Gophers' Bob Motzko: Losing Jack LaFontaine to NHL 'came out of left field'
MINNEAPOLIS - Bob Motzo was watching the Minnesota Vikings take on the Chicago Bears on Sunday in the season finale for both teams, when his phone rang.
It wasn’t news he wanted to hear. Jack LaFontaine, his top goaltender and an All-American last season, was leaving the team to sign a professional contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. College players with draft rights to NHL teams typically sign deals after a season, but not in this situation. The Hurricanes are dealing with injuries and COVID-19 issues, and need a goalie.
The Gophers haven’t had a player leave during the season to sign a professional contract since Kyle Okoposo did it 15 years ago.
"That came out of left field. I was in the second quarter of the Viking game when I got the call. They were losing. When I was done with the news, they were winning," Motzko joked. "You lose a player like that, bad timing. You don’t want to lose anybody. But Jack, he did a lot of great things for us here. Are we happy? No. But it’s gone."
It happened just hours after the Gophers finished off a weekend sweep at Michigan State to improve to 12-8 on the season, 8-4 in Big Ten play. LaFontaine played in 20 games with a .900 save percentage and a 2.69 goals against average.
"It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Obviously I’ve worked my entire life for this opportunity. Minnesota is a place where I grew as an individual, I grew my game as a hockey player and obviously that was difficult to say goodbyes," LaFontaine said. "This opportunity doesn’t come around very often. An opportunity like this to play for an organization like Carolina is just too good to pass up."
That’s after winning the Mike Richter Award last year for being the top goaltender in college hockey, being a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year.In 29 games during the 2020-21 season, LaFontaine went 22-7 with a .924 save percentage and 1.79 goals against average. He tied for the top save percentage in college hockey, and finished with five shutouts.
Motzko said the team will deal with it like they do any player that’s not available the rest of the season. He clearly wasn’t happy about losing LaFontaine.
"You deal with it like an injury. It can happen in sports at any moment. You have to adapt and move on, and that’s what we have to do right now. We play Alaska this week, Michigan, they don’t care. They want to beat you, this is sports so we’ve got to move on," Motzko said.
LaFontaine’s departure is a chance for Justen Close, who has 20 saves in six games this season, about 28 minutes of game action.
If losing the top goalie wasn’t enough, Motzko has four players and one staffer dealing with COVID-19 issues. He’ll also lose a few players to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, which start in about three weeks. With no NHL players competing, the Gophers will have at least a couple on the roster.
The Gophers take a four-game win streak into this weekend’s series against Alaska at 3M at Mariucci Arena.
BEN MEYERS EARNS BIG TEN FIRST STAR OF THE WEEK
After a five-point weekend at Michigan State, junior captain Ben Meyers was named the Big Ten First Star of the Week on Tuesday. Meyers had four goals and an assist on the weekend.
Including a pair of exhibition games, Meyers had a nine-point week that included seven goals as the Gophers won four games in a seven-day span. Meyers leads the Gophers with 23 points in 20 games this season.
"He’s awful special. He’s got it shifting into gear right now," Motzko said.