To stand alone at the end of 200 feet of ice as a rookie takes the heart of a lion. That is exactly what the No. 13 men’s hockey team has in goaltender Alex Lyon ’17.
The freshman from Baudette, Minn. has established himself as the starter in Yale’s crease in the second half of the season. His impressive play thus far culminated in a shutout performance last Saturday night, earning the netminder honorable mentions for the ECAC Player, Goaltender and Rookie of the Week awards. Lyon has featured in 16 games this season and has posted the 17th best goals against average, 2.17, and 19th best save percentage, .923, in the nation.
“Alex is a very good goaltender,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “He does a very good job handling the puck, which helps us negate other teams’ forecheck. He can push the puck to a good guy, a defensive partner, so he’s kind of like a sixth skater back there, the way he handles the puck and relieves pressure from that standpoint. He’s very calm under pressure and for any hockey team, it’s nice when your goaltender is calm under pressure.”
Perhaps Lyon was destined for a career as a goaltender, one of the more isolated positions in sports. Rex, as he was known in high school, is used to being on an island, as he grew up off of mainland Minnesota until the age of six. His father and mother managed a fishing lodge on an island on the lake and Alex and his sister used a rowboat to get to their schoolhouse a few islands over.
The Lyons moved back to the mainland, where Alex began to play hockey, in 2000. Located right on the U.S.-Canada border, his hometown of Baudette, Minnesota nudges up against the Lake of the Woods, which contains more than 14,552 islands.
“Everyone played hockey up in Minnesota,” Lyon said. “My dad played but he was never serious about it and my parents never pushed me to play it. I just took it up and rolled with hockey from there.”
Despite his small town upbringing, Lyon’s ambitions could not be caged. He was noticed his junior year in high school and committed the following winter to Yale. Alex said that Yale, from which his father Tim graduated in 1981, offered a tantalizing combination of academics and top-notch hockey.
After winning the 2011 Frank Brimsek Award, given to the top senior goaltender in the state, Lyon relocated to Omaha, Neb. to play junior hockey. Despite the new level of play, Alex commented that he felt comfortable moving away from home.
“Playing hockey was something that I had expected I was going to do after high school,” Lyon said. “I got traded to Omaha after my senior year and I loved Omaha. There was a huge transition because [the United States Hockey League] is a really good league. I got fortunate to get put in such a good place and it really helped out. The players are faster and better and the game gets refined a little more every level you step up.”
The USHL was not always smooth sailing for Lyon. He was traded from the Cedar Rapids Rough Riders to Omaha. Once there, he had to cope with a highly publicized firing of then-head coach Bliss Littler.
Once he joined the Lancers, however, it did not take long for the goaltender to impress his coaching staffs and beat out his competition for the starting job, which included a two-year USHL veteran and a Boston College bound player. Current Omaha Lancers Head Coach and General Manager Brian Kaufman, an assistant coach during Lyon’s second year in Omaha, noticed Lyon’s roar the minute he saw him on the ice.
“He was a guy you watched in practice and saw that he didn’t want to give up a single goal,” Kaufman said. “He would face a couple hundred shots a day in practice but every shot he let in during practice was the end of the world. He had that obvious competitive nature. Anytime the puck was near his net before a drill he would dig it out because he didn’t like that image.”
That competitive nature helped Lyon adapt to the USHL, which he said represented a big step up in quality of play. He posted more than 26 wins and better than a .910 save percentage in both his seasons in the USHL. During his two seasons on the Omaha Lancers, the New Haven-bound netminder was a two-time team MVP and was named to a second team all-USHL member his second year.
It was not only the Minnesota native’s on-ice skill that impressed, though. Kaufman added that Lyon continually stood out with his off the ice character and humility despite his success.
“We didn’t feel having a goalie as our captain was the right thing for our team but for sure he was one of the leaders of our team,” Kaufman said. “The guys respected and liked him. He competes really hard and continually works on his game. There was nothing that he struggled at. In my opinion he was the best goaltender in our league last year. He was by far our biggest impact player and we felt confident every time he was in net we could win the game.”
Due to his character and determination, Kaufman added the coaching staff always knew Alex would succeed at the next level.
Part Two of “Heart of a Lion” will run in tomorrow’s sports page.