MINNEAPOLIS -- From the college hockey program that gave you the first-ever goaltender to win the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the game’s top player, meet the latest puck-stopper to be a finalist for the trophy.
Capping off what has to be among the craziest 24-hour spans in his life, Gophers senior goalie Jack LaFontaine learned on Wednesday that he is among the final 10 players in the running for the Hobey, which was last won by a Gopher in 2002.
That news came one day after LaFontaine:
Was named the Big Ten’s top goalie on Tuesday afternoon.
Made 46 saves in his team’s 6-4 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament title game
Was named Most Outstanding Player in the Big Ten tournament, after playing every minute of the Gophers’ three wins
After all of that, LaFontaine and the Gophers are getting some much-needed rest before they learn their NCAA tournament opponent and destination on Sunday.
“It’s very mentally tiring. Today was more of a physical grind,” LaFontaine admitted after the Gophers won three games -- two of them in overtime -- in three days for the Big Ten crown.
The honors and trophies are a continuation of one of the great comeback stories in college hockey. LaFontaine, who is from suburban Toronto and is a Carolina Hurricanes draft pick, was recruited to the University of Michigan and played two seasons there, making a Frozen Four appearance in 2018. Not long after that, he was out of school, as the Wolverines let him know he was not part of their future plans. He spent a season in British Columbia playing junior hockey, then got a chance to return to the Big Ten with the Gophers.
LaFontaine has said that he left Michigan not knowing if he would ever get another chance to play college hockey, and reminds himself of that, even during a grind like facing 21 Wisconsin shots in Tuesday night’s third period.
“I’m extremely grateful for the individual opportunities that coach (Bob) Motzko has given me,” LaFontaine said after beating the Badgers. “For me I kind of just remind myself that you may be tired, you may be a little bit worn down, but if you were to ask that same kid (three) years ago at Michigan if it mattered, you’d have said no. You would’ve died to get in a game like this. I’ve been dreaming about this since the day I wanted to go to college.”
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LaFontaine’s first few months in maroon and gold were average, as a team with a dozen newcomers was learning to play together. But since the 2019 holiday break, he has become the Gophers’ every night goalie, and the team has gone 34-11-3, finishing one win shy of the Big Ten’s regular season title the past two seasons, and winning the Big Ten tournament this week.
In 1988, Gophers sophomore Robb Stauber became the first goalie to win the Hobey, after leading the U of M to a WCHA title and a Frozen Four appearance. Michigan State goalie Ryan Miller, in 2001, is the only other netminder to win the award in the 40 years since Gophers forward Neal Broten won the first Hobey in 1981.
LaFontaine is the Gophers’ first Hobey finalist since 2017 when Tyler Sheehy was one of the top 10. They have had four winners of the award: Broten (1981), Stauber (1988), Brian Bonin (1996) and Jordan Leopold (2002).