Kevin O’Malley, Gregg Malicke and Chris Gordon. They are names that Michigan freshman Noah Ruden may not know off hand, but they are part of a newly formed list that he has joined: Four-year backup goaltenders to prominent four-year starters.

J. Brady McCollough
Freshman goaltender Noah Ruden saw the ice for the third time this season Friday night.
J. Brady McCollough
Freshman backup goaltender Noah Ruden looks on from his normal seat on the bench. While there, he serves as an extra coach and a motivator for his teammates.

From 1999-to-2002, O’Malley played second fiddle to Josh Blackburn. The four years preceding that, Malicke was Marty Turco’s backup. And in the four-year era before that, Gordon was brought in as a freshman to be No. 2 behind Steve Shields.

Now, for the rest of this season and likely the three to follow, Ruden stands in the shadow of freshman phenom Al Montoya.

A cursed entrance

On Jan. 31, that shadow nearly disappeared when the Wolverines faced Ferris State – the CCHA’s No. 1 team. Just 3:20 into the Friday night game, Ferris State’s Chris Kunitz got Montoya to fall awkwardly as he scored his first goal of the weekend. While Kunitz and the rest of the Bulldogs celebrated, Montoya remained motionless on the ice.

All of Yost Ice Arena was focused on Montoya and whether he would get up. Well, all except equipment manager Ian Hume, who was preparing Ruden to go in against the conference’s highest-scoring squad.

Montoya got up, Yost cheered and Ruden’s stoic and focused look turned to one of relief for his teammate. But the night of worrying for Montoya’s health was not over. Later in the game, Montoya was knocked down, only to get up quickly and then fall over again as someone responding to a concussion would act. Again, Ruden’s face became emotionless, and he was prepared to go on the ice.

But, one more time, Montoya got up from his injury and finished off the 6-3 win.

So is the life of the backup goaltender. On one hand, he wants to play. On the other, he doesn’t want to see his teammate seriously injured.

“I hoped for our sake that he wasn’t hurt, because he’s been doing a good job for us and he’s been keeping us in all these games,” Ruden said. “But that’s what we’re prepared for. That’s why every game we’re dressed and we still have to be ready, because you never know what’s going to happen. God forbid he does get hurt, but I have to be ready at all times to jump in there, keep the team going and get a win if I have to.”

Until that unfortunate opportunity occurs, Ruden knows his role better than anyone else.

“Obviously, you want to play, so you just have to wait your time and with the way Al’s playing right now, you can’t expect anything else,” Ruden said. “If I was in there and I was doing what he’s doing, I wouldn’t expect not to play either. Whatever I can do to help this team win; if it’s me getting ice time and winning, that’s good. And if it’s me backing him up and pushing him, then that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

What Ruden has to do is something that he never experienced when he was younger.

“The best little brother”

Except for his days playing high school soccer, Ruden was someone who never saw much of the bench – even in soccer he saw much more playing time than the two games he’s appeared in for Michigan this season. But those who know Noah understand that he’s not above doing things for others if it makes them happy.

“We used to play school when we were younger and he was my student,” recalled Sarey Ruden, Noah’s sister – a graphic arts senior. “I would make actual books up and give him tests after he came home from school. I’d quiz him in math. It was little things. I had a restaurant in my room, and I’d feed him grilled cheese and make him pay for it in our own house. He was the best little brother, he’d be like, ‘Okay.’ He probably didn’t understand that he could go downstairs and make it himself, so he’d just sit there and pay for food.”

Though she no longer makes him play school or eat at her restaurant, Sarey enjoys pesteringher younger sibling when she can.

“I probably annoy him on the computer,” Sarey said. “I instant message him like four times a day … just to bother him and keep tabs.”

Don’t blame Sarey for trying to be in her brother’s everyday life. They’ve been essentially separated for the past three years, as she has been at Michigan since 1999 and Noah had been playing junior hockey in the Midwest for three years starting in 2000.

“When he started (juniors) was when I started college anyway, so it’s like I wasn’t going to be home,” she said. “But it’s definitely nice having him home for dinner when he comes home.”

There is one Sunday, though, that Sarey wasn’t exactly thrilled to see Noah. On Super Bowl Sunday, Noah invited Montoya and the rest of the freshmen to party at his West Bloomfield home.

“We sat there and we got away from the hockey world, got away from the dorms – it was a good dining experience,” Montoya said.

Sarey saw their “good dining experience” in a different light though.

“They ate all of our spaghetti,” said Sarey with a laugh. But she did admit that she likes the group of guys that Noah has chosen to associate himself with. “I see (the freshmen) together all the time. It’s cute.”

Though their parents got divorced when Noah was a one year old and Sarey was three years old, both parents lived and remarried in the West Bloomfield area and remained friends. The close friendship allowed both parents to play large roles in developing Noah in hockey and take Sarey to where she needed to be for her travel soccer team.

“(My dad) definitely pushed him, but only because he knew that Noah wanted to play hockey,” Sarey said. “It wasn’t like he was living through Noah – I joke that he is, but he’s just very supportive.

Noah’s ark to Michigan

It’s easy to think that Ruden could have gone to some other Division I school and been its starter, if not now, at least for the future. But the lure of the maize and blue is something that is not easily turned down.

“For starters, it’s Michigan and it’s tough to turn down Michigan when they come talking to you,” Ruden said. “They said to me that they had Montoya and that they had one spot open and ‘it’s going to be a battle and we want you to come out here and battle for it.’ I probably would regret if I ever turned down Michigan.”

The interesting thing is that he may have not had that offer to turn down had it not been for North Dakota goaltender Josh Siembida.

“We noticed him the year before … we actually went to watch a kid named Josh Siembida – who ended up going to North Dakota – but Noah played extremely well and might have beat him that game,” Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson said.

On Nov. 10, 2001, Ruden – playing for the Tri-City Storm – and Siembida – playing for the Waterloo Black Hawks – squared off in a 3-2 overtime shootout win for Siembida. Though Ruden didn’t win, he was perfect when the teams were even-strengthed and allowed just two powerplay goals, along with the shootout goal. The game was Ruden’s starting point on his road to Michigan.

After Pearson and assistant head coach Billy Powers liked what they saw, the two asked Michigan goaltending coach Stan Matwijiw if he had heard of Ruden. Sure enough, Matwijiw knew of Ruden from a few years earlier and Ruden was one season of juniors away from being a Wolverine.

“They’d mention names and ask me if I’d heard of guys and I’d mentioned to them that I had seen him play as a little kid, but I hadn’t seen him in many years,” Matwijiw said. “Noah plays a pretty simple game – which is good from a goalie standpoint – he doesn’t open up a lot of holes. When he comes across, everything is nice and tight. The biggest question mark with him would be outside of his crease. The closest guy to him would be (Montreal Canadians’ goaltender) Jose Theodore, being that he’s a left-handed goalie, and I think Noah moves very similar to him.”

Ruden finished 20-16-4 with a .903 save percentage for the Storm, and one of his most interesting highlights from the season actually came in the form of the backup role. Down 4-0 to the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, Ruden came in for goaltender Larry Sterling early in the second period. Ruden kept the RoughRiders off the board until his teammates were able to tie things up and force a shootout. Although Ruden did lose the shootout, he was 5-3 in them for the season.

“In juniors we go to shootouts after overtime, which is something the fans like and something personally I like,” said Ruden, who also enjoyed seeing Turco’s glove save to win this season’s NHL All-Star game in a shootout. “For a goalie, you can’t score that overtime winner, so that last save is our overtime winner.”

The waiting game continues

Until Ruden does get his chance to be in the limelight, his only chances to make those last saves come during the games that the Wolverines play after practice is over. Everything from one-on-none breakaways to wide-open slapshots are worked on by each player.

“We always like to get out there … they (the forwards and defensemen) get to work on stuff that may happen just once in a game and so do we, and it lightens the mood a little bit,” Ruden said.

For as laid back as Noah appears during those games and off the ice, he is very different when between the pipes in practice.

“I think Noah’s doing a good job. I think he’s learning even though he’s not playing every night,” head coach Red Berenson said. “And he’s realizing there’s actually more pressure on him than he probably thought there would be. There’s pressure on him to be ready to play, like the minute we have a problem with Al or a situation that calls for a change, then Noah has to be ready. I’ve told him, ‘Are you ready to make a difference or come in and save a game?’ Then on the other hand, he’s fighting and competing with (junior goaltender Chris) Gartman to be the backup goalie. So there’s a sense of competition that may not show up in the games.”

As for when he does dress for games – he and Gartman split time being the No. 2 goalie – Ruden is everything from a psychologist to another coach on the bench.

“Some of the players ask me on the bench during (the game) what weaknesses I see in the other goalies, and like what places they think they should shoot and what moves they should make,” Ruden said. “(Ferris State goaltender Mike) Brown was sitting far back in his crease and some of the guys asked me where to go and I said up high just because he was sitting back in his crease. And if you look at some of the goals we scored, Burnes’ first goal on (Jan. 31) and Kaleniecki’s goal were both top shelf.”

Just three times Ruden has appeared on the ice this season – in the later stages of blowout wins against Merrimack and Western Michigan, and Friday night when Montoya was pulled in Michigan’s 4-0 loss to Michigan State – and although it is better than nothing, he’d much rather be in there every night.

“Noah’s never been a backup goalie, so I’m sure he’s a little disappointed,” Sarey said. “But that’s part of what you get when you’re on a great team, and I know he’s happy, but I’m sure he wants more playing time too.

“He’s used to being the one who’s back there. I’m sure it’s just killing him sitting there, but he sets aside those emotions to do what he has to do.”

Because that’s what good teammates and brothers do.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *