Poise and patience key Justen Close's success in taking over Gophers' starting goalie role
After two-plus seasons as a backup goaltender, with no extended playing time in sight, Justen Close was thrust into the Minnesota Gophers’ starters role a month ago. His success has come in part due to his universal respect from his teammates.
MINNEAPOLIS – Perhaps it’s the cynical nature of the Twin Cities sports fan, who has not seen a major professional title in the Twin Cities in more than three decades, but many are apt to cry that the sky is falling at the slightest bit of unexpected news.
So a month ago, when Minnesota Gophers' every night goalie, Jack LaFontaine, abruptly left the program and signed a NHL contract, more than one social media naysayer decried that the season was over. A Gophers team that had just moved into first place in the Big Ten and was climbing in the Pairwise was done, over, finished.
Aside from that undercurrent of cynicism born of watching too many gut-wrenching playoff losses by the Twins and Vikings, that “always say die” attitude is living proof that none of those so-called fans had met Justen Close or had seen what he could do with his chance in the spotlight. To a man, when asked about the change in goal and what the team could do with “the Closer” in the crease, the Gophers players greeted the change with either indifference or excitement that this most beloved of teammates was finally getting his chance to be the star, after two-plus seasons as the understudy.
After six games (plus two exhibition games) playing every minute in goal, Close’s numbers are good – in six games as a starter he has a 3-3-0 record, a .906 saves percentage and a 2.13 goals against average.
“If this is what we’re going to keep seeing, we’re in pretty good hands,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said this week. “He’s been pretty good. We just keep throwing him in there and he’s getting more comfortable.”
Poise and patience
The accepted thinking in hockey is that every goalie is goofy in their own way. But when you ask Close’s teammates what makes him odd, they are generally stumped.
“I haven’t seen anything weird that stands out, but I’ll keep my eye out,” said defenseman Carl Fish, with a smile. “He’s got the Canadian accent. We kind of hear that and make fun of him for that, but other than that he’s just a down-to-earth guy.”
Close has a serious, plain-spoken demeanor and a businesslike approach to school, to hockey, and to life. He has a pregame routine that is simple and straightforward. It starts with chicken and rice from Tinucci’s.
“Show up, tape the sticks, drink some coffee and get loose,” Close said. “That’s about it.”
That nature comes from a childhood on the Saskatchewan prairie, in a small town where his parents were bookkeepers and they sold him on the value of hard work, education and doing right by those around you.
“If you’ve met anybody from Sask, you understand. I have a hard time remembering sometimes that Justen is a 23-year-old young man and he’s not a 50-year-old,” said Gophers goalie coach Brennan Poderzay. “There are times I feel like I’m talking to my dad and I’m getting the life lessons. I leave the crease and shake my head and wonder who I’m talking to. I think he’s a very old soul, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who smiles and works his ass off more than that kid.”
Close came to the U of M looking for a degree from the Carlson School of Management, and eager to join a program that is serious about contending for the NCAA title every year. His pre-college resume included two years of junior hockey in his hometown – one season as the top goalie in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and another season where he was named the league’s most valuable player.
But for more than two years with the Gophers, all of his hard work was just a ticket to be the backup, first for Jared Moe and Jack LaFontaine, and then for just the latter, when the former transferred to Wisconsin. Complaining about his place on the depth chart, or looking into the transfer portal were things Close never considered.
“Those aren’t really thoughts I concern myself with. It’s kind of wasted energy,” he said. “Roles change, but your approach to the game and what you bring to the rink every day doesn’t need to, and I don’t think mine has changed at all.”
For him, the only thing that has changed since LaFontaine started collecting a paycheck is that Close’s name is getting called first, and he is making saves with his excellent lateral movement, utilizing all of the tools he developed on the wind-swept plains of western Canada.
Getting his chance
The most notable thing about the change from LaFontaine to Close as the number one goalie is that for the other players, it seemed like no change at all. After more than two seasons as the model teammate, they were all eager for Close to get his opportunity to show what he could do.
“He’s awesome and we’re super confident with him back there. It’s still cool to see. It’s his time now and we’re just moving forward,” said Gophers co-captain Sammy Walker. “He’s still the same guy. Still working super hard as usual. Not much has changed.”
Poderzay, who began working with Close when he joined the Gophers staff early this season, was immediately impressed with the goalie’s approach to the position, with his willingness to self-assess and despite stopping pucks since he was seven, to go “back to the drawing board” and fix things that weren’t working. Like a kid learning to drive, the goalie coach feels that the starter’s position for Close, though unexpected, is working out just fine.
“He went through the driver’s training course,” Poderzay said. “He did the behind the wheel and had all the hours with his parents driving with him, and now it’s time for him to take the keys and go on a joyride by himself.”
True to the nature of the Gophers’ favorite teammate, Close plans on bringing them all along for the ride.