MINNEAPOLIS — Seeing former Michigan State goalie Jason Muzzatti at a pair of Spartans home games last weekend was not a rare thing. Now the Carolina Hurricanes goalie coach, Muzzatti is a proud alum of the green and white, and was a volunteer goalie coach at Michigan State for several years.
But Muzzatti was far more than just an interested spectator at Munn Ice Arena on Friday and Saturday nights, when Jack LaFontaine backstopped the Minnesota Gophers to a pair of wins over the Spartans. After both games, LaFontaine and Muzzatti spoke, and eventually the former Spartan presented the now-former Gopher with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
On Sunday, LaFontaine signed an entry-level contract with the Hurricanes, giving up his last few months of college hockey eligibility and changing the landscape, dramatically, for his former college team. Speaking publicly for the first time as a professional hockey player on Monday morning, LaFontaine acknowledged his excitement at the opportunity, and the difficulty of the decision to leave the Gophers in the midst of a promising season.
“This opportunity is special in the sense that I’ve been working toward the goal of playing in the NHL since about the age of 7. All of my actions, all of my sacrifices, all of my work have been toward the common goal of playing in the NHL,” LaFontaine said from his house near the U of M, while on a Zoom call with the media. “Saying that, I just got a ticket to the dance, so now it’s really time to work even harder, do what I know I can do … and help this team in any way I can to keep them on the path to the Stanley Cup.”
For the Hurricanes, the rare move of signing a college player during the season came as much out of desperation as out of the promise that LaFontaine has shown as a potential goalie of the future in Carolina. A rash of injuries and COVID-related problems have hit the team at both the NHL and AHL level in recent days. Even with the addition of LaFontaine to the depth chart, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell noted they have just three healthy goalies available. Waddell added that they tried to sign LaFontaine over the summer of 2021 but could not reach an agreement.
“Jack played four-and-a-half years (of college hockey). He gave the University of Minnesota (a lot). A lot of players leave after one, two, three years, whatever,” said Waddell, who played college hockey at Northern Michigan. “Jack felt it was time for him … the timing was good on his end and, obviously on our end, he was wanted and needed.”
For the Gophers fans lamenting the loss of a top goalie at this point in a season where they have just overtaken first place in the Big Ten and have designs on a sixth NCAA title, LaFontaine believes they remain in good hands in the crease with junior Justen Close presumably taking over the starter’s role.
“Justen was actually the first person I talked to. I wanted Justen to hear it from me,” LaFontaine said, noting Close’s wins in two recent Gophers exhibition games. “I see him every day in practice and I know what he’s capable of. People forget that he was back-to-back (Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League) Goalie of the Year and the boys just love him. The boys will play for him and I have no doubt in my mind that he’s ready for this opportunity.”
The plan for LaFontaine going forward is to fly to North Carolina on Tuesday, acquire a work visa (he is currently in the country on a student visa) and perhaps start for the Hurricanes as early as Thursday when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets in Raleigh, N.C.
“Obviously it’s great for him and it’s great for us,” said Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, who is another former Michigan State standout. “We’ve watched this kid for a long time. He’s had an interesting road to get here and you’ve got to give him credit for the steps he’s taken.”
LaFontaine talked of his long and winding road from suburban Toronto to pro hockey, which began at Michigan in 2015. He was cut loose by the Wolverines after two seasons there, and went to play junior hockey in British Columbia not knowing whether he would have another college opportunity, but landed back in the Big Ten.
“With goalies, the paradox is the more you get beat down, the stronger you get,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had a lot of adversity and a lot of arduous moments over my career, and for me, they’ve just made me stronger.”
LaFontaine finishes his two-plus seasons as a Gopher with a 43-24-6 record, a .920 saves percentage, a 2.29 goals-against average and six shutouts. He started 58 of the team’s last 60 games.