Culver Academies has produced a lot of hockey talent, but none more productive than Indiana native Jackson Pierson
CULVER – Jackson Pierson is very much an American success story. And because of the way the sport of hockey has evolved over the past 25-plus years, the soon-to-be Culver Academies graduate has had the opportunity to become an athletic success story, as well.
Born and raised in central Indiana (Zionsville) just months before the millennium, Pierson’s story doesn’t unfold the way it did if he was born 20 years earlier. But life is about being at the right place and the right time and taking advantage of opportunities and that is something that Pierson has done during every stage of his 18-plus years.
No logical reason
The story of an American hockey player – one that possesses as much talent as Pierson does – has mostly originated someplace like Long Island or Brookline, Mass. or Edina, Minn. However, in Pierson’s case, there is no other explanation for his story other than the “Hockey Gods” displaying a sense of humor one day in the lab.
“Jackson is REALLY athletic,” Culver prep hockey coach Steve Palmer told News-Sentinel.com recently.
That, in and of itself, isn’t surprising.
Pierson’s father, Todd, and mother, Aida, both have athletic genes, if not hockey genes.
Over three decades ago, Todd set a couple of IHSAA hitting records (home runs in a season and runs scored in a season) for Covington (Ind.) High School, both of which stood for nearly 20 years, while Aida, is a native of Cameroon (no, the African country does not have a national hockey team) but comes from an athletic family (her brother played professional soccer).
That genetic foundation at least gave Jackson a fighter’s chance regardless of whatever sport he eventually drifted towards. However, from an early age, he realized where his passion was taking him.
“I’ve been skating since I was three (years old),” Jackson explained, “and playing hockey since I was five. I tried it and liked it and stuck with it.”
It takes commitment – from all involved
Growing up amidst the corn and bean fields of rural west-central Indiana, Todd had never watched a hockey game in his life before attending a Philadelphia Flyers game in the old Spectrum as part of an internship in college.
“It was the greatest sport I had ever seen,” Todd said of loving the speed and skill of the game.
Like his father, Jackson’s initial impression was love at first sight, as well.
The young Pierson family would drive to neighboring suburbs and watch Jackson’s cousin (also named Todd Pierson) play in local games and Jackson wanted to be out on the ice, as well.
He spent years playing “locally” but as he developed it became more and more apparent that he was outgrowing – skill-wise – the leagues of central Indiana.
He began to play with a youth program (TPH Thunder) that was based in the South and involved players from “all over” with practices in Nashville (Tennessee, not Indiana) and Atlanta.
“We didn’t have enough kids for our team,” Jackson explained of how he became involved with the Thunder, “that was why we didn’t play in (Indianapolis).”
Jackson and a couple of other talented young players would practice in Indianapolis during the week and then travel throughout the Midwest or South for weekend tournaments or “practice weekends in Nashville or Atlanta,” according to Jackson.
It was a rigor for the Pierson family.
“It doesn’t take long”
The level of cost and time commitment made by Todd and Aida (who have two younger children) was exorbitant and there was no promise or guarantee of anything significant ever resulting from their personal investment.
But it came anyway.
While competing with the Thunder, Jackson’s skill, speed, and selflessness began to show even among the best young players in the country.
“When I saw him,” Palmer recalled, “it doesn’t take long to notice Jackson.”
Culver U16 coach Jeff Hill had discovered Jackson and alerted Palmer, who followed up and evaluated Jackson, as well.
“When you see young players,” Palmer said, “sometimes it takes a long time for them to look like hockey players. They can skate, but they are not efficient in their skating. Jackson’s skating; he already looked like a hockey player at a very young age.”
Palmer not only coaches the best of the four Culver hockey squads (the prep squad) but he also teaches physics. He admits to “applying hockey in physics and physics in hockey” and when it comes to Jackson, Palmer gets excited about explaining what makes his playing so special.
“Their turns can be inefficient,” Palmer said of most young players. “They come out of turns much slower than they go into turns. Skating is a skill that improves continually throughout your hockey career.
“Jackson moved like a hockey player at a very young age. Jackson’s skating was really good (while) very young.”
The Culver coaches knew quickly that Jackson would be a great addition to the Eagle program and by that point, even Todd and Aida, hockey neophytes, to say the least, knew that the sport could open doors for their eldest son (and will for a younger sibling, Cooper, 13, as well).
Jackson embraced the notion of going away for high school (as long as it meant playing elite hockey) and the fact that Culver wasn’t far from home and his Thunder teammate and friend, Connor Merrill, was also going to play for the Eagles, helped as well.
“I looked at one other school out East,” Jackson said of the life-altering decision, “but it was an easy decision to come here.”
Jackson survived the first night (“They try to scare you with the military and all of that,” he said) and believes that his experience at Culver “just got better and better” with each passing day.
A record setter
Playing hockey for Culver is a privilege and the Eagle players and coaches grasp the responsibility of carrying on the tradition of success that the program has achieved over four decades.
The Eagles have produced 26 NHL draft picks, a Stanley Cup Champion, a Calder Trophy recipient, a Hobey Baker Award winner, and several Olympians. However, there has never been a more productive offensive player than Jackson Pierson.
Jackson, who will graduate Sunday, culminated his career this past season by totaling 88 points (a Culver record) on 30 goals and 58 assists.
He holds the Eagle marks for not just points in a season but assists in a season (58), as well as the prep team career marks for assists (92) and points scored (150).
His career goals (58) and points per game (1.80) are the second best in Culver history.
“I think that Jackson is a great hockey player whether he (set records) or not,” Palmer said. “But that is pretty special with the names that have gone through this school. With the amount of talent that came through here, for Jackson to even be in that conversation is something really, really special.”
You can sit with Jackson for over an hour (I did) and talk to him about his career, school, family, and life and walk away with little knowledge of those aforementioned records. However, what you will be well versed in is just how special not just playing hockey at Culver can be for a young athlete, but playing on THIS Culver prep squad was an unforgettable experience for everyone involved.
“It was great,” Palmer said.
The Eagles began and ended the 2017-18 season rated as the nation’s best prep team and they finished 43-4-1, which was the best mark in school history.
“It was really cool to have such a good team this year,” Jackson said.
The next level
Like a lot of talented athletes, Jackson had options as he contemplated his future. Harvard and Princeton called, but he really felt comfortable with the coaching staff at the University of New Hampshire.
He was drafted in the ninth round of the 2017 USHL Draft by the Green Bay Gamblers and playing in “Juniors” is a well-worn path for a lot of college hockey players.
Of the 26 players on New Hampshire’s 2017-18 roster, only two joined the Wildcats straight out of high school.
But like every coach that has worked with Jackson, the New Hampshire staff knows that they have something unique in the athletic center.
First-year Wildcat coach Mike Souza asked Jackson to come to college immediately and Palmer wasn’t surprised.
“To be honest with you,” Palmer said of his thoughts on the situation, “I think that New Hampshire thought they were going to make their team better.”
The Wildcats struggled to their fourth consecutive non-winning season this past winter and adding the speed and skill of Jackson should help reverse that trend.
“I can’t speak for New Hampshire,” Palmer continued, “but if I’m the coach, I’m going to bring in the kids that can make my team better.”
The mental side
As much as Palmer lauded Jackson’s physical abilities, he was more effusive about his mental acuity.
That goes a long way in explaining how Jackson has dominated the game despite not being the biggest (he is 5-foot-10 and pushing 170 pounds) athlete on the ice.
“Usually when athletes are really, really good skaters,” Palmer said, “they tend to do more by themselves because they can. Jackson wasn’t like that.
“His biggest strength now is his brain. He thinks the game so much. He does things that we try and teach as best we can…”
Again Palmer delved into the physics of the game and explained how Jackson “baits” bigger players into overplaying him before changing directions and making plays in open space.
“You try and teach those things,” Palmer said, “but he just does them naturally. He has a feel for opponents. He has a feel for how fast someone can skate. His poise, his understanding of space, his ability to use other players, he is playing chess and the other players are playing checkers.
“He’s been a fun kid to coach.”
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