Two players both vying for one important starting position. Sounds familiar, right?
Unlike the quarterback dilemma of the football team, however, the men’s hockey team is doing just fine juggling their goalie situation, putting equal trust in Alec Richards ’09 and Billy Blase ’10.
“It’s no different from any other year,” head coach Keith Allain said. “On a game-by-game basis, I’ll decide who I think deserves to play.”
Although it is still early in the season, Allain’s plan has already boiled down to a platooning situation in which Richards and Blase have been alternating, each playing every other game. With no foreseeable plans to change this strategy in the near future, it looks like both will be playing one weekend game each.
While Richards and Blase are similar players in terms of their experience (each has started more than 25 games in a season), size (each weighs 190 pounds) and save percentage (each has a career average of about .905), they are by no means the same players.
Having grown up in the hockey-rich state of Minnesota, Richards has the accent and relaxed attitude of a hockey player. Self-described as a “happy-go-lucky guy,” Richards said he likes to “goof around and be the center of attention” when he is outside of the rink. During the games, though, he relishes the pressure that comes with being a goalie.
“You’re the last line of defense and have to make a big save — being there in a key moment is definitely the most exciting part [of the job],” Richards said.
Blase takes a far different approach to games. Whereas his teammate relaxes before games through his humor, Blase listens to music and, according to captain Matt Nelson ’09, “takes a little more serious approach [and] is a little more quiet.”
That is not to say that Blase does not have time to relax — or at least be superstitious. After all, why else does Blase juggle volleyballs (à la Jim Craig from the famous 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey team) in the locker room as part of his pre-game routine?
Richards and Blase also have different approaches when it comes to making saves in front of the net.
“We both play a blocking style … but Billy is probably a little bit more aggressive than I am,” Richards said.
Third-string goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11 also finds differences in Richards’ and Blase’s playing styles.
“Al uses more of his size and his natural ability and reflexes,” Rondeau said. “Bill challenges the opponents more and cuts down the angles.”
Despite these differences, having two styles of defense does not seem to faze the rest of the team.
“We don’t care who we have back there because we have faith in both of them,” Nelson said. “I feel that this is actually helping us right now because both goalies have been able to get in a groove where they know that they’re going to split every weekend.”
While Allain does not find this situation to be uncommon in college hockey, it is not something the team has had to deal with in recent years. Early last season Richards tore his hamstring, keeping him sidelined for much of the season and allowing then-sophomore Blase to gain a lot of experience on the ice.
“[Blase] was our go-to-guy last year, so after I came back from the injury I played a few games, but Billy was our guy and he played well,” Richards said.
But in the two seasons before last, it was Richards who filled that role, playing in 81 percent of the team’s minutes each season.
If Richards and Blase continue to alternate starts, Richards will get far less time on the ice as an upperclassman than he did as a freshman and sophomore, a rare situation for many college athletes.
But no matter the amount of time he gets to play, Richards says he is far more concerned with the team’s performance.
“[Blase and I] aren’t worried about our stats or playing the next game — we’re just worried about picking up a win,” he said. “ I think that if we rotated the rest of the year and we won a bunch of games, then I think we’d both be just as happy.”
Although Richards is a senior and will soon graduate, the hockey team may not be necessarily done with rotating goalies after this season ends.
Rondeau spent most of last season learning from watching Richards and Blase play. In Tuesday night’s game against UConn, Rondeau made his first start of the season, only allowing one goal in the Bulldogs’ 2-1 win.
The sophomore goalie does not expect to play as often as Richards and Blase, but who knows what the situation will be next year?
It could be another juggling act.