Twenty minutes after Michigan had sealed a win over Michigan State, and with it a berth in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, a continuation of a run that has seen the Wolverines lose just three times since the New Year and climb back into contention for an NCAA Tournament bid, Hayden Lavigne wore a blue suit and tie. Clean cut, with everyone around him still covered in sweat.
Lavigne didn’t play on Friday. Or on Saturday. He hasn’t played since Nov. 23, when he got his only start of the season in net and lost, letting up his third goal of the night 36 seconds into overtime in a non-conference game at New Hampshire.
He spent this weekend standing next to assistant coach Kris Mayotte on the back row of Michigan’s bench, and when senior forward Jake Slaker put the series away with an empty-net goal in the final minute on Saturday, all Lavigne could do was crane his neck and watch.
“Honestly, it was probably one of the easier weekends I’ve had to face all year,” sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann said after shutting the Spartans out twice. Mann is the story. He has been the story throughout the season. He will be the story as long as Michigan’s season goes on.
This puts Lavigne — a senior who two years ago won a competition for playing time, played the way Mann is playing now and took Michigan all the way to the Frozen Four — in an especially fascinating spot.
“It’s a different position, obviously,” Lavigne said, as Mann spoke to a group of reporters a few feet away. “And not necessarily one that I want to be in, but at the same time, winning like this is a fun atmosphere just to be around in general.”
Over the course of this conversation, Lavigne will say all the right things. He’s accepting the role and doing what he can, enjoying the wins as they come. But it’s clear that two years ago, when he skated off the ice in Minneapolis after letting in a goal with under 10 seconds to go and ending Michigan’s season, this wasn’t how Lavigne saw his career winding down.
He attended the Nashville Predators’ development camp in the summer of 2018, and it was easy to see a path to playing NHL hockey.
Now, he’s not sure what comes next. He’s been putting out feelers, hoping for an amateur tryout contract after Michigan’s season ends.
“It’s hard though, when you don’t play any games all year,” Lavigne said. “There’s definitely guys that put up numbers as a senior with more games played, like (Michigan State goaltender John) Lethemon’s played 35 and is top in the country. So he’s obviously looking for a spot as well. So (there’s) competition out there that’s in a little bit better shape than I am, but I’ll figure it out and find somewhere to go.”
Lavigne’s career hit a low point prior to coming to Michigan. Playing in the USHL after committing to the Wolverines in 2013, the Tri-City Storm and Waterloo Blackhawks cut him before he eventually stuck with the Bloomington Thunder. This, though, is different. Lavigne is older, which means he has mental clarity he didn’t then. It also means there’s no light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a scholarship waiting for him.
He can’t point to a moment in the last two years when things flipped. During the 2018-19 season, he and Mann split time in net, and neither played particularly well. He worked with a coach during the summer to get better with the mental side of the game and came back feeling good. Before this season, Lavigne was an All-Big Ten honorable mention. Competing until one of the two goaltenders pulled ahead felt the logical path.
It never happened.
When asked about it, Lavigne laughed.
“There was the expectation that we were gonna battle for the starting position,” he said. “That being said, I didn’t play my first game until November. So …” He trailed off.
The simple fact of the matter is, Mann seized the job before Lavigne ever had a chance to compete for it. No one can say it was the wrong decision on Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s end — yet it’s clear Lavigne would’ve liked that chance. This is the delicate position he finds himself in as his college career nears its end. Unable to blame anyone, but frustrated nonetheless.
“I mean, it wasn’t even clear by opening night,” Lavigne said. “It was just weekend and weekend at the start of the year, and then eventually, I didn’t get to play. So then it was the role that I was in.”
He doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that his career reached its high point two years ago, nor the reality that a chance to top it isn’t in sight. He says it’s not a big deal, though of course it is — if not for the Michigan hockey team, then certainly for him personally.
“It was hard,” Lavigne said. “I’m a competitive person, like I want to play. I want to win. So that was a tough thing to kinda get used to. At the same time, early in the year, I was preparing thinking that I was gonna get that opportunity. I was gonna eventually get my share of those games. And then that kept me focused the first little bit.
“And then now it’s just the idea that I’m playing for my next year, or if anything does happen this year. So that keeps me focused now.”
The cold, hard reality is that all he can do is show up each night and take his spot next to Mayotte, staying ready in case an opportunity comes.
Sears can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethan_sears.