Feb. 10, 2009
by Steve Conn
Alec Richards had his moments during his first three years of college hockey, including 57 saves in the five-overtime Yale win over Union in the longest game in the history of NCAA men's hockey in 2006. Career numbers like a 2.91 goals against average and a .905 save percentage were also plenty to be proud of heading into his senior campaign.
However, there was one statistic that did not sit well with the 6-foot-4 Robbinsdale, Minn., native; he carried a 20-34-5 won/lost record into 2008-09. While that is not the best way to judge a netminder's impact on a team or their success as a player, plenty of people who have worn the big pads and blockers have felt the weight of team decisions.
The first part of this season has been a different story. Richards heads into the Dec. 29 game against No 19 Nebraska-Omaha as the only Division I starting goalie with a perfect (6-0) record. While much of that has to do with the offensive exploits of the 7-3 Bulldogs, the team's top goalie has done his part to make Yale roll.
Richards, who has a 2.17 goals against average, a .907 save percentage through seven games and has been between the pipes in all but one of Yale's wins, does care about the decisions.
"The record matters. We have had teams that competed hard but couldn't get it done," said Richards. "This year we have found a way to win. It's not about stats and awards, it's about winning games. As long as I play well enough to help us win, I'm happy. Seeing the program evolve over the last few years has been rewarding."
Richards, who might be the only Yale freshman to start a varsity game against Harvard, went on to share 2005-06 team rookie of the year honors with 885 saves in 29 games while earning five different conference weekly honors. He played 26 the next winter and stopped 646 shots. A pre-season injury limited him to 11 contests (217 saves) in 2007-08, but Richards earned a shutout in the March 1 conference playoff win at home over Rensselaer.
"He is a big goalie who plays big," said Keith Allain '80 Yale's Malcolm G. Chace Head Coach of Hockey. "And he has proven to be someone who gets better in the later stages of a game."
The evolution the senior was referring to stems from the Bulldogs' ability to outshoot opponents, which is a dramatic turnaround for this team.
"There were plenty of nights where we would get outshot about 40 to 10, and now we are competing in every game and have a chance to win each of them. I would rather win games than earn accolades," said Richards, who at 21 may be the youngest Division I senior in the nation. "We are getting more offensive support and the shots have been kept down in our end."
Yale currently averages 14 shots on goal more than the opposition. The Bulldogs had a three-shot advantage last winter and it was even the year before, while the Elis were a minus-6 during Richards' freshman campaign.
When you win the award for being the top senior high school goalie in your state, it's a big deal. When you live in Minnesota, it's bigger. Great expectations -- from the Frank Brimseck Award -- for a young student-athlete in unfamiliar surroundings can be quite a burden.
"It was a great honor and a nice culmination of two years of hard work," said Richards, whose grandfather, Bill Maruska, played goalie at the University of North Dakota in 1954-55.
Richards was a two-year starter at the Breck School in Minneapolis, and the rivalry games around those parts are comparable to the ones found on fall Friday nights in Texas. Take for instance an early December 2003 meeting between Breck and Blake School at Breck Anderson Ice Arena. Richards and his teammates typically went for a run in the rink while the junior varsity teams played, but the place was packed with people who wanted to make sure they got seats for the varsity.
"We went outside in the frigid temperatures to warm up and there was a spotlight flashing around the outside of the rink and the parking lot was full of students tailgating and there were TV cameras. It was like a big pep rally before the game."
"Minnesota is arguably the best high school hockey state in the country, so winning that award is huge," said Allain, who played goalie for the Bulldogs from 1976-80.
The honor from the award was put to test right away. He decided to get his feet wet at the next level by playing four games with the USHL Indiana Ice weeks after Minnesota's sectional finals. The stats weren't pretty but it proved to service his transition to college.
"I would fly down for a weekend to play without practicing with the team. That was a wake up because I got shelled a few times. Everything is a step above high school. I was humbled by that experience. The novelty of the award wore off pretty quickly," said the Eli netminder who was named all-state, all-conference and all-metro while making the headmaster's list senior year. "It gave me a benchmark for the summer and my freshman year at Yale, and it made me aware of what I needed to improve."
Richards, who worked for former Yale player Keith McCullough '99 last summer in New Haven, said he learned a lot about teamwork from the experience with Research Edge.
"I learned about teamwork from a company perspective which helped me realize my role on this team as a senior and leader. Our team had lacked a trust in each other that you might see with winning teams. We always had talent, but we didn't have the same personalities in the locker room. We have an expectation to deliver now," said Richards, who has been coached at Yale by a number of former goalies, including NHL great Mike Richter.
His first year in New Haven was memorable. Not only did he make 40+ saves five times and finish with a team-best 3.02 goals-against average, Richards earned the win in one of the most famous games in Yale history. The five-session, 114-minute ECAC playoff game at Schenectady that began on March 4 and ended on the fifth is not something he can forget. The economics major, who made 40 saves the night before for Yale's game-one OT victory, was efficient with two goals allowed on 59 Union shots on target as the Blue swept the "long" series 2-0.
"My legs were dying out there, I had a little headache and my vision started to get a bit fuzzy," said Richards minutes after the record-breaking game ended with the Dave Meckler goal. "After the second OT intermission, when we came in the locker room each time I just took a break from hockey. I flipped on my iPod and started singing and dancing. I think we learned a lot about winning this weekend."
Richards and his classmates helped re-start the "winning" evolution in Yale hockey.
Steve Conn is an associate athletics director and Yale's Director of Sports Publicity