Princeton's Condon Feeling Hip
Injury Troubles in the Past, Senior Shines for Tigers
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
PRINCETON, N.J. In the day and age of modern goaltending, athleticism and mobility are valued like never before. So it was alarming for Mike Condon to go through games feeling like he couldn't get up after executing a butterfly save, or move across his crease with enough agility to make key stops. He tried lots of exercises to alleviate the problem, and nothing worked.
After his sophomore season at Princeton, Condon saw a doctor. The resulting x-rays made his problem so apparent, even the interns in the room were laughing at its obviousness.
"The doctors gave me an x-ray, there were five doctors in the room," Condon said. "They put the x-ray of my hips on the board and the intern said, 'Isn't it obvious, there's two huge impingements.' There were bone spurs at the top of my femurs. I was doing the butterfly for so long, it was bone on bone. It wasn't so much painful, I just couldn't move.
"It's been night and day ever since. ... Right out of surgery, I had 15 percent more range of motion."
Condon said his dad recently had his hip replaced, and he was told he could be pre-arthritic by age 30. But he's undeterred.
"We have bad hip genes, I guess," Condon said.
That wasn't all that changed for Condon. While on his way back to Massachusetts for the surgery, Tigers coach Guy Gadowsky told the team he was taking the job at Penn State. Princeton had reached its greatest heights under Gadowsky.
"It was a pretty cool opportunity and I don't blame him," Condon said.
Former St. Lawrence assistant Bob Prier accepted the job at Princeton, and despite it being his first head coaching assisgnment, he won the players over quickly. Condon was particularly pleased that Prier wanted one of his assistants to specifically be a goaltenders coach. His first two years, Condon worked with a volunteer assistant, Neil Little, a former All-American at RPI and a current Philadelphia Flyers scout. But Little was only there every couple of the weeks.
Now he would have a full-time assistant. The choice was former Niagara standout Greg Gardner.
"When I heard it was Gardner, I hadn't heard of him," Condon said. "I looked up his numbers immediately — they were ridiculous.
"The biggest thing is the 1-on-1 sessions early in the mornings, Monday and Tuesday for an hour. It's just great to have someone to bounce something off and ask questions. He's been there too."
Prier has seen the difference.
"Gardner is an incredible asset," the coach said. "(Condon) is making it look pretty easy. He has good rebound control.
"He's a senior now, so he's emotionally strong, mentally strong. He handles things well and he's a very good teammate. I don't know if I would call him a leader, that's tough to do as a goalie. You almost don't want those kind of pressures on a goaltender. It's almost become a different part of the sport, it's such a specialized position."
It's been a lot of work getting to where he is now, and it hasn't been easy. But then again, you don't go to Princeton in the first place because you want things to be easy. There are lots of places you can go to get a quality education, but Princeton is on another level.
And college hockey players don't just skate by. They need to do the work like everyone else. And for seniors, that means writing a lengthy thesis paper on a topic within their field of study.
"It's 3 a.m. on we're on the way home from St. Lawrence, and you look up and the lights are still on (on the bus), everyone's headphones are in and the books are open," said Condon, a political science major with a concentration in international relations. "It's tough but hopefully it will be worth it. ... They told us as freshman, 'Do what you enjoy and the career will take care of itself.'
"The grass is always greener. We're not celebrities like other teams are. But you look at the kid next to you and he's a fencer and he's in the Olympics, and other schools don't have that. It keeps you humble and you start thining about what would it be like in other places — a 10,000-seat arena, cheerleaders. But that's the way it is here and you grow to appreciate it."
The hockey isn't that much easier than the schoolwork at Princeton.
"I came straight from prep, a pretty hard academic school at Belmont Hill (Mass.)," Condon said. "Academics wasn't as hard for me as some other guys, but hockey was tough. I was ahead in the class, whereas they were ahead on the ice. It took me a little while to get prepared for the speed. I used to get anxious before games.
"The comfort level, the only way to do it is just playing. The jitters, bottling that was hard. I'm still energetic, but there's control behind it."
The support you get at Princeton, however, is also top notch. Like it or not, being a Princeton alum has its advantages.
"The best thing about this place is reunions," said Condon, who was in charge of organizing a large part of the hockey reunion weekend the last couple of years.
Condon was particularly uplifted by meeting Major General Mark Milley, who came to speak to the team after a game. Milley is a two-star general stationed at Fort Drum, but more importantly, is from Arlington, Mass., near Condon's home town of Needham, and a former Princeton hockey player.
"That was special," Condon said.
One place being a Princeton alum doesn't have its advantages, however, is in professional hockey, a place where meritocracy reigns. Though a handful of Princeton alums have made the NHL in the last 15 years, they are still scarce. That won't stop Condon, however, from giving it a shot.
"To have an ultimate plan, I don't know what that is," Condon said. "But I've invested so much in the sport, my family has spent a lot of time and money, it would be a shame to let that end at the end of college. It's been a fun ride, a nice career to hang my hat on, but I'm not satisfied with that. I want to go as far as I can, give it a try.
"I've talked to a lot of poeple on Wall Street and stuff, you get it ingrained in you that you want to get out there and start making money. But older people I've talked to say you can always grab a suit and sit behind a desk."
The Tigers have done well lately, behind Condon's hot play. He had a 29-save shutout against Cornell in which he stood on his proverbial head. More recently, he came down sick and missed back-to-back home losses to Clarkson and St. Lawrence. Clearly, the Tigers miss him.
Condon's combination of brains and braun will serve them well down the stretch.
"We're trying to improve defensively," Prier said. "We know we're gonna score enough goals to win. We have talent and depth and the best player in the league right now in (Andrew) Calof statistically. We're really just trying to hunker down defensively."