Myers: Early departure of LaFontaine just the latest bit of pandemic strangeness in college hockey
Over the past 22 months, the accepted norms of the college hockey world have been thrown out the window due to the pandemic, so the sudden departure of the Minnesota Gophers' star goalie to a depleted NHL team should not be that shocking.
MINNEAPOLIS — A goal is still worth one point on the scoreboard. A minor penalty still gets you sent to the box for two minutes. And icing still happens when the puck comes down, bang, before the other guys.
Not everything in college hockey has changed in the past 22 months, but it sure seems that way sometimes. So when a top-notch goalie leaves his team with little warning and signs a pro contract despite having two or three months of eligibility remaining -- and not being at odds with the coaches or teammates in any regard -- it is just another new wrinkle in the fabric of the game.
Jack LaFontaine won a game in goal for the Minnesota Gophers on Saturday night at Michigan State. This Friday, when his (former) Gophers teammates are hosting Alaska, LaFontaine may be less than 24 hours removed from his NHL debut with the Carolina Hurricanes.
If you think that’s not right, and you are fine to do so, remember that in a “normal” world, LaFontaine’s final college game would have been a loss to Minnesota State University-Mankato in the NCAA regional final last March. He was a senior then, and if not for the pandemic creating an extra year of eligibility for collegians, LaFontaine, would likely have inked a pro deal a few days later.
The ‘Canes tried to sign LaFontaine last summer, but he had already announced that he would use that extra NCAA-granted “COVID year” and return to college for another season. Then a combination of illness and injury thinned the Carolina goalie depth to a point where the staffing crisis was not just for retail and restaurant jobs, they came to LaFontaine in desperation.
When the Hurricanes goalie coach met with LaFontaine, who turned 24 on Jan. 6, a few times last weekend at Michigan State, he had to show proof that he had been vaccinated and boosted, or a recent negative COVID test, and wear a mask just to get in the building. They ended up offering LaFontaine $750,000 and a likely opportunity to play immediately in the NHL.
LaFontaine was the Gophers’ everyday goalie this winter in part because the transfer portal allowed players like Jared Moe — LaFontaine’s backup for two seasons with the Gophers — to go elsewhere and play immediately. In November, LaFontaine and Moe faced each other on the ice, with the latter now toiling for arch-rival Wisconsin.
The loss to the Mavericks came at the end of a 2020-21 season where the Gophers and others routinely played games in empty arenas. LaFontaine had his best college season playing home games where cardboard cutouts of John Mariucci and Neal Broten were sometimes the only witnesses. Mankato advanced to its first Frozen Four with that March win, and advanced to Pittsburgh and play in a mostly-empty building in an atmosphere that was a far cry from the normal “celebration of college hockey” that happens over a few days each April, save for in 2020 when the Detroit Frozen Four was scrapped.
Those were just the first in a long line of games that have been canceled or postponed or rescheduled at the last minute. The forthcoming Gophers series with Alaska was supposed to be played in October, but was postponed just before the Nanooks were scheduled to make the long flight to Minnesota due to COVID protocols. Elsewhere, we had the odd situation at Michigan, where the official story is that the team’s medical staff determined the Wolverines could play on a Wednesday, but not on a Thursday, due to health concerns.
To play in games last winter, players had to submit to COVID tests — dozens of them each month. They had to isolate themselves on campus and take classes via Zoom. At The Rink Live, we covered road games where a coach would be seated in the empty stands after the game, sometimes 20 feet or so away from the reporters in the press box, speaking to us via Zoom.
So the loss of a top goalie in the middle of a promising season, as odd as it seems, is just the latest part of the strangeness happening in college hockey rinks, on college campuses and in society as a whole.
Through it all, they have played games this season. They have scored goals, and they have heard fans roar and bands play the fight song, and they have complained about bad calls. The handshake line has gone away, in favor of a stick salute, but often players offer a socially distant post-game acknowledgement, then gather at center ice for hugs with old teammates from juniors and high school anyway.
Maybe someday we will find “normal” again, or maybe you will be donning a facemask in your favorite team’s colors to attend games a decade from now. Whatever the case, in college hockey’s pandemic-affect world, the midseason departure of a star goalie is surely not the last new wrinkle to be experienced.