Second Chance at a First Impression
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Sometimes, a second chance is all you need.
Bobby Goepfert might not have wanted or expected his second chance to come 1,500 miles from his native Long Island, but now that it's happening, he couldn't be happier.
Goepfert is the key ingredient for a St. Cloud State program that had dropped off from its lofty heights of the early '90s, to the point where people were calling for the head of 18-year coach Craig Dahl. Dahl stepped down just before the season, Bob Motzko stepped in ... but also, Goepfert stepped in between the pipes. It's been a marriage made in heaven.
Like many first marriages, however, the previous one ended in hell and needed lawyers to resolve.
Goepfert was a rising star in the increasingly viable Long Island hockey scene when Providence came courting. Soon, other schools weren't far behind. But after a self-described "slump," Providence was one of the few schools still interested.
But things soon turned sour. Despite some relative success, and landing a spot on the World Junior team, Goepfert didn't feel comfortable at Providence. His grade were slipping as a result, and even going to the rink didn't make him feel better. He started acting out in unproductive ways.
Then came his release. The school accused him of plagiarizing a term paper. For then-coach Paul Pooley, it was the last straw. Goepfert was dismissed from the team and his scholarship was revoked. Then it got really ugly. Goepfert wanted to transfer to another Hockey East team, but Providence wouldn't let him. From the Friars point of view, he was lucky they were letting him go at all. A lawsuit went nowhere, and Goepfert was forced to look West.
It was a difficult time, but one he's open about now.
"The first couple months (at Providence), I wasn't happy with anything," he said. "So I kind of — not really screwed around — but I did uncharacteristic things. I had a hard time in school. I didn't care. ... It snowballed on me.
"I did this paper, I didn't intentionally plagiarize. I didn't go into it thinking I'm gonna take this guy's work. I sent it via e-mail and that was the worst thing because it didn't have a bibliography. It came up a match on their software (that catches plagiarizing).
"If I would've done the right thing from the get go — if that was the only incident — the coaches could say, 'He's not like this.' But it was like (being accused as) a murderer with fingerprints at the scene. I tried to tell them I didn't mean it, but they weren't going to believe me. ... I did stupid things, and I own up to it."
Because of his academic record, Goepfert's choices became limited. He was pursued by St. Cloud State and was attracted by Dahl's earnestness.
"He genuinely cared about you," Goepfert said. "Where through the whole recruiting process the first time, there were a lot of used car salesman who will say anything to get you to come. But he was so genuine, you could see it."
But NCAA rules mandate that transfers take a year off — which turned out to be a year that he could get his academics in order, and let go of the anger he had towards Providence. Though he does admit to some hard feelings still about not being allowed to stay in the East, he doesn't bother focusing on that much considering how well things are turning out in St. Cloud.
"(The year off) helped, knowing the guys, hanging around them," Goepfert said. "To get a breath of fresh air, away from the whole awful summer, it was what I needed to get re-focused. It was definitely the best thing for me."
"I still have a little trouble trying to balance hockey and school. Last year I had a 3.0. Now with games and stuff — I'm slowly learning to find my time. ... It's 200 times better."
The dynastic run of the New York Islanders, winning four Stanley Cups from 1980-83, created a lot of hockey fans on Long Island. And that, along with the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold, inspired a lot of those fans — who turned into parents — to put an emphasis on building rinks. In fact, many of those old New York Islanders stayed behind, had children, and helped build the hockey community — people like Wayne Merrick and Bobby Nystrom, whose sons Andrew and Eric wound up going to Michigan.
Goepfert's dad was one of those fans. In 1983, Goepfert was born. "My father says I jinxed (the Islanders) because I was born and they haven't won since. But I bleed blue and orange."
By the early '90s, the only real Division I players from Long Island were the Ferraro brothers, Peter and Chris, whose father would drive them to Philadelphia every weekend to play on a team there. They would eventually attend Maine.
"I know them pretty well," said Goepfert. "Since I was 13, they used to come back. We skate with the same trainer. It's such a small hockey community, everyone knows everyone."
Goepfert's family lived in Queens until he was 12, which was 30 miles from the rink. But his aunt lived in the town where the rink was, in Kings Park, N.Y. So he'd go to his aunt's to sleep over, get a lesson on Friday. Eventually his family moved to Kings Park.
Now, you see players from Long Island popping up all over, even in the NHL. Goepfert's best friend growing up was Chris Higgins, who went to Yale and now plays for the Montreal Canadiens.
But the biggest thrill for his father during Goepfert's youth days was a game at Chelsea Piers, on the West end of Manhatten.
"The goalie coach I had on Long Island was (old-time Rangers goalie) Gilles Villameure," Goepfert recalled. "He played for the Ranger alumni, but he had a bad hip one game. So he asked me to fill in. And who are we playing? The Islanders' alumni. My dad was watching me going up against all of his idols — Clark Gillies, John Tonelli. ..."
Goepfert's biggest thrill, so far, though was his time on the World Junior team. He split time with Jimmy Howard at the tournament in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At first Goepfert thought he'd be taking a back seat to Howard, but when Alexander Ovechkin — a then-17-year old for Russia — lit him up for a hat trick, Goepfert wound up coming in and getting on a roll.
"It was the best experience," said Goepfert. "I didn't know what to expect. ... I always wanted to go to Russia or something, but as soon as you got up there (to Canada), it was the biggest deal in the world. It was such a great time.
"We played (Canada) in the semis and lost 3-2. I had a pretty good game and was named player of the game, and they gave me a pretty good ovation. So I can't say anything bad (about Canadian fans)."
At this rate, St. Cloud State may make the NCAAs. His old team, Providence, might too.
"Over Christmas break, I hung around a bunch of guys (from Providence)," said Goepfert. "We talk, we check up. I hope the best for them. It's nice to see them having success there. There's a lot of good people in that program. If fate will have it, maybe we'll play in the NCAAs."
Brian Elliott may be getting all the accolades on a national basis this year, but Goepfert may be the most important goalie in the country. And when he talks about his team, he may as well be talking about himself.
"I don't really look into the numbers too much," he said. "I just go out there and do what it takes to get the win. That's the approach everyone takes on this team. We pride ourselves on not having a superstar. We like flying under the radar. We like to earn respect. And so far it's a recipe for success."