The story of Alec Richards ’09 began in Robbinsdale, Minn., a state with a proud ice hockey tradition that has produced many collegiate champions and NHL stars. As a goaltender from the tender age of 9, Richards dreamed of being part of the tradition. In five years at Breck high school, Richards flourished as he led his team to the state class ‘A’ title in 2004, capping his senior year by winning the Frank Brimsek Award as the top senior goaltender in the state of Minnesota.

Many expected Richards to follow up on his high school success in the United States Junior Hockey League like some other NHL prospects, but Richards thought he was ready for the collegiate scene — so he opted to join Yale’s hockey program, which struggled to a 5-25-2 record last season. While others may have doubted the wisdom of this decision, Richards has never looked back.

“The coaching staff made contact with me early and maintained a great relationship with me throughout the recruiting process,” Richards said. “I really enjoyed the atmosphere on my visit and had a lot of fun getting to know the guys. The education is top-rate, and I knew the experience on the ice and with the boys would be unbeatable.”

The Bulldogs were in for a bit of a surprise when they met Richards, who is the tallest goalie head coach Tim Taylor has ever worked with. Called “reed-thin” by critics, Richards does not fit the classic dimensions of memorable goalies like Rangers great and Yale goaltending coach Mike Richter or Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche, who are stockier than Richards. The young goaltender certainly had to prove himself to his teammates — especially veteran Yale goalies Josh Gartner ’06 and Matt Modelski ’07.

Richards wasted no time establishing himself as a presence in the league. In nine weeks, he has been named ECACHL Goalie of the Week twice and Rookie of the Week three times. Although Richards’ overall record stands at 6-7-3, the Bulldogs (7-11-3, 6-7-2) are 6-3-2 in league games that Richards starts.

The team, picked to finish 11th, is currently sixth in the league after tying Cornell, the fifth-ranked team in the nation, behind Richards’ 29 saves. Helping the team climb back from a 0-6 start in league games, Richards has posted big wins at home against Harvard and a shutout against Rensselaer. Already, the Elis have doubled their league point total from a year ago.

Defenseman David Inman ’09 said he thinks Richards boosts his teammates’ confidence when he is in the net.

“He’s proven that he can be the best goalie in the league night in and night out,” Inman said. “It’s good to know that we’ve got someone back there to make a save if we need it.”

Inman’s assessment is supported by league statistics. In league games, largely excluding games against Minnesota-Duluth — in which Richards received an ice-cold welcome home to the tune of 11 goals in two lopsided games — Richards ranks second in save percentage with a stellar .922 and sixth in goals against average at 2.63 goals per game.

At the same time, Richards said he has confidence in the Bulldogs’ team defense, which has made great strides since the beginning of the season. As a goalie, Richards said he understands the relationship between himself and skaters.

“As a goalie your main job is to stop the puck,” Richards said. “I view it as an exciting challenge every game and I try to do my part to help my team win games. I have a lot of confidence in everybody’s ability in front of me, so it makes my job a lot easier.”

Judging from occasional post-game on-ice celebrations he calls “cellies,” Richards clearly feeds off the big game energy, especially at home.

“It’s always easier to play in big games because the emotion really drives me to want to succeed,” Richards said. “Every league game is important for the standings, and it’s impossible not to get excited when playing in front of the home crowd at Ingalls.”

Despite his intensity and passion on the ice, before games and outside the rink, Richards is just “Al” to his friends. Low-key and easy-going, Richards said he relaxes by watching “The OC” or listening to music. He said Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys,” of “Top Gun” fame, is probably his favorite song at the moment.

Despite Richards’ youth, he has gained valuable experience from bumpy starts in Minnesota and hard overtime defeats at Colgate, Nebraska and Harvard. He showed precocious poise in each game despite facing at least 10 more shots than the opposing goaltender. Under the tutelage of Taylor and Richter, Richards has a unique chance to develop over the next four years.