EDINA, Minn. -- Even with advances in hockey equipment and changes in the game to protect the people who call the crease their home, playing goalie isn’t easy. Slap shots, even fully padded, can hurt, and the last person to have the puck slip by them when an opponent scores inevitably shoulders some of the blame.
It would be easy for Minnesota Gophers backup goalie Justen Close to grumble about what he has been dealt by fate, on and off the ice, over the two years he has spent in college hockey. But while stopping pucks is in his nature, grumbling about things out of his control is not.
On Wednesday, July 14, 2021, Close donned his maroon and gold goalie pads, along with a green jersey, and faced shots from people other than his Gopher teammates for the first time in a long time. On opening night of Da Beauty League 2021 at Braemar Arena, Close was the goalie for Team Bic and got a win with 23 saves, only allowing six goals in two running-time periods. That’s perhaps as near as you will get to a shutout in this fun summer 4-on-4 league, where defense is optional and backchecking is as elusive as bigfoot.
It was the first time Close had faced shots by an opponent since February. In the Gophers’ third-string role last season, while Jack LaFontaine was backstopping the team’s run to a Big Ten playoff title and winning accolades as college hockey’s top goalie, Close played 20 minutes. In the third period of an 8-1 loss to arch-rival Wisconsin, Close got the third period and allowed two goals, including one of the 30 goals Badgers star Cole Caufield scored on the way to winning the Hobey Baker Award.
The task wasn’t any easier on a muggy weeknight in Edina, with NHLers like K’Andre Miller, Alex Goligoski and Shane Gersich firing pucks at him. Drenched in sweat outside the postgame locker room, Close was all smiles after facing some “live ammo” once again.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It felt pretty good,” Close said. “I think I’m a little out of shape, and I’ve got a little more work to do this summer, but it’s coming.”
Far from home
For Close, who turned 23 in May, the biggest challenge hasn’t been all of the time on the bench -- which is unlikely to change with LaFontaine returning for next season and highly-touted USHL goalie Brennan Boynton joining the team from the Fargo Force. Due to the pandemic, Close, the former MVP of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League has not been back to Canada to see his family for the past 18 months. But his Gophers teammates have done what they can to fill that role.
“We have a pretty tight-knit house group, and with ‘Closer’ not being able to go home we make sure he’s busy every weekend,” said Blake McLaughlin, who is a roommate, a Gophers teammate and a teammate on Team Bic. “He went with one of our roommates over Christmas, we took him up north for the duck (hunting) opener, and we took him along for the fishing opener and the Fourth of July. He’s loved it up there and brought his girlfriend along, so it’s been good.”
Close singled out defenseman Ben Brinkman’s Edina family for having him over to their house for dinner on more than one occasion. The goalie has a brother getting married in Saskatchewan next month, and now that he is fully vaccinated, Close will return to Canada after 18 months away.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my family when I go home in a few weeks, but all teammates and their families have been so good to me, so it’s been pretty easy,” he said.
With LaFontaine taking over nearly all of the goaltending duties last season, another Gophers backup -- Jared Moe -- elected to transfer to Wisconsin in the spring, looking for more playing time. Close has no such plans, saying that he’s happy at the U of M and in his current role, practicing, going to school and watching LaFontaine win games.
“It was incredible. It was a lot of fun to watch what he was doing,” Close said of LaFontaine, a fellow Canadian, who won the Mike Richter Award, given to college hockey’s top goalie. “It was a good year for him and a big year for us. We’re looking to build on it and take it a little bit further this year.”
That attitude, and his unwavering support for the other guys with a M on their sweaters is what teammates have come to love about Close.
“By far the best teammate I’ve been with throughout the years,” McLaughlin said. “His support for the other two goalies on our team is unbelievable and he’s a fantastic guy. His character never changes. He’s the same old ‘Closer’ every day.”
Ready to play, when needed
Majoring in business, Close said he is taking a few classes in the summer and gave a sly smile when asked if his grades were good.
“Just in case my parents are listening, yeah,” he said.
On the ice in Edina, he was just as busy, as 2-on-1 breaks, 2-on-0 breaks and breakaways were happening with regularity. Without the size of players like LaFontaine or Moe, Close relies on instinct and an ability to cover all of the crease with his reflexes. As they improved to 1-0 in Da Beauty League, at least one Bic teammate joked that there may be some real competition for the Gophers’ starting goalie spot in a few months.
“He stood his ground pretty good and stopped a lot of back-doors in his first real skate of the summer. He’s unbelievable,” McLaughlin said of Close while grinning ear-to-ear, as always. “He doesn’t give you much. He’s really quick and athletic, which helps a lot and he gets post-to-post really well. After watching that, I think (LaFontaine) might want to worry a little bit this summer."