PITTSBURGH -- In baseball they talk about pitching duels, although the pitchers rarely meet one another face-to-face. It’s the same way in hockey, where a “goalie battle” means the two goalies facing the other team’s shooters, and not each other, face-to-face.
Still, Minnesota Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine admitted that it will mean something for both of them next season when his team faces the Wisconsin Badgers and their newest netminder, Jared Moe.
“I’m so happy for Moe. I’ll be the first guy to tell you, it’s never easy to transfer,” said LaFontaine, who transferred to Minnesota after spending his first two seasons at Michigan. “I think he’s making a great decision for himself. I know it wasn’t an easy one, but I think he’s going to go to a place where he’s going to have the opportunity to soak up as many minutes as he wants.”
Moe, who is from New Prague and played his first two seasons of college hockey for the Gophers, entered the transfer pool in late March and announced last week that he would play for Minnesota’s arch-rivals next season. Some Gopher fans on social media were quick to attack Moe and label him a “traitor” to his home state. On a Zoom call with reporters after winning the Mike Richter Award, LaFontaine offered a spirited defense of his former teammate.
“It was kind of tough seeing some things on social media. Obviously I know the great rivalry, but I was pretty disappointed in seeing a lot of the fans and the social media accounts ripping him,” LaFontaine said. “I had to bite my tongue a little bit to not reply to them. I don’t think a lot of people understand how hard it is to enter that portal and to leave your friends behind, leave your girlfriend behind, leave the school you committed to behind.”
Moe and LaFontaine were in effect a tandem for the first half of the 2019-20 season when both were newcomers to the program. LaFontaine became the every-night starter later in that season, and started 29 of the Gophers’ 31 games in 2020-21. Moe got two starts, both versus Arizona State, and won both. He admitted he was transferring in search of a place he could play more, which was unlikely with the Gophers as LaFontaine was named college hockey’s top goalie, and is returning for a fifth college hockey season. Moe found a home quickly with the Badgers, and is expected to be in a tandem with Cameron Rowe there. LaFontaine expects Moe will find success in red.
“I’m just so over the moon happy for him. I’m so proud of him because I think it was such a difficult decision. I know he’s going to kick ass next year,” LaFontaine said. “He’s a great goalie and I’m going to be playing against him for a long time down the road. It’s going to be Wisconsin and it’s going to be professional hockey for him. He deserves everything that’s coming his way, and I think it’s just begun for him.”
Tuning in for an old teammate
When the Minnesota Vikings lost the 1999 NFC Championship game to the Atlanta Falcons, more than one player in purple admitted they couldn’t bear to watch the subsequent Super Bowl that they felt they should’ve been playing in.
The Gophers fell to Minnesota State Mankato in the regional final, one game shy of the Frozen Four, but that disappointment hasn’t stopped a few of them from tuning in to watch an old friend play in Pittsburgh.
“I watched UMass last night. I watched my old roommate Garrett Wait score the overtime winner,” LaFontaine said on Friday, after Wait’s goal was the OT clincher versus Minnesota Duluth in the second semifinal. “That was so funny, because I was watching with Jackson LaCombe and we were talking about how we had a funny feeling Waiter was going to score.”
Similar to Moe, playing time for Wait was limited with the Gophers, and after transferring to UMass last summer, has jump-started his college hockey career.
“I was so happy for him. We all texted him and it was so cool to see his face and see how happy he was,” LaFontaine said. “He deserves everything he gets. He’s such a hard-working kid and it’s not easy to transfer schools. He’s just having a hell of a year, and he’s got his ticket to the biggest dance in all of college hockey.”
Rest, relaxation and reflection
Some might head out for a night on the town after being named college hockey’s top goalie, as LaFontaine was on Friday. An English major, LaFontaine was at home working on his thesis and joked that any of the writers interviewing him via Zoom was welcome to offer writing and editing tips. With the Gophers’ season done for two weeks now, he admitted that playing a college hockey season in a pandemic was a grind.
“I haven’t thought about hockey for the past week. I haven’t touched the skates and I want to get away from the game for a bit. I even turned off my phone for a little bit,” he said. “It was a long season and a different season, honestly. I don’t think I’ve ever been that mentally and emotionally tired. When you’re just playing hockey and there’s not a lot you can do because of COVID, I think it’s very difficult to stay in that head frame and stay dialed in for 24 hours a day for a week.”
Life is slowly returning to some kind of normal, but even with the Gophers on-ice success, a full season of constant COVID-19 testing, isolation, online classes, games in mostly empty arenas and teams being dropped from NCAA tourney play due to contact tracing cast a pall over every aspect of the student-athlete experience.
“It always felt like there was this cloud over every athlete in the NCAA and that cloud was COVID,” LaFontaine said. “Saying that, just being able to compete and being able to play was such a treat. I know there was so much doubt that we would get a season, and what would it look like. I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that it’s such a relief that we were able to play and have the year we had and play off it for next year.”