MINNEAPOLIS — The course of a hockey game can change on one shift, one shot, one save. For Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko, the current hockey season changed with one phone call.

“That came out of left field,” Motzko said of Sunday’s unexpected news that starting goalie Jack LaFontaine had signed a pro contract. “It was in the second quarter of the Vikings football game when I got the call, and they were losing. When I was done with the news, they were winning.”

Although after decades as a head coach at various levels, the sudden loss of a key player is not new territory. Less than a dozen games into his 2011-12 season at St. Cloud State, Motzko’s team lost star forward Drew LeBlanc to a broken leg. Motzko seems determined to treat the loss of LaFontaine just like he did with LeBlanc 10 years ago. (Worth noting, LeBlanc returned to win the Hobey Baker Award and help the Huskies to their first Frozen Four appearance the following season.)

“You deal with it like an injury. It can happen at any moment in sports that someone could go down. You have to adapt and move on,” Motzko said. “That’s what we have to do. We play Alaska this week, then Michigan. They don’t care if a guy gets injured and goes down. They want to beat you. This is sports. So we move on.”

Without question, LaFontaine will be remembered as one of the greatest goalies in the history of the Gophers program, having backstopped a Big Ten Tournament title, garnering All American status and becoming the first Gopher to win the Mike Richter Award, given annually to college hockey’s top netminder.

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“He was such a valuable part of us, and a great kid. But 20 minutes later, I was over it. That’s all you can do,” Motzko said. “We’ve got to get ready for Alaska. That’s our only job. And I don’t mean that with any disrespect to our goalie leaving. But, this might turn out to be the greatest move in the world for him. We’ve got a team left here. We’ve got guys ready to play, and that’s the truth of it.”

The Gophers will add a goalie to their roster soon, Motzko said. Whether that means bringing in one of their recruits (which would cost the player a full season of eligibility if they play in a game) or finding a current U of M student with goalie experience as an emergency fill-in remains to be seen. But for now, the net belongs to junior Justen Close, and the Gophers are looking forward to a new era in the crease.

Minnesota Gophers goaltender Justen Close. University of Minnesota Athletics photo.
Minnesota Gophers goaltender Justen Close. University of Minnesota Athletics photo.

“He’s been working so hard every day in practice, and finally it’s his time. He’s ready and we’re excited to move forward,” Gophers co-captain Sammy Walker said of Close, who was the top goalie in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League prior to his arrival in Minneapolis. “He’s always smiling and is definitely one of my good friends, so it’s exciting to see him be able to step into that new role and take on that responsibility…We’re always confident when he’s back there. He’s a solid goalie and we’re not too worried. Keep moving.”

Close, a 23-year-old junior, did not talk to the media this week, prior to what will be his first collegiate start on Friday versus Alaska, in the opener of a series rescheduled from October. But he was all smiles leaving the rink, which is normal, and teammates said the added weight of being “the guy” in goal going forward has done nothing to change his demeanor or approach.

“He likes to get aggressive. He likes to trip guys in front in practice, he doesn’t do it in games. But everybody loves the guy,” said Ben Meyers, the team’s other remaining co-captain (LaFontaine was the third). “At the end of the day we have two other goalies. We believe in them and we’re just moving on. That’s as simple as it gets.”

Minnesota Gophers men's hockey coach Bob Motzko, forward Sammy Walker and forward Ben Meyers spoke with the media following the team's practice on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.

The loss of LaFontaine is just one of the absences the Gophers are dealing with, now and in the coming weeks.

Three Gophers — forwards Meyers and Matthew Knies, and defenseman Brock Faber — are expected to be officially named to Team USA for the Winter Olympics in Beijing and will miss three Big Ten series in February.

Forward Jaxon Nelson suffered a lower body injury in the Friday win at Michigan State and will miss the next month-plus. Forward Rhett Pitlick endured an upper body injury while the Gophers were completing their sweep of the Spartans and could miss the next month.

And on Tuesday, four players and a staffer were kept away from practice as the latest COVID variant makes a run through the roster.

Never fearful of juggling lines when needed, Motzko preached the ability to adapt and endure as the keys to staying atop the Big Ten, returning to the NCAA tournament and making a run at a NCAA title.

“That’s the times we’re in right now. The teams that adjust and adapt on the fly are going to survive this. It’s hitting everybody, so we move on,” he said. “There are a few teams that are really getting knocked in the shorts, and we’ll be one of them. But let’s let the history book write itself, and let’s not write it today.”