The pattern has existed forever in team sports. An extremely vital player will be lost for an upcoming game, or perhaps the remainder of the season, and the media and public will be assured by coaches and teammates that they have full confidence in the replacement.
The best the Packers could do when non-vaxxed quarterback Aaron Rodgers was revealed to have COVID and thus would miss a Nov. 7 game was to say of unused backup Jordan Love:
"We're, ah, umm, ah … confident, maybe, that he can handle it."
And then as the coaches, teammates and fanatics suspected, Love stunk it out, nullifying a tremendous Packers defensive effort in a 13-7 loss at Kansas City.
I don't think we can declare a goaltender to be as important to success as an NFL quarterback. Although that position would be the closest you're going to come in big-time team sports now that the starting pitcher has been turned into an afterthought.
Bob Motzko, in season four with the Gophers and season 17 as a head coach in Division I men's hockey, said:
"A team is not assured of winning because it has an excellent goalie. What is assured is that if you have an average goalie, you're not going to win."
Jack LaFontaine made 25 starts compared to 12 for Jared Moe for the Gophers in the COVID-halted 2019-20 season. Justen Close, a freshman from Kindersley, Saskatchewan, basically watched.
Moe started only twice, both against Arizona State, in 2020-21, as LaFontaine became the Mike Richter Award winner as the national collegiate goalie of the year. Close watched again.
LaFontaine announced last spring that he would use the free COVID season to return for 2021-22. Moe quickly transferred to Wisconsin.
Close stuck around for his third season and started in two exhibitions, vs. St. Thomas and the U.S. 18-under team.
And then it happened: On Jan. 9, a Sunday immediately after a sweep over Michigan State, Motzko was informed that LaFontaine was signing a contract to immediately report to the Carolina Hurricanes, the team that had drafted him in the third round of the 2016 draft.
This left Close, after appearances in four actual games in 2 ½ seasons, as the goaltender. Motzko and his athletes assured media visitors that week of their confidence in "Closer."
A half-century of listening to athletes and coaches in these circumstances made me skeptical.
This week, I was talking with Motzko outside the locker rooms at Mariucci and said: "All those words of confidence from you and the players six weeks ago on Close … you weren't lying."
Motzko offered a quick, disapproving look and said: "Justen is a phenomenal young man. He had waited halfway into a third season, while putting in the same work as if he was the No. 1 goalie.
"Everyone on this team — everyone — was excited to have him get his shot. I talked with the players for 30 seconds on Jack leaving, and they didn't need more than that. They were ready to go with Closer."
The Gophers split a nonconference series with Alaska, then split Big Ten series with Michigan and Notre Dame, and now they head into this weekend here vs. Wisconsin riding the momentum of three consecutive sweeps (lowly Michigan State, at Ohio State and at Penn State).
The first five of those wins came without Olympians Ben Meyers, Brock Faber and Matthew Knies. All six came with Close. His goals-against average is 2.00 and his save percentage is .924.
Not bad for a goalie who hadn't really played since he left western Saskatchewan after three seasons with his hometown junior team, the Kindersley Klippers.
How big is home? "About 4,500," Close said. "If you're trying to find us, we're two hours south of Turtleford, which has a statue of Ernie, Canada's largest turtle."
Did the Gophers find you or did you find the Gophers? "They found me," Close said. "[Gophers assistant] Ben Gordon saw me at a showcase event during my last season and said they were interested."
Three years is end-of-the-line in juniors. Were you starting to wonder? "My goal was to play high-level college hockey, and I always felt that would happen," he said.
The first player LaFontaine told on Jan. 9 that he was going pro was Close.
"Jack could've told me by text, but he's not that type of person," Close said. "He called and said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Not busy,' and he said, 'I'm coming over. I have something to tell you.'
"And that was it."
LaFontaine played twice for the Hurricanes, was shelled for seven goals in his one start, and is now the backup goalie for the Chicago Wolves in the AHL.
Close was put on the Richter "watch list" this week. He's unlikely to charge past Minnesota State Mankato's tremendous Dryden McKay, as LaFontaine somehow did last season, but there's now six weeks of evidence that all that confidence expressed in Close was not the usual bah, humbug.
"We were a bubble team for the NCAA tournament when Closer started playing," Motzko said. "We're still on the bubble, but our case has gotten much stronger."