It was the biggest game in the century-long history of Yale hockey. Starting in goal last March for a squad dreaming of a national championship was Ryan Rondeau ’11, an almost forgotten player who had sat on the bench for the past four months after allowing five goals on just 19 shots in November 2009.
Despite North Dakota being clear favorites in the NCAA tournament’s Northeast Regional, Rondeau stonewalled the Fighting Sioux for 60 minutes. His 34 saves on 36 shots ensured that Yale advanced to the next round against Boston College with a spot in the Frozen Four on the line.
Against Boston College, though, Rondeau collapsed. The eventual national champions scored on him five times in less than two periods. One of their goals was a bouncing, 170-foot clearing attempt that took an inexplicable bounce past Rondeau and into the net. Minutes later, head coach Keith Allain ’80 pulled his starting goalie for Billy Blase ’10, but the goals kept coming. Boston College won 9–7 and the Elis’ season was over.
Many fans pinned the responsibility for the loss on the goalies, and on Rondeau especially. His teammates did not.
“The goalie is a part of the team,” said captain and defenseman Jimmy Martin ’11. “You’d never blame him. It’s not in our mindset. We win as a team and we lose a team.”
Moreover, Martin added, he had complete faith in Yale’s goaltenders heading into the offseason. All three returning netminders — Rondeau, Nick Maricic ’13 and Jeff Malcolm ’13 — had demonstrated they could step up and lead the team. But none had done so for an extended period of time. All season, Allain rotated among his goalies and stayed tight-lipped about his choices in net.
That strategy may have ended along with Yale’s 2009-2010 season.
Rondeau stayed on campus all summer to work out with his teammates. After team lifts, he continued to do individual drills geared toward goalies. And on the second night of the season, that work paid off.
Malcolm looked shaky at times during Yale’s season opener against Brown. The Elis won, but it was Rondeau whose name the announcer called the next night. And the next. And the next.
Since then, the resident of Carvel, Alberta — population 19 — has started all but one of Yale’s games and has won every single one of them.
“It was like he said, ‘Let me put the harness on my back a little bit and really work to carry this team,’” said associate head coach Kyle Wallack.
Carrying the team has meant winning every one of his starts so far and amassing a 13-0 record, the only perfect mark in the country. Rondeau has not allowed more than two goals in a game since Nov. 20. In December, he became the first Yale goalie in twelve years to record two consecutive shutouts. And the impressive statistics go on: his goals against average ranks second in the country and his save percentage, fourth.
Rondeau says he has learned to pay less attention to his own statistics as he has grown older and moved through the levels of amateur hockey. Three years after Rondeau left home in 2004 to play junior hockey, Yale started recruiting him as he minded the net for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League. The school did not have to make a tough sell.
“As a 20-year old playing junior hockey, [Yale] was kind of a no-brainer,” Rondeau, now 24, said.
The political science major’s collegiate hockey career has not been quite as straightforward as his application process. He started the first game of his freshman year, and promptly gave up six goals on only 21 shots.
Rondeau started only five games during his sophomore season, but managed to beat three nationally ranked teams in the process. He won ECAC Goalie of the Week honors in the first weekend of his junior season, sat out for months, and then returned to action in the NCAA tournament.
“He’s been through every experience you can play through,” said Wallack, who played goalie during his undergraduate years at Springfield. “He was thrown to the wolves a little bit, but he’s come out strong.”
Rondeau says that most of the strength he has acquired is mental. He says that, during his time on the bench, he did not focus on whether or not he was going to play, and instead strove to mentally prepare as best he could for when he did play.
That focus may have served him well in Allain’s merry-go-round of goaltenders last year.
“In college hockey often you put a goalie in and if he struggles a little bit, you put another guy in and see if he runs with it,” said Wallack.
For now, there seems to be little possibility that the merry-go-round resumes turning. Rondeau, whose teammates have voted him most likely to become a head hockey coach, is threatening to post the best statistical season in the history of Yale hockey.
Rondeau’s new challenge is no longer earning playing time — it is stopping himself from growing complacent. But he is not worried.
“I’m never comfortable,” he said. “I’m always on edge. It’s just the way I play I guess.”