Noah West wasn’t supposed to play at Michigan.
In the tumultuous past few seasons of college hockey, program growth and collapse remains a constant headline. But when those programs expand and contract, the pool of players does too. The Wolverines’ sophomore goaltender understands that reality well.
In the middle of an offseason workout last summer — after backstopping the Robert Morris University men’s hockey team to an Atlantic Hockey Western Pod title — West joined a mandatory Zoom call with his team. He couldn’t have predicted what he was about to hear.
“(Robert Morris President) Chris Howard hopped on the call, and he goes ‘We decided to cut men’s and women’s hockey,’ ” West told The Daily. “And so I kind of figured my time with that meeting was over and left it in the middle of my workout. I had to make a few phone calls to get everything situated and (do) what I needed to do to get in the transfer portal.”
After committing to the Colonials for four years, West was out of a home after only one. Thankfully, a school to the west expressed interest in his services.
The last thing a coach wants to think about is shipping their players off to another school, but it became a grim reality for Robert Morris men’s hockey coach Derek Schooley and his coaching staff when both RMU hockey programs were cut. Forced to find homes for his players, the school’s hockey coaches reached out to their networks to find places for their players.
Thankfully for the players, there were plenty of suitors. Three members of the women’s team transferred to Ohio State — who won the 2022 National Championship — and four members of the men’s team played for schools that made the men’s NCAA Tournament.
“There were a lot of players that found good homes,” Schooley said. “The biggest objective that we had when this all happened was to find a really good home for our players.”
But some homes were easier to find than others, and finding new programs for goaltenders like West proved difficult.
With COVID-19 eligibility policies allowing some athletes another year to play, many programs opted to give fifth-year seniors and graduate students — who had already proven themselves season after season against stiff competition — the opportunity to play another season.
For West, an Atlantic Hockey All-Freshman goaltender and second team All-Atlantic selection, the abundance of older goalies at other schools stood as a roadblock. It didn’t matter that he had proven himself the season prior — he still had to stack up against the field.
But West caught the eye of one coach: Michigan associate head coach Bill Muckalt.
Muckalt was looking for a third goaltender to round out the Wolverines’ roster. Drawing on references from coaches and owners he had worked with in the North American Hockey League, Muckalt heard rave reviews about West not only as a goaltender, but as a person.
“They were extremely complimentary,” Muckalt said. “And then I talked to Mike Corbett, who was with him for a year (at Robert Morris), and he spoke very highly of him.”
And Corbett’s words mattered. He and Muckalt went back more than 20 years, and their trust built throughout that long friendship played a role in conversations about West. With Corbett’s similar unfortunate experience relocating players when his program at Alabama-Huntsville shut down in 2020, there was hardly a better source for Muckalt to confer with.
“Billy knew what I felt about Noah as a player, as a kid, how he was in the locker room,” Corbett said. “I’m not selling Billy a bag of goods.”
Of course, Michigan’s needs directed its interest toward West.
Erik Portillo had all but locked down the starting job, and he was expecting to play the lion’s share of minutes. Committing to Michigan meant West would have to battle for every minute of ice time he might play.
Muckalt and Michigan coach Mel Pearson were up front about the expectations. They needed a quality backup who understood his role would entail sitting on the bench most nights on standby. With injuries and other obstacles never quite out of the picture, having a backup like West — and his pedigree as a quality goalie — mattered.
And as West considered his options, he felt prepared for that situation. With all the boxes checked, West packed his bags and made the 275-mile trek to Ann Arbor.
When West arrived at Michigan, the situation Muckalt and Corbett had discussed came to fruition. It was Portillo’s job to lose, and West was stuck below him on the depth chart.
Of course, only one goaltender can take the ice at a time. Whereas a team can work in an extra forward or defenseman here and there throughout the season, working multiple goaltenders into the rotation can be difficult.
“You’re always taking extra shots, whether it’s before practice or after practice,” Muckalt said. “And it takes a special characteristic makeup — a special breed if you will — just to endear yourself to your teammates and work hard in practice.”
That’s where the personality traits that Muckalt cared so much about showed up. West had no problem going the extra mile to fit in with his new team. While circumstances took away his original home with Robert Morris, he had no trouble laying down roots with Michigan.
Part of that stems from West’s character. Speaking to any of West’s coaches — past and current — yields the same message about his team-centered play: There’s hardly a better player to have in a locker room.
“I think he really has the respect of the guys in the locker room,” Muckalt said, noting that senior goaltender Jack Leavy earned the same praise. “… To have those guys fill in and help our team every day in practice and the culture of our locker room, those are all great things.”
West accepted that role with gusto. When the season began, he was on the bench manning the doors and hyping up his teammates. He was a Colonial, but a Wolverine too.
As expected, West didn’t see much ice time. To say Portillo put up an impressive season is an understatement, as he earned recognition as a Big Ten Goaltender of the Year finalist and a Mike Richter Award semifinalist.
More importantly, though, Portillo started every single game in the 2021-22 season. Even after Portillo faced limited practice abilities for more than a week during winter break, he came right back to the starting spot in a Great Lakes Invitational matchup with Michigan Tech. Most teams would have gone with the backup option, but instead West sat patiently on the bench. It was Portillo’s job, and the Wolverines chose to roll with him.
West did get some backup ice time, recording 11 saves in about 30 minutes of relief throughout the season. He offered calmness and poise in two of Michigan’s worst losses — a November defeat by Minnesota and an ugly fisticuffs with Ohio State in December. It wasn’t the kind of playing time he got with the Colonials, but it was playing time he earned through all the long practices and training sessions.
And the fact that West earned his playing time was no surprise to those familiar with him.
Still, West remains undeterred about his limited playing time. He knows why Muckalt and Michigan picked him up as a transfer. He understands his role.
“It wasn’t easy,” West said. “But at the same time, I was able to gain a lot of knowledge from a lot of great players here. I was able to improve my game tremendously and, at the end of the day, as long as I continue to work, I hope more opportunities will come.”
The coaching staff shares those sentiments. After all, they knew who he was when they called Schooley and Corbett last summer.
“Obviously Erik is the guy,” Muckalt said. “But I think at some point, Noah needs an opportunity to play. So at some point, what do you say as a coach? You say ‘Play better, you’ll play more’ and as a player you say ‘play me more, I’ll play better.’ ”
Muckalt doesn’t believe West needs to change anything about his play. Eventually, the playing time will come. He might have ridden the bench for most of the season, but his value as a player is more than just what he shows during games. It also comes from the work ethic he shows in training and the way he carries himself around the rink.
West’s role should increase in the near future. He and Portillo are the only returning goaltenders currently assigned to Michigan’s roster, while Tyler Shea will enter as a freshman after a late signing out of the BCHL. With his experience from Robert Morris and his character everywhere he has played, West will likely get the lion’s share of backup minutes for the Wolverines.
But that role could grow even more. It’s possible that Portillo will test the NHL waters after next season, meaning West would compete with 2023-commit Trey Augustine — Team USA’s starter in the U18 World Junior Championship — for starts. In either situation, though, West’s role will undoubtedly grow compared to his ample time on the bench this season.
No matter how the rest of his career unfolds at Michigan, West’s time with the Colonials will always remain a part of him. But as the Robert Morris programs near triumphant returns, West is staying put at Michigan. Still, West keeps close to his Colonial connections — especially with Schooley.
“(Schooley is) kind of just a coach that I’ll probably always keep in touch with,” West said. “Just because he’s given me an opportunity that has turned into much more.”
And as West embarks on his second season in Ann Arbor, that opportunity is still growing.