Dec. 9, 2010
MADISON, Wis. – As a UW hockey player, Mark Johnson was a goaltender’s worst enemy. He scored 125 goals in three seasons as a collegian.
As the UW women’s hockey coach, Johnson can be a goalie’s best friend. He can restore confidence even after pulling her from a game.
That’s the nature of the sport, and the position.
“Every goaltender that has ever put the pads on has had bad nights,’’ Johnson said. “Part of a bad night is the ability to grow and develop character and become a better goalie through it.’’
Alex Rigsby can relate. She’s a goaltender – has been since the third grade when she began playing with the boys’ teams. But what about getting the hook? What about getting benched?
“It happens,’’ said Rigsby, a UW freshman from Delafield. “It’s hockey, it’s goaltending.’’
It’s going to happen to every goalie sooner or later. It happened to Rigsby in early November at Minnesota. She gave up three goals on 10 shots in the first period, and was removed from the game.
“When someone doesn’t look comfortable,’’ Johnson said, “or things aren’t going well and we need to make an adjustment to get the team going, it’s one tool that we have as coaches.
“Certainly in her scenario – being a freshman, playing at Minnesota for the first time and looking a little bit nervous in that atmosphere – I wanted to get her out of there.
“From a coaching standpoint, you can sense and see when someone isn’t confident. There are certain characteristics and when you start seeing them, you have to make some adjustments.’’
The following morning, Johnson began rebuilding Rigsby’s confidence.
“I took her on the ice and worked with her for about 20 minutes,’’ he said.
“About 20 minutes of shots,’’ she added.
While it wasn’t exactly a shootout – Johnson vs. Rigsby – this would still be the same Mark Johnson who scored on All-World goaltender Vladislav Tretiak in the first period of the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid – prompting Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov to pull Tretiak after one period.
Was Rigsby at all intimidated? “Whenever you’re on the ice with him, you want to do your best and give your all,’’ she conceded. “But he’s so modest, you wouldn’t realize what he’s accomplished.’’
She was just grateful for the personalized instruction. “It was nice to get back on the ice after the night before,’’ she said, “just to get the feel back for the puck again.’’
What was Johnson’s objective?
“I was just trying to establish a comfort level with her movements,’’ he said. “Goalies have to learn how to be patient. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes young goalies move too much.
“With Alex, I was going back to the basics and building a foundation under her. I was trying to give her a little confidence, ‘Hey, you can do these things. You just have to be comfortable doing them.’’’
Following his team’s 7-5 loss to the Gophers in the Friday opener, Johnson came right back with Rigsby on Saturday. “It’s like falling off a horse, what do you do?’’ he posed. “You get back up.’’
Rigsby responded just like Johnson had hoped – shutting out the Gophers, 5-0.
“That was pretty big for my confidence,’’ said Rigsby, who had 25 saves.
Johnson couldn’t remember the last time he had pulled a goalie. But, then, again he had the luxury of Jessie Vetter in the nets during a memorable four-year stretch which was highlighted by three NCAA championships at Wisconsin. In 2009, Vetter was the Patty Kazmaier Award Winner.
In addition to posting an NCAA record 39 career shutouts, a .941 save percentage and 91 victories overall, Vetter was Johnson’s goaltender on the Olympic team.
“You got spoiled with Jessie Vetter,’’ he said.
But he recounted the following story.
“She redshirted her first year and got mono the first week of training camp the following year and missed eight to nine weeks,’’ Johnson said. “I remember the first time we played her. We were at Bemidji State. I threw her in the game and she let the first shot go in. Welcome to college hockey.’’
That was to reemphasize his point about the challenge of playing the position. “Put the equipment on and go on the ice one time,’’ he said, “and you’ll figure out how difficult it is.’’
That relates to the inevitable: good games and bad ones.
“Over the course of Jessie’s time here, you started to take things for granted because she was so special,’’ Johnson said. “We’re not expecting Alex to be another Jessie. We need Alex to be Alex.’’
Rigsby does share something in common with Vetter in that both got their pre-college training on boys teams. Vetter played at Monona Grove, while Rigsby was a member of the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals AAA boys Midget Minors and Midget Majors program in high school.
She has been playing boys hockey since she was 6 when she started out as a forward.
“I was always so fortunate,’’ she said, “because the teams that I played on the guys were really good to me. They always welcomed me and I received the respect that I deserved.’’
In 2009, Rigsby was drafted by the Chicago Steel of the USHL, the first girl to ever be selected. “It was awesome,’’ she said, “getting a chance to go to the camp and compete with the guys at that level.’’
Rigsby spent much of last summer rehabbing from hip surgery and split time with Becca Ruegsegger the first four series of the season. After that “bounce back’’ outing against the Gophers, Rigsby has been the starter in six straight games, including last weekend’s sweep at North Dakota.
“She follows and tracks the puck very well,’’ Johnson said of Rigsby, “and that bodes well from the sense of rebounds or shots that are out of the scoring area. She also challenges shooters.
“At North Dakota, she saw the puck well and made a lot of good saves from the standpoint the puck was hitting the middle part of her body. That indicates that she’s on her angles.
“She’s getting more comfortable and more confident and it’s nice having Becca, too, because she works extremely hard and continues to get better. For me, it’s good to have two of them ready.’’
Johnson credited his volunteer assistant coach Mark Greenhalgh for his work with the goalies. “Mark has played the position and it’s a real positive,’’ he said. “They can talk the same language.’’
Whatever it is?
“Whatever it is,’’ Johnson said, laughing.
It’s the nature of the position.