Jack LaFontaine remembers his most challenging morning of the season. It had been a sleepless night on the plane for the freshman goaltender, as he struggled to get over his performance in the Michigan hockey team’s loss to Dartmouth on Oct. 29.
He woke up that Sunday morning to a text message from a player who urged him to move past that experience. The message came from fellow netminder Zach Nagelvoort, who, in his fourth year on the Wolverines, has asserted a more active role for Michigan.
“He texted me, ‘Hey come over, let’s get some air, let’s walk, to get your mind off it,’ ” LaFontaine said. “I’ll never forget that, that’s what really stands out to me about the type of person he is.
“He’ll share one little thing of wisdom with me and then I’ll go home and I’ll write it down because I want to remember it for tomorrow. Not only that, but how to handle myself off the ice, and how to overcome challenges and adversity.”
Heading into the Wolverines’ final home series, emotions seem to run high for LaFontaine and his fellow freshmen. The seniors who motivated them and encouraged them for the past months will be departing soon.
Nagelvoort certainly isn’t the only senior who makes the effort to guide his young teammates. Seniors from the front three like forward Alex Kile to defensemen Nolan de Jong and Kevin Lohan have helped the newcomers overcome their initial uneasiness in Ann Arbor.
For the first few months of the season, freshman Will Lockwood played alongside Kile, his family friend growing up. He credits part of his early season success to starting games with the senior as his linemate.
Kile’s duties as a leader extended beyond those on his line. With the assistance of the other forwards, Kile welcomed the new players into the fold and taught them the “Michigan tradition.”
“We like to see ourselves as a family on the ice and off the the ice, and team chemistry is really important,” Lockwood said. “Getting along with everyone is a huge factor in how the games go. They really taught me how to respect my teammates, to be the person you want to be here in Ann Arbor.”
Behind the front three, de Jong and Lohan man the blue line and do their part to motivate and offer assistance to the young group of Wolverines defensemen.
Freshman Luke Martin explained that the two constantly offer advice and small post-practice reminders from working on improving skate speed to cleaning skates and putting away equipment.
Like LaFontaine did from Nagelvoort, Martin learned some specific lessons not easily seen on the ice during games from De Jong — Michigan’s captain — and Lohan, the alternate.
“Something I’ve learned from Kevin is take care of your body as much as you can because it’ll pay off in the long run,” Martin said. “(He) is always the last guy in the weight room, whether rolling out and stretching or icing his back down in the cold tub.
“Nolan is always in there warming up early, getting ready to go for practice and games. … He’s very calm, nothing seems to really rattle him. He’s never too high on his highs and never too low on his lows.”
Saturday night, Michigan will honor its seniors at center ice. The younger Wolverines will reflect on lessons learned at practices, during pre-game skates, in the games and on the bench. Some, like LaFontaine nearly did Tuesday after practice, may see their emotions get the best of them.
But most of all, they’ll thank the seniors for their efforts to mentor them over the course of a challenging season.