MINNEAPOLIS —There was no handshake after Jack LaFontaine’s most recent shutout for the Minnesota Gophers. In a nod to the on-going pandemic, this season the Big Ten is mandating that teams line up on their respective blue lines after the final horn and offer each other a socially-distanced stick salute, rather than the traditional brief grip and “good game.”
As directed, the Gophers and Michigan Wolverines acknowledged each other inside mostly-empty Yost Ice Arena on Wednesday, Dec. 9, after the visiting team’s 4-0 win and sweep of their midweek series.
The Big Ten Network cameras had been turned off by then, so very few people saw what happened next, at center ice, after the stick salute. Several Wolverines threw their fears of virus spread aside, lining up to give a hug and offer kind words to LaFontaine, a senior from suburban Toronto, after his triumphant return to the place where his college career had begun, and had been derailed nearly three years earlier.
After stopping 67 of the 68 Wolverine shots he faced in the two-game series, LaFontaine was powerless to stop the emotions that overwhelmed him in that moment.
“You always think about the journey, and the people that have gotten you there. You think about the bad times, you think about the good times, and you never expect it all to come to fruition like it did for me,” LaFontaine said, a week later from the house he shares with teammates near the U of M campus. “I always had the goal of just getting back to college hockey. Not really focusing on anything but having my name on a roster. So it was a lot that night...it all kind of hit home that night, and I got overwhelmed with emotion there.”
Fighting back tears as he talked to the media via Zoom, LaFontaine spoke highly of Michigan and his former teammates, saying he had first come to Ann Arbor with the intent of being there for four years. With all that has happened since 2018, LaFontaine was hit by all his feelings in that moment. He sat in a chair in the corner of the arena, just to the right of where he had completed his second career shutout minutes earlier, and concluded his Zoom call. Then LaFontaine buried his face in a towel and let the tears flow.
LaFontaine had first come to that historic arena as a recruit, and then as a Wolverine for two seasons. He played in 11 games for Michigan in the 2017-18 campaign, which ended with the Wolverines at the NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul. LaFontaine figured two more seasons in Ann Arbor and a college degree from Michigan were in his future. But he was not part of the long-term plans for Wolverines coach Mel Pearson.
With veteran goalie Hayden Lavigne on the Wolverines roster, and coveted newcomer Strauss Mann set to arrive from the Fargo Force, LaFontaine was one goalie too many for Pearson. LaFontaine left Ann Arbor not knowing if he would ever face another college hockey puck.
In 2018-19 the goalie found himself playing junior hockey on the other side of the continent, in Penticton, a small town nestled among the lakes and mountains of British Columbia.
Former St. Cloud State assistant coach Fred Harbinson was LaFontaine’s head coach in Penticton, and spoke highly of the goalie with his former boss, Gophers coach Bob Motzko. After considering a few other offers, LaFontaine returned to the Big Ten to finish his college career and his college degree in different colors, and with a slightly different ‘M’ on the front of his hockey jersey.
In his first year as a Gopher, LaFontaine put up good, not great, numbers. He was 9-9-6 overall, with a .919 saves percentage and a 2.55 goals-against average. One of those wins was at Yost, with the Michigan student section giving him a full-throated and profane “welcome” back to campus.
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After Phase 1 of his senior season, LaFontaine is 8-0-0 with a .965 save percentage, a 1.00 goals-against average and two shutouts. He has been named among the Big Ten’s three stars for two consecutive weeks, and was the national Goalie of the Month for November.
The Gophers have risen to the top of the national polls for the first time in more than six years due, in large part, to goaltending. But typical of his team-first approach, LaFontaine credits his defense, the goal support and his work with Gophers goalie coach Karel Popper for the turnaround.
“I feel like everything’s been better this year,” LaFontaine said, offering a frank assessment of a few areas of his game where he still thinks there is work to do. Feeding off his emotions, and controlling them to his advantage during the heat of a game, is part of what has worked.
“For me it’s about having smart intensity, or having a controlled intensity,” LaFontaine said. “If you’re all over the map, you’re not playing smart, you’re just playing hard and dumb. So for me it’s about making sure all of the emotions are going to proper areas.”
And amid all of the mess of 2020, he and the Gophers have found the most straightforward way to make the best of the lockdowns and the isolation and the empty arenas and the lack of traditional college life they have dealt with since March.
“It’s always fun to win,” LaFontaine said. “Everything’s better when you win — the food, the boys, the dressing room, practice. Everything is more fun.”