Scott Jackson was headed out to eat with his Norfolk Admirals teammates after what he thought was his final game of the season last April 10 before he was pulled aside and given some great news.
He was going to the NHL.
Jackson, a 6-foot-4, 223-pound defenseman, had a 3 a.m. flight to Florida booked, made a few phones calls and then went to meet his Lightning teammates.
“It was a quick turn around,” Jackson said. “I didn’t sleep that night and I was super nervous the whole way down. But as soon as I got to the rink, the guys brought me right in and I was relaxed.”
Jackson, 23, played like he had all season in the American Hockey League. He was in position, physical when needed and made strong plays with his stick in 13:44 during a 3-1 victory.
It was a reward for a solid minor-league season and gave Jackson a taste of the place he wants to make home.
“I was comfortable,” Jackson said. “It was an awesome experience.”
Jackson was originally drafted in the second round of the 2005 NHL draft by St. Louis, 37th overall. But after he could not come to terms on a contract before the 2007 draft he became a free agent. The Lightning signed him as a free agent in July of 2008 after his fifth full season with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League.
His first year in the AHL had peaks and valleys. He played 34 games with Norfolk, three with Mississippi in the East Coast Hockey League and missed the final 23 games with a back injury.
“I didn’t know what to expect my first year,” Jackson said. “I got off to a rough start and then I got injured.
“But having that one year under my belt really helped me this season. I came into camp not having to ask questions. I just got to work with the coaches on my game.”
He also came to camp with enough knowledge to write a travel book.
Jackson and Norfolk teammate Ty Wishart hopped into a truck in Jackson’s home town of Salmon Arm, British Columbia and made the more than 3,000-mile trek to Virginia in four days. They drove for 15 hours one day.
“We took the scenic route,” Wishart said.
Through the flat lands, the mountains and the big cities, the two defensemen cruised along.
“The best sight was going over the bridge on Chesapeake Bay,” Jackson said. “You knew you were 20 minutes from home.”
Jackson’s game came a long way, too.
He had a strong training camp with the Lightning before being cut. But after Jackson was sent back to Norfork, he was determined to have a breakout season in the AHL.
Last season, former Norfolk coach Jim Johnson said Jackson improved “by leaps and bounds”, especially his skating. Jackson said he learned some things that “just clicked in and it all made sense.”
Jackson had a goal and 14 assists in 72 games and had a plus/minus rating of plus-6. He was physical and used his length and his stick to break up plays.
“I just tried to slow things down, work on my positioning in the defensive zone,” Jackson said. “That really helped me be someone that they could count on to play on a regular basis…..I find myself playing a lot better when I get put in bigger situations.”
It was quite a season in Norfolk.
The Admirals had three head coaches, bus breakdowns, missed flights and put themselves in a hole with a rough start.
“The biggest part of why we were successful is our team was so good at not letting stuff bother us,” Jackson said. “We really came together after Christmas.
“Getting as close as we did to the playoffs, compared to the year before and the start of the season, has given the group a lot more confidence. I think it’s going to be a lot easier going into this year expecting more out of myself.”
Jackson might have to spend another season developing in Norfolk. He is patient. But an NHL job is getting closer.
“That’s the goal,” Jackson said. “I’ve got some time to put in to be the player I want to be. I don’t want to just crack the lineup and be the guy who sits on the bench.
“The biggest thing for me is to keep progressing like I did last year.”