Former Jr. Klippers star goalie and Kindersley native Justen Close may not have got much action this year with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, but his teams success helped put a BIG10 Championship on the west central star's resume.
“It was a lot of fun,” said the goaltender, “Winning is always more fun than losing.”
A not-so bold statement from Close. He self-admittedly knows his lack of ice-time may harbour at least some flack towards the third-string goalies contributions to the Golden Gophers success this year, but being extra support behind an impressive goal-tending tandem this year was definitely a role Close seemed to be fine with. However, his role could see a change next season with the shake-up to the Gophers goalie room.
Star goaltender Jack Lafontaine is coming back for another season with his extra year of eligibility thanks to COVID. That decision led to backup Jared Moe, who at one time split playing-time with Lafontaine, packing his bags and taking to the transfer portal where he would eventually sign with the rival University of Wisconsin Badgers.
“Everybody got an extra year of eligibility with COVID and all that, and there is the (new) one time transfer rule.” explained Close, “Laffer was coming back, once he found that out he entered the transfer portal and was gone.”
Transfers are nothing to scoff at in college hockey or any collegiate sport really. Opportunity is something that can be king for most players. Close seems locked in for his junior year as a Golden Gopher, though he has to be thinking this is the first year he can come into camp with the goal of opening some eyes. One college hockey forum has Close again projected as the third-stringer for next season, behind Gophers new goalie recruit in Brennan Boynton from the USHL. Perhaps Close’s experience will play a factor in the decision.
After all of this contentious nonsense was out of the way, it was great to catch up with Close about the teams spectacular run this season. They were automatically invited to the NCAA Tournament for a program record 38th time after winning the BIG10 Championship against the Wisconsin Badgers, in what was a spectacular game. Minnesota was up 5-1 after 2 periods, but Wisconsin would put a barrage of shots on the Gophers in the third period though they were only able to come back within one.
“Talking about the Big Ten Championship?” responded Close after being asked about the crazy night of hockey, “That was a crazy game. We got up early, we were playing great. It was a lot of hockey to be played in one weekend and we knew they would make a push and they did. It made for a pretty good finish for sure.”
Wisconsin was later selected into the NCAA Tournament, but suffered a first round upset to Bemidji St. Close remarked that Bemidji plays a tough game and an upset was never out of the question. The Gophers, unlike the Badgers, were able to advance into the second round before they suffered an upset of their own to Minnesota St.
“We played Omaha (in the first round) in a good game that night. Then the next night, we give them they are an old team, and they were ready for us and better than us for most of the game.”
The Gophers would turn it on during the third, but the loss still put an unceremonious finish on the Gophers otherwise excellent season.
“It was a fun year, and I think we’ll have a good team again next year”
Now Justen must navigate his way back home for the summer. Close stayed back and is still in the Twin Cities to finish up school, and admitted what he can’t get out of his head, is just how he will get home with the current travel restrictions? He planned to drive there this summer initially, but ironically going across the border by airplane was the safest most secure option at the time. With stopovers being tabled for anyone boarding a commercial flight, Close is considering all of his options.
“I wanted to drive but ended up flying. I know that now it’s much easier to get through the border by driving, especially with all the new quarantine rules.” he said, “I might just have one of my roommates drive me to the border, and see if my old-man will make the trek into Manitoba to pick me up.”
Surely he can’t wait to be home so he can hit up his hometown golf course in Kindersley, see his family once again, and most importantly get into the mindset that next year could be his opportunity.
“It’s a bit of a gong-show, but I don’t know I will get home at some point for sure.”
For more on the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers excellent season, check out some previous content below: