor and the caring, compassionate father figure that has earned him the undying love and respect of his players, including Lawson.
"I think that’s why his players love him so much," Lawson said. "He pushes you and sometimes he pushes your buttons and challenges you, but in the end you know that he’s just trying to make you better. He’s made us realize that there are no short cuts to success and he instills that every day in practice and in the weight room. We know he cares about us, even though there are hard days where we might disagree with him on things. He loves Irish hockey and he’ll do whatever it takes for us to win. He expects a lot but it’s not anything that he wouldn’t do himself. It’s just the dedication that he shows that just makes you want to play for him."
"Kyle is a tremendous kid. He’s got great character and he’s got his head on straight," Jackson said of his young defenseman. "He cares more about the team than his individual welfare or play. He has captain material written all over him. I think part of that is because of Kyle’s passion for the program and the team, and a big part of that is just his nature. Kyle just wears his heart on his sleeve but that ND covers it up and I think that’s his endearing quality."