Early last Friday evening, Moose Younghans' cellphone suddenly buzzed with activity. Carl Fish, pride of St. Paul Johnson High School, had just scored his first goal for the Gophers.
"I got 22 text messages in three minutes when he scored that goal," said Younghans, the Governors boys' hockey coach.
Ditto for Bob Motzko, the Gophers men's hockey coach. "Once that puck went across the line, I think Coach Motzko had 20-some [messages]," said Garrett Raboin, one of Motzko's assistants.
And Fish's mom, Julia, was at 3M Arena at Mariucci to witness it. She said she wanted to rush the glass to celebrate, "but they wouldn't let us."
Fish, a freshman defenseman for the Gophers, fired a laser from the point over the right shoulder of Arizona State goalie Evan DeBrouwer. For Fish and the Johnson hockey community, it carried the added message of perseverance and hard work getting rewarded.
"I can't really describe the feeling," said Fish, who also had two assists the previous day for his first career points. "Give me a day or two to figure it out, and I'll get back to you."
A day or two later, he kept it in perspective.
"The goal was pretty awesome to say the least," Fish said. "I just love that the team is winning, and that's all that matters now."
Long route to the U
Fish's path to Dinkytown wasn't exactly smooth. He burst upon the scene as a prep freshman, when he scored two goals, including the game-winner with less than a minute left, in Johnson's victory over Luverne on "Hockey Day Minnesota" in 2015. Then came a series of injuries — broken collarbone as a freshman, knee surgery as a sophomore to repair meniscus and reconstruct an ACL, and a second knee surgery following his junior season.
"Most guys would've given up," Younghans said, "but that's not in his character."
Fish grinded through the rehab, a fitting response for someone from St. Paul's blue-collar East Side.
"Growing up there, everything you do, you take pride in," Fish said. "You never do anything easy; you always challenge yourself. We don't back down from any challenges."
The next challenge for Fish after completing his prep career with the Governors was finding a place to play. Few junior teams had contacted him. After a tryout, he finally landed with the Bismarck (N.D.) Bobcats of the North American Hockey League.
During his first season in Bismarck, 2018-19, Fish had to adjust his style of play and finished with one goal and eight assists in 55 games. "In high school, my coaches gave me a lot of free rein to go up and down the ice quite a bit," he said. "Up in Bismarck, you don't get to do that too often."
The following season, Fish's game took off. He earned power-play time and had five goals and 19 assists in 39 games. A broken jaw, though, cost him six weeks.
Julia Fish was at the game in St. Cloud when Carl took a puck to his jaw. "He came back and played the second and third periods," she said. "I didn't know he had broken his jaw. After the game, I said, 'You need to come home with me.' He said, 'Mom, I'm not going home with you. I've gotta go with the team.' It just shows he was ready to move on."
College recruiters, including Raboin, took notice of the 6-3, 215-pound Fish in Bismarck. And it was as much for his leadership — he was a two-year captain at Johnson — as it was for his play.
"Whenever we inquired about Carl, the first thing that came to mind was the type of leader and character he is," Raboin said. "Both coaches stamped him as, 'He will wear a letter at the University of Minnesota. There's no doubt about that.' That goes a long way. We rely heavily on coaches we trust in high school and junior hockey."
Coming full circle
Carl's parents, Tom and Julia, are Gophers season ticket-holders, so when Fish was offered a scholarship last January, the family's dream came true. "I mean, coming to play for my hometown team, I just couldn't say no," Fish said.
His presence with the Gophers also is a source of pride for Johnson High, once a state tournament power, winning championships in 1947, '53, '55 and '63. The legendary Herb Brooks helped the Govies win the 1955 title. Johnson has played in 22 state tournaments, the last in 1995. Fish is the first former Johnson player to skate for the Gophers since Barry Tallackson in 2005.
Fish is not only playing for the Gophers, he also is filling a key role. Flush with high-end offensive defensemen, Minnesota uses both Fish and the 6-1, 190-pound Matt Staudacher to supply some brawn. "They're willing to do the heavy lifting in the defensive zone, take more contact and let our scatbacks go to work," Raboin said.
Last Friday, though, Fish found a bit of the spotlight with his first career goal. It set off a raucous celebration on the bench, in the stands and on St. Paul's East Side.
"Oh my gosh, it was so exciting," said Julia Fish, who attended the game with her husband and two other family members in a crowd limited to 150 because of COVID-19.
Younghans promised that Fish's rooting section will be much bigger when safety measures allow.
"I told Bob [Motzko], 'As soon as they open the gates, the East Siders are going to be over there,' " Younghans said. "He's absolutely a wonderful kid.''