MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Gophers junior goalie Jack LaFontaine was in good spirits on Tuesday, Oct. 29, despite his coach bringing another netminder out on the ice for half of the team’s practice. LaFontaine joked that there is more competition for the team’s starting goalie job after a surprise appearance on the 3M Arena at Mariucci ice.
“Coach had to sit me down after practice, because I had a little bit of a panic attack,” LaFontaine said, with a sly smile. “I guess this is judgement week for me.”
In reality, LaFontaine can relax, as the team’s “fourth goalie” only lasted about half of a practice, then took off his helmet and delivered a motivational speech of the type normally heard across the street at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturdays.
There were a few gasps on Tuesday when Gophers hockey coach Bob Motzko announced that a new goalie would be trying out for the team, and football coach PJ Fleck stepped onto the ice in full goalie gear, wearing a white Gophers sweater with his name and No. 1 on the back.
“I did have some glove saves — I think that’s what you call them,” Fleck said afterward, admitting that he had dropped his goalie stick at one point and was unable to pick it up.
It was the second time that Fleck has practiced with a college hockey team during his football coaching career. When he was at Western Michigan, he donned the goalie pads at the invitation of Broncos’ hockey coach Andy Murray, and when Motzko made a similar invitation, Fleck jumped at the chance.
“I think he had more fun than anybody,” Motzko said. “And it was great, our guys responded.”
Although Motzko admitted abbreviating the on-ice time after a few players were whistling head-high wrist shots at the football coach.
“I couldn’t believe they were all going for the upper corner. He’s not a big guy and I worried he was going to take one in the neck and we were going to knock him down,” Motzko said. “One of the guys put one over the bar and three guys put it right under the bar. That’s why I cut 'er short. That’s a hockey player.”
Fleck gathered the team in one corner of the net and recounted his love for the Chicago Blackhawks while growing up near Chicago. He also delivered a message about the challenge of having a young roster. The hockey Gophers currently have 19 freshmen and sophomores. Similarly, Fleck’s team last year started 13 freshmen, but beat arch-rival Wisconsin on the road and won a bowl game.
“There are two things I took out of it: Don’t be afraid to be young, and run to the fire,” Motzko said.
With the Gophers currently holding an 8-0 record and ranked 13th in the nation, the players listened intently, even if they weren’t afraid to shoot for the upper corners when Fleck was in the net.
“Coach Fleck doesn’t do anything half speed. So he told us to lay into him,” Gophers co-captain Tyler Nanne said. “He had a few saves and let a few in. Ultimately it was a good day.”
Walker getting rare sin bin time
After winning the Mr. Hockey Award two seasons ago, and being named the Big Ten’s top freshman last season, it’s not a surprise to see Sammy Walker leading the conference in two categories six games into his sophomore campaign.
The surprise comes when one realizes those categories are penalties (six) and penalty minutes (23).
“You look back even last year and I think I’ve doubled it,” Walker said. He had eight penalties for 16 minutes in all of his freshman season, but got a major penalty for contact to the head in the Gophers’ first win of the season, two weeks ago at Colorado College. “It’s mostly that one penalty from the second game. I’ve got to work on that better. I’m not trying to get penalties; it’s just flukes. I’m going hard and maybe just getting in there too hard.”
His coach notes that Walker is always going full speed, and is attracting more attention from opponents, which has led to some of the penalty box time.
“Highly competitive young man, and people are focusing on him a little bit,” Motzko said. “Those minutes are going to come down.”
Walker is taking the early referee attention in stride, and joked that he’s made a new friend as a result.
“I’ve gotten to know the guy in the box here pretty well,” he said. “When I go in there it’s, ‘Hey, good to see you again.' "
It should be noted that Walker also leads the Gophers in goals (four) and points (seven) after the first half-dozen games.