Kindersley native and current University of Minnesota Golden Gophers goalie Justen Close split his first two starts earlier this season, and then found himself some extra confidence after a strong win versus a stacked University of Michigan team. From there he wound up leading his conference in SV% and GAA to end the year headed into the postseason tournament; impressive stats that earned him a recent nomination towards Big Ten Goaltender of the Year.
Close would be beaten out for the award by Ohio State goalie Jakub Dobeš, though the rest of his Golden Gophers teammates fared pretty well when it came to awards this year, headlined by captain Ben Meyers being selected as Big Ten Player of the Year and bench boss Bob Motzko taking home Coach of the Year.
Motzko won the award this year mostly in part to how his team fared following the departure of star goalie Jack LaFontaine, and coach has a lot of credit to give to Close for how he has helped goaltending stay out of the topic of conversation, and actually present itself as a team strength at this part of the season. He has been thoroughly impressed, as Motzko provided this gem of a quote a few weeks back.
Bob Motzko @GopherHockey is my favorite quote. Just said, “The real story is how dumb am I to not have played Justen Close earlier?”— Dan Kelly (@DanKelly_21) February 19, 2022
Seeing all of the fanfare for Close has been amazing for everyone back home in Kindersley; but obviously more for his family, who actually just recently made the trip out to the State of Hockey for a visit.
West Central Online caught up with Justen’s brother Braden Close, a spectacular athlete himself, and he talked about how great it was for him and his family to finally watch Justen play after all of the work he has put in, and after they had already made several trips over the past two and a half years. Seeing him play was great, but to cap it all off according to Braden, seeing the Golden Gophers extend their win streak and advance to the championship game was a surreal experience.
“There really are no words honestly,” said Braden of his brother headed to the Big Ten final.
Anyone who knows ‘Closey’, but especially his family is aware that he is remaining as cool and collected as they come despite the recent rush of excitement out of the visit.
“Everybody knows he’s not going to talk about himself, and we just try and keep him on the right track.”
The family has followed along with the team since Justen’s freshman year, and the clan back home (specifically Braden) is more than confident, and just as understanding of the situation.
“Definitely a little more nerve-wracking watching every game, but from what we have seen he is just getting better and better and his team has really played so well defensively in front of him.”
Braden can see the camaraderie between the current Gophers team and their goalie, and many members of the team and media and echoed the sentiment of Close being an excellent teammate, along with being the old soul many people back home know and love.
“They really lock it down for him, and I think when he went in there about 8 weeks ago it kind of turned the season around honestly. His teammates love him so much, and the fact they are willing to play that hard for him really helped turn their season around.”
The star goaltender knew the family was coming, but was actually treated to a special surprise as well in the form a friend. The Close family was in on it too.
“One of his best friends drove 15 hours to see him and surprise him after the game,” explained Braden, “Seeing that and the smile on his face after was awesome, and them winning made it even better.”
From being a back-up to start the year behind an All-American goaltender, to leading his team into the Big 10 Championship Game on home ice; this breath of fresh air likely helped bring Justen back down to earth a bit ahead of the task at hand. The family surely knows how important the gesture was ahead of the most important stretch of the season, and how nothing more needs to be done in order to keep their man focused.
“We don’t have to say too much about him. Everyone seems to have their opinion, and it seems to be a good one, and that’s what makes us the most proud. We are happy he is playing well, but just to hear that kind of feedback from his teammates is an even better feeling honestly.”
Saturday’s championship game is being hosted by the top ranked Gophers, and is set to be a massive showdown against the, frankly, stacked University of Michigan Wolverines. They feature a multitude of top end NHL potential, and Braden knows his brother has a massive challenge ahead of him.
“I don’t think it will be a 1-0 game I’ll tell you that,” he laughed, before doubling down on the defensive effort from the Golden Gophers being the key to the game, “If you make a mistake defensively it’s going to be a tough night. But I think we have what it takes, we split the series with them 2-2 this year. Whoever makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win that game.”
The bracket will be set for the 2022 Division I men's ice hockey championship following this weekend’s action, and you can expect West Central Online to check in with Justen Close following the conclusion of the Big Ten season this weekend as the Golden Gophers work towards a spot in the NCAA Frozen Four.