MINNEAPOLIS — All was quiet beneath the east stands of Pegula Ice Arena — Penn State’s home rink — a few hours before the Minnesota Gophers would conclude their season series with the Nittany Lions last Saturday. In the long hallway outside the visitors’ locker room, all that could be heard was some music from the other side of the door, the chatter of players as they taped sticks to prepare for battle, and the sound of a rubber ball hitting the floor, then the wall, then the floor, then the wall, again and again.
Perhaps 10 yards down the hall from the locker room, Gophers junior goalie Jack LaFontaine crouched on his knees. Black glasses that act like blinders, eliminating his peripheral vision, were on his head. That black rubber ball was bounced and caught, bounced and caught. Different angles. Different speeds. Again and again. LaFontaine was like a fisherman, tying up his boat tightly and securing the hatches, preparing for every possible challenge when he knows a storm is coming.
When the puck was dropped and 6,300 noisy Lions fans looked on, LaFontaine weathered the storm as best he and his defenders could. Boarding the Gophers’ flight back to Minnesota later that night, LaFontaine wore the tired expression of a man who had faced 99 shots in 125 minutes of hockey (plus a few more that don’t officially count, from a 3-on-3 overtime period on Friday) and had stopped most of them. The Gophers didn’t get a win last weekend, but they might have gotten an answer to the goaltending questions that have been a topic of conversation among fans since the first days of their training camp back in September.
Sharing the workload
While Gophers coach Bob Motzko has not declared LaFontaine or freshman Jared Moe as his “number one goalie” at any point this season, LaFontaine has started 20 of 32 games, and the last four in a row as the team makes a push for the Big Ten title.
“He’s older, he’s been through it, and I hope that’s a great sign that he wants this thing,” Motzko said this week. “As you’ve heard me say, I pick starters. They decide who’s number one ... Jack’s done a great job.”
That LaFontaine is preparing to face Michigan this weekend, with a real shot at winning the conference crown, is part of an amazing journey he has been on in the last 23 months. In April of 2018, LaFontaine came to the Twin Cities as a participant in the NCAA Frozen Four, for Michigan. The Wolverines lost to Notre Dame in the semifinals and not long after that, Michigan coaches let LaFontaine know that after two seasons and 22 games played in maize and blue, he was not part of their future plans. He was suddenly a goalie without a team. It was a challenging time.
“If I were to rewind the clock to two years ago I was scared, I was confused, I was frustrated,” LaFontaine admitted. “I was fortunate enough to have a lot of people in my corner who were making decisions easier for me.”
From the mountains to Mariucci
He found a hockey home on the other side of the country from his family’s home in the Toronto suburbs, and spent last season with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. With two seasons of college under his belt, it was an eye-opening experience, but one that has helped him on and off the ice as a Gopher.
“You go from living alone in a dorm or in a house, and you go back to living with a billet family under a roof with parents again. It’s funny. You have 16- and 17-year-olds on your team and they’re still in high school. It’s crazy. You feel like you’ve regressed almost,” said LaFontaine, who turned 22 in January. “But I had so much fun there. It was the first time in my career where I was the oldest on the team. I’d always been the young guy, so I feel like it has helped me as a leader on this team.”
As a Gopher, LaFontaine’s hallmark is being vocal, on the ice and in the locker room, and leading by example.
“He’s a very good communicator, always letting the defense know what’s going on. He’s got some confidence right now and we’ve got some confidence in him too,” fellow junior Brannon McManus said, with a nod to LaFontaine’s weekend at Penn State. “When you get 100 shots and stop pretty much every one, that’s going to do it for you. We’re going to let him go and do what he needs to do.”
That means the team knows when to be encouraging, when to give LaFontaine space and when to learn from the seemingly nonstop work he does before games, during games and in practice.
“I’ve never been the most talented goalie but I’ve always been the hardest working. Nobody ever out-works me, and I say that in the most humble, modest way possible,” LaFontaine said. “But I’m a raw competitor. I hate to lose. That’s what motivates me is that determination to keep the puck out of the net.”
There are more storms coming, to be sure, but LaFontaine sounds like he is ready for another rain of pucks at any time.