Slow Start Hasn't Diminished Jeff Lerg's Stature in College Hockey
by Courtney Lewis/CHN Reporter
When Jeff Lerg was a freshman, he took over Michigan State's starting goaltender duties in January and by the end of the season was named CCHA Rookie of the Year. As a sophomore, he led the Spartans to the NCAA championship. He proved a bunch of people wrong along the way.
And that was just in his first two years.
The junior netminder, who was sometimes overlooked because of his size and who still needs breathing treatments before games, won on the biggest stage last season. So what's left? Keep winning. And keep working.
"I've still got a lot to prove for myself individually," Lerg said. "I still want to have the mentality of winning every game. One thing is, I want to be remembered for not just the national championship. I want be known as a winner, maybe known as the all-time wins leader (among Michigan State goalies). To be somewhere near the top of that list would be a good thing to be remembered for.
"And I've still got to get better as a goalie if I want to keep on playing after college."
Lerg's start to the season was less than ideal — the Spartans opened with a 6-0 loss at North Dakota in which Lerg struggled. Michigan State won its next eight games before being swept by topped-ranked Miami and settling for ties against Minnesota and Wisconsin in last weekend's College Hockey Showcase. The Spartans are 8-3-2 and ranked fifth in the country.
Lerg's stats aren't lustrous; his 2.64 GAA and .902 save percentage through 11 starts aren't even in the top 30 nationally. But he's 7-3-2, and Michigan State coach Rick Comley said the North Dakota game hurt Lerg's numbers.
"For the most part, he has played well," Comley said. "And I think we've let him down. The goals (last) weekend were funny. We had two tips, blocked shots. I said to the guys, 'You've got one of the best goalies in the country. Let him see the puck.' "
Last year, the Spartans had an up-and-down season. They finished fourth in the conference regular season and didn't have any All-CCHA selections. But they stormed through the NCAA playoffs, surprising almost everyone when they claimed the title. As the defending champions, Comley said the Spartans are still finding their identity.
"In the national tournament, we put four games together that were really, really good," Comley said. "That's who we believe we are. Not flashy, just consistent. Well balanced. This year it's been sporadic. We've had one line going one night, then not the next. And scoring's been difficult.
"I think part of it is getting our focus back, maybe letting last year go completely and getting that sense of urgency back."
'An Honest Player'
Lerg, an alternate captain, made his 61st consecutive start on Nov. 2, breaking the Michigan State record. Last season, he moved into the top 10 on the program's all-time list in several categories, including wins and shutouts. And the Human Resource Management major who Comley called "the perfect student athlete" received CoSIDA Academic All-District honors with a 3.68 GPA.
Comley said Lerg's drive to improve sets him apart.
"He works so hard," Comley said. "He's such an honest player. His approach to getting better is so impressive. There's not a single day I've been around Jeff Lerg that he hasn't brought his best to the rink. He practices with a purpose, works at things he thinks he needs to get better at. Every shooting drill, every shot, he takes seriously."
Lerg developed that work ethic not through adversity, but because games were so easy when he was young. The Livonia, Mich. native said that in squirt and peewee he played with numerous kids who have gone on to college hockey or further. The teams were so good that opponents didn't get many shots off. Lerg recognized that while he was winning games, he wasn't getting much out of them.
"My opportunity to get better was working hard in practice against some of the top players in Michigan," Lerg said. "I realized I had to work hard there, because in games, when it counted, I wouldn't get a lot of competition.
"So I had that mentality, and I've tried to keep that going because that's what got me here."
He has gotten where he is while contending with asthma through his whole career.
To keep it under control, Lerg takes a couple of medications twice a day and uses a nebulizer — a breathing machine — for 10-15 minutes before he gets on the ice. He occasionally has to take a break or head to the bench for an inhaler during practice.
Lerg said he's been slightly sick recently and has been using the breathing machine several times a day. But otherwise, he needs it only before intense exercise. That's an improvement from when he was younger and used the machine "four to five times a day just to get through the day."
Lerg has been involved with American Lung Association of Michigan, helping promote asthma awareness. He's had the disease since he was four years old but grew up playing several sports. About the only thing he ever missed out on was a little recess time.
"I was always the kid that my mom had to come to school and take me out of recess for my breathing machine," Lerg said. "I was always upset about that, but then I'd go right back after. I never thought of it holding me back."
'If he sees it, he's going to stop it'
Lerg hasn't let his relatively small stature get in his way either. At 5 feet 6 inches and 155 pounds, he's the smallest player on Michigan State's roster, and there have been doubters along the way who thought he wasn't big enough to play goalie at a high level.
He said he has done quickness drills since junior hockey and concentrates on moving across the crease quickly and going out to challenge shooters more than a bigger goalie might.
"I think every goalie has to understand the game, the physical elements and play accordingly," Comley said. "Jeff does that really well. Everybody comes in and thinks they're going to shoot high and score. He considers his face mask a save-making tool. He understands his game and how he has to play. Basically if he sees it, he's going to stop it."
Lerg thinks he has put to rest any questions about his size.
"I definitely hope so," Lerg said. "It was good winning on a national stage, in big games that matter. That's what people look for in a goalie, to give the team a chance to win. Hopefully that knocked some comments out of there (from) people who didn't believe in me."
Comley agreed that Lerg has established himself as a goalie who can't be overlooked.
"I think everybody we play knows how good he is, knows we're going to get a good effort in net," Comley said.
Now, Lerg just wants to keep proving himself.
"I want to be remembered as winner," Lerg reasserted.
"Certainly the feeling last summer was a lot better than the summer before, so the whole team concept motivates me — repeating. (Winning the national title) was really unbelievable. It happened as a sophomore, and now that I've got that feeling, I don't want that losing taste again."