Justen Close came to the Gophers in 2019, the same time as Jack LaFontaine.
He watched as LaFontaine and Jared Moe split time in goal, with LaFontaine ultimately taking the No. 1 spot. Both Close and Moe sat on the bench last season while LaFontaine won the Mike Richter Award as the best collegiate goaltender.
When LaFontaine decided to return for another Gophers season, Moe transferred to Wisconsin and became the Badgers' main starter. But Close remained, with freshman Brennan Boynton joining him for a front-row seat to the LaFontaine show.
But the star suddenly dropped out of the production midway through the run, opting this past Sunday to join the Carolina Hurricanes, who moved him to their active roster Thursday. And just as abruptly, Close is no longer only an understudy.
The junior will start his first collegiate games this weekend against Alaska, after making a collective six appearances throughout his three seasons with the Gophers where his minutes don't even total a full 60-minute game.
Close was not made available for this story. But his teammates say he's prepared to evolve from backup to bigwig.
"Justen Close is beyond ready. He is a hard-working guy, and the boys love to play for him," LaFontaine said shortly before he left for North Carolina. "He's going to flourish in the opportunity that he has."
LaFontaine remarked on Close's composure in net, the calm presence he maintains. He's not one to panic or ratchet up tension. And since he is one of the older players on the team, the players have had a lot of time to build trust with him. That seemed to be the aspect most of the Gophers touched on when it came to Close — his relationship with his teammates. Coach Bob Motzko said his guys "love Closer" and will fight for him.
"He's been working so hard every single day in practice, and finally, it's his time," co-captain Sammy Walker said. "… He's a great guy, and he's always smiling. He's definitely one of my good friends. So it's exciting to see him be able to step in that new role and take on that responsibility."
Close also has taken on a mentorship role with Boynton, alongside LaFontaine. The freshman Boynton could ascend to the No. 2 job, though Motzko is working on bringing in a third goaltender before the school semester begins next week, which could be someone like 2022-23 commit Owen Bartoszkiewicz, whom the USHL recently named as a Player of the Week.
While Close might not have a ton of official collegiate experience, he did start and play every minute of two exhibition victories last week against St. Thomas and the U.S. Under-18 national team, stopping 38 of 43 total shots. And before joining the Gophers, the Canadian played three seasons in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, earning back-to-back league goaltender of the year awards in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Motzko said the Gophers are trying to treat LaFontaine's absence like any injury. It's unexpected and a bummer, but all they can do is move forward and rely on others to pick up the slack.
"This guy [Close] showed up the first day on campus and never said anything when he didn't play games. Just worked his butt off every day," co-captain Ben Meyers said. "His teammates absolutely love him, and he's a great goalie. And we can't wait to see how he does."