Before and after every practice, every game, the Gophers goaltender hunches over a Moleskine not much bigger than his palm and writes.
Jack LaFontaine has five journals in all, each to collect different thoughts — practice focuses, video review notes, postgame critiques. Pages upon pages stained with blue ink, neatly slanted cursive that his teammates tab “English major-type handwriting.”
LaFontaine gives that description a crooked grin. His penmanship is just one of many attributes that set the Shakespeare and Hemingway appreciator apart from the stereotypical stoic hockey player.
“If you write it, you do it,” is his ethos.
But LaFontaine never had the chance to fully manifest his script. His notebooks, same as the Gophers’ season, are unfinished. The coronavirus pandemic put an end to the postseason just before the Big Ten tournament semifinals a month ago. And now the team — which LaFontaine compared to his former Michigan squad that made a 2018 Frozen Four run — will never know what could have been.
“If we were a team that was on its last leg, it wouldn’t be such a big deal,” LaFontaine said. “… But the fact that I felt like everyone was coming around, the boys were all so positive. … You could see everything coming together.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Frozen Four was to begin Thursday in Detroit, with the two semifinals followed by the title game on Saturday. The Star Tribune’s Randy Johnson picked his 16-team NCAA tournament bracket anyway, with North Dakota, UMD, Minnesota State and Penn State making the Frozen Four. To see who wins, check out Friday’s edition of our free Puck Drop newsletter. Sign up for it here
Circumstances forced LaFontaine and the Gophers to look ahead prematurely, but that future is optimistic. The Gophers lose only three seniors and seem primed to continue their rebuilding momentum. LaFontaine should enter next season as the No. 1 choice in net, with Jared Moe, whom he split time with this past year, as backup.
But LaFontaine, 22, brings much more than solid play to the team. He’s become a charismatic leader, someone who has already preserved through tough breaks with smile and humor intact.
That’s remarkable, considering the Ontario native only joined the team this past August. He spent two seasons at Michigan, playing 22 games before the coaches encouraged him to spend a year in junior hockey. LaFontaine fell in the pecking order, he said, and ended up losing his spot entirely.
LaFontaine called it a sad and confusing “heartbreak,” the hardest part of his life so far. But accepting that unexpected turn helped him earn the BCHL’s Top Goaltender honor for the Penticton Vees and ultimately connected him to the starting-goaltender-less Gophers.
“I feel like I’m the luckiest kid in the world to be back in the Big Ten with a hockey program like Minnesota,” LaFontaine said. “So many bad things could have happened to me last year. I could have been injured. I could have not played well.
“[Now] I’m playing at the University of Minnesota for coach Bob Motzko for one of the best hockey programs in the entire nation. When you say it like that, like, how damn lucky am I?”
LaFontaine jumped right into life in Minnesota, moving into a house with five teammates. And while he’s definitely an outgoing guy, LaFontaine took a couple months to truly find his place, Motzko said.
“The first part of the year, he was spending too much time being a freshman,” Motzko said. “… Freshmen always have to help load and unload buses, and he’s always helping the freshmen. I said, ‘No, you’ve already done that.’ But he felt that since he’s new, he had to.”
LaFontaine said it was a small way to prove himself accountable to his new team. It wasn’t unnoticed.
Brannon McManus, LaFontaine’s road roommate, said everything LaFontaine does shows how seriously he takes hockey, from his note-taking to his extreme organization. On the ice, LaFontaine will never give up on a shot, even if it’s a between-drills lob from one of his teammates.
“He’ll still attempt to stop it, which, other goalies just sit there. He always tries his absolute [best], no matter what,” McManus said. “… You need goalies like that to go far.”
LaFontaine ended the Gophers’ 16-14-7 season with a .919 save percentage through 25 games, establishing himself as the starter through the last nine. Off the ice, though, he has contributed to the Gophers’ self-proclaimed “goofy” vibe. He can take chirping about being “intelligent with his words,” as McManus put it, but also dish it out, like teasing defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf for his long scoring drought. He watched “The Bachelor” with the freshmen in the dorms, joined in on the upperclassmen’s pranks, marathoned rom-coms with McManus.
LaFontaine was hoping to still be enjoying that now while playing in the Frozen Four. Instead, he has ample idle time for homework, video games, cleaning both his college house and Mom’s home to spotless condition. He could reread Ulysses, the James Joyce novel he studied in Irish lit that he didn’t quite grasp the first time. He could work on his own creative writing.
Except he’s not in the mind-set to relax and celebrate a good season. There’s blank pages in the back of his journals he still needs to fill.
“How am I going to get stronger? How am I going to get better as a goaltender? That’s where my head’s at right now,” LaFontaine said. “… That’s just how I’m geared. I don’t like a lot of downtime. I don’t want time to think.
“I want time to go out there and work.”