Behind the Man Behind the Mask
ND's Gothberg Finds Valuable Mentor in Former Champ
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
PHILADELPHIA The Frozen Four is a new experience for many North Dakota players this week, including celebrated sophomore goaltender Zane Gothberg, a giant-slayer of sorts who’s already guided his team to college hockey’s final weekend by besting a pair of worthy opposing goaltenders, Hobey Baker Award finalists Joel Rumpel and C.J. Motte.
Gothberg’s successes have been well-earned and well-documented, and throughout the season, like any humble goaltender, he’s been quick to credit the group of defensemen playing in front of him – as he should, for a group that includes the nation’s leader in blocked shots and typically five NHL draft picks in the lineup on any given night.
But of course, in addition to the defense in front of him, credit is warranted for those behind him, too.
In Gothberg’s case, that’s not just his family, friends, and head coach, but someone who knows what this week is all about. Someone’s who has not only ‘been there’ in the figurative sense, but who has literally been in the same position. In the same crease. With the same stakes. Someone who’s been behind a mask like Gothberg’s, facing the nation’s elite with a national championship on the line.
Four years ago, former North Dakota goaltender Karl Goehring, after completing an eight-year professional career, returned to Grand Forks as a volunteer goaltending coach. Goehring owns the program’s all time records in wins, winning percentage, and shutouts, and has a national championship to his name, too.
And since returning to the program, Goehring’s been more than just a coach. He’s been a mentor and confidante to North Dakota’s young starting goaltender.
“It’s kind of like a father-son relationship,” says Gothberg. “I see him as my father and like a role model. It’s a very personal relationship just because we have so much confidence in each other.”
In Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa had Mickey Goldmill in his corner. And Gothberg, an underdog in his own right this week, has Goehring.
“It's been a blast for me to be able to work with these guys,” says Goehring. “As a former goaltender who played the game for a long time, it's a lot of fun to be around them and to share my experiences with them.”
Under Goehring’s tutelage, Gothberg’s confidence has grown. And the results speak for themselves. Since Nov. 30, Gothberg has led the nation in goals-against average (1.71) and save percentage (.934), and his current career save percentage (.924) is second-to-none in North Dakota history.
“He's always looking to improve and always looking to find a way to make himself better," Goehring said. "For me, it's been continuing to help him find his game and what works best for him. We've spent a lot of time doing video, and we're always working on our technique in terms of our movements and our save selection. Really, Zain is a highly self-motivated kid. He's really driving the ship for his improvement every day.”
Before every team practice, Goehring meets privately with Gothberg, in addition to senior Clarke Saunders and freshman Matt Hrynkiw.
Said Goehring, “As a goaltending coach, he knew before recruiting what kind of goalie I was, some of the assets I had maybe compared to the other things. In the same sense, he’s built those into stronger assets than they actually were at the beginning when I came here. And he’s added other pieces to the puzzle as well, like the reverse-VH [a technique used to seal the near post on sharp-angle shots] that we talk about doing, the pulse loads as well. So it’s kind of been molding my game.”
Goehring, a former two-time All-American, played in two Frozen Fours. And although he experienced the glory of a national title in 2000 – earning a 30-save shutout in the national semifinal against Maine, then besting a Boston College team featuring Brian Gionta and Brooks Orpik – he experienced the disappointment of losing in a title game, too. North Dakota’s 2001 national title game loss to the Eagles, in a rematch from the previous year, was the final game of Goehring’s decorated career.
In short, he knows plenty about these kinds of games, and the thin difference between winning them and losing them. Goehring met Gothberg for lunch on Monday prior to the team’s departure for Philadelphia.
“Monday we just talked about how it was, the atmosphere, and some of the feelings he had going into the games,” said Gothberg. “At the end of the day, he just said, ‘Man, enjoy it. The chips are going to fall where they may. You have to just go out there and do your part, do the best to your ability, and just see what happens.’ It was good.”
Added Goehring, a Minnesota native just like Gothberg, “In reality, we've had a lot of big games coming down the stretch. Our focus is doing our part, and focusing on the small things that make us successful. That'll be the message here as well – 'Play your game, do what you do to the best of your ability, and enjoy it.'
“As someone who's been through it, you realize how special an opportunity it is to get to the Frozen Four, just to be a part of it.”
Of course, North Dakota isn’t in Philadelphia this week to be an idle participant. The challenge at hand, now, is overcoming the No. 1 overall seed in Thursday’s semifinal, when Gothberg will be tasked with outdueling yet another Hobey-caliber goaltender in Adam Wilcox.
Said Goehring, “As a goaltender, it's something that you don't really want to focus too much on, but I think any time you're playing good competition, whether its the opposing goaltender on the other team, I think it elevates your intensity and brings a little bit extra to your game as well. Certainly, the focus will be on his game and what he's doing, but I think in most sports when you're playing a good competitor, it's going to raise your level a little bit as well.”
Gothberg made a career-high 44 saves in North Dakota’s regional final win to get to the Frozen Four. Raising his level may mean needing to do even more on Thursday, a berth in the national championship game on the line.
Goehring, of course, the man firmly in Gothberg’s corner, has full confidence.
“He's a great teammate, a great leader for our guys,” says Goehring, “and it's just a blast to be able to work with him.”