Goaltenders balance pressure and performance

Freshman goaltender Jack LaFontaine's path to becoming a goaltender began when he was six years old.

Freshman goaltender Jack LaFontaine's path to becoming a goaltender began when he was six years old. Buy this photo
Zoey Holmstrom/Daily
Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - 8:41pm

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There’s no straight path to becoming a goaltender — no rulebook, no schedule written in stone. It’s just a little bit different for everyone.  

For freshman Jack LaFontaine, it started during a birthday party one day when he was six. There was a group playing road hockey, and the makeshift goaltender before him hadn’t been doing well — “He was getting shelled,” LaFontaine said — so they put him in the net.

It didn’t seem like much at the time, but his stint in front of the net started a passion for hockey that would drive him to want to play competitively. After two years of badgering his dad, LaFontaine finally started playing organized hockey. At 12, he started to take it seriously, working out in the summers and playing more and more.

Now, he’s a goaltender for Michigan.

LaFontaine — along with senior Zach Nagelvoort and freshman Hayden Lavigne — make up Michigan’s starting rotation for goaltender.

Often viewed as a player that can make or break a game, goaltending comes with tremendous pressure. Goaltenders have to be competitive, have to be focused and have to be responsive.

They also have to truly want to be the person facing the tough shots.

“They obviously want to get hit with the puck,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “It’s an unusual position, but they know that there is a reward for that. As far as the technical part of goal, you have to be a good skater, you’ve got to be mentally tough. If you give up a bad goal — and everyone in the building knows it, your teammates know it — it’s not like you can take the puck and go down and get it back. You can’t score a goal; you just have to worry about the next shot. It’s a mentally demanding position as well as a physically demanding position.”

Padded up in protective gear, goaltenders are faced with the ultimate challenge of guarding the net generally from five opposing players.  

When a team’s offense is at the other end of the ice, goaltenders are left alone in their defensive zone, tracking the puck for any potential scoring chances. Sometimes, it can be easy to forget about the other goaltender when the action is at the opposite end of the ice.

But sometimes the player that’s left all alone in the crease can be the one that pulls a team together.

“When we had Shawn Hunwick, he was our third goalie,” Berenson said. “And nobody ever expected he would play, but when he did play, the team played so hard for him because they liked him so much. He worked so hard and got no credit and no opportunity. When he finally got to play, they couldn’t play hard enough for Shawn.”

After replacing the 2009-10 goaltender, Bryan Hogan, due to an injury, Hunwick wound up leading his team to a CCHA Tournament title and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.

But even with team support, it can be difficult to handle the pressure of the position. Many often express that a goaltender’s job is mostly mental. As the last string of defense before a puck goes in the net, it’s easy to blame goaltenders for goals.

“If I have an office job, and I’m working from nine to five, and I make six mistakes that day, it’ll probably go unnoticed unless I bring them up to someone and say, ‘Hey, can you help me with these?’ ” Nagelvoort said. “If I go and play goalie and I make two mistakes, and the other team only makes one, we lose that game.

“It’s being able to keep yourself mentally strong, and knowing that you’re going to make mistakes almost every night. (NHL goaltender) Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t get shutouts every game. The best goalies that have played the game get scored on in probably the majority of the games they play. It’s making peace with that in your head.”

The pressure put on a goaltender is almost unparalleled. When a team wins, most look to the lead scorer or forwards for credit. But when a team loses, no matter by how much, goaltenders are often left to shoulder the burden.

But for some, the pros outweigh the cons. For LaFontaine, it’s what motivated him to abandon road hockey for the real deal. And it’s what makes putting up with the work and the pressure so appealing.

“After a win, when everyone comes to your crease, they’re pouring off the benches and they give you a little tap on the helmet,” LaFontaine said. “It’s nothing big, not like a massive hug, it’s just a little tap on the helmet and it’s the most rewarding feeling in the world. When you’re just lying across your crossbar and everyone is saying, ‘Hey, good job,’ it’s the best feeling ever.”