December 21, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Virtual Reality

Lake State's Goaltender Proves Superior Indeed

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

This week, TIME magazine awarded its annual Person of the Year Award to "You," as in, to all of us — with our Facebook profiles and YouTube videos — who have helped take the Internet to an unprecedented level of interpersonal communication.

But over three years ago, in the summer of 2003, it was a fancy interpersonal feature on the Web site of Lake Superior State University that helped bring to its small campus a college hockey goaltender worthy not only of his three (and counting) team MVP awards but of a Person of the Year award himself — at least for the small town of Sault Ste. Marie, the oldest town in the state of Michigan.

"It was kind of a weird deal how I ended up coming here," recalled netminder Jeff Jakaitis. "I was playing junior hockey in Waterloo, and I was all set to go back there for a third year. Originally, Lake Superior had a goalie committed, but he bailed on them about a month before school started, so they called me. I never came here on a visit. All I did was take a virtual tour on the Internet.

"I ended up committing only two or three weeks before I had my first class."

Now, the virtual reality is that, almost four years later, the Chicago-born, Minnesota-bred senior has developed into one of the top goaltenders in the program's rich history. He holds the school's shutout record (10), is first in career save percentage (.957), and is second in career goals against average (2.31). This season, his 1.57 GAA and .957 save percentage are each in the top three in the nation.

"I was excited just to have the opportunity to play here and be part of the tradition," Jakaitis said. "Now to have gotten the opportunity to play as much as I have, it's amazing to be on top of a couple of those lists. I don't think it's something that has really set in, or that I focus on that much right now. It'll be cool in a few years to look back and see that I had a pretty nice career."

And not just any nice career, but one for a successful program that helped coin the term 'Laker Dynasty' long before most people knew that Kobe Bryant even existed. Their national championships in 1988, 1992 and 1994 made Lake Superior one of the premier teams in college hockey.

Despite not winning a title since then — save for a 1995 CCHA crown — Lake State has been working hard to return to that highest level of competition, and its 11-5-2 start this season has them on pace to improve even on last year, when it finally returned to the CCHA playoffs.

Jakaitis is certainly a big part of the recent improvement, and while the stats speak clearly for themselves, he's a respected team leader as well and is one of the few goaltenders you'll ever see that wears a captain's letter on his jersey.

"He's a better man that he is a goalie, and he's a pretty damn good goalie" said Lakers coach Jim Roque. "He's a 3.6 student in business, he's involved in our community with different fundraising efforts, he skates with youth teams — he's an assistant captain because he's a model student athlete."

And that means both on and off the ice. Jakaitis won the team's community service award while playing junior hockey at Waterloo, and his passion for giving back to the community clearly hasn't left him.

"It's a small community up here, and a lot of people know who we are," Jakaitis said. "There are a lot of opportunities, whether it's spending time with kids in the community or skating with local teams. I help run the hockey school up here in the summer, and last summer, I worked for a great family who does a lot of charity work and helped them with the Relay for Life.

"I've gotten so many lucky breaks, and so many people have helped me out, so it's nice to even the scale a little bit and do some nice things for other people too."

One particularly lucky break? Moving to the hockey hotbed of Minnesota and having parents who knew how to help him fit in.

Said Jakaitis, "My dad played pretty much everything except hockey, and neither my dad nor my mom can skate. We ended up moving to Minnesota when I was seven years old, and obviously, hockey is pretty big there. My parents just signed me up so that I had something to do."

Now, in a few months, he'll graduate as one of the top goaltenders in the CCHA and will leave the hockey program in a better state than it was in when he inherited the starting goaltending job midway through his freshman year, just a few weeks after his virtual whirlwind tour.

"It's been fun to be part of the rebuilding process," said Jakaitis. "It's been one of our goals to try and get better each year and keep the program moving forward. I think we've been successful at doing that so far.

"[After graduation], I'd like to keep playing and see it to the end of the road. It'll depend on what kinds of opportunities I'll have at the end of the year. I know I'm not going to be able to play hockey forever, so since I'll be getting a business degree along the way, that's something I can take advantage of. My parents have stressed that from early on, and I just try to do the best I can."

And whether it's leading the Lakers back to the CCHA playoffs, pursuing a professional hockey career, or even just serving the community, it's safe to say that his best will likely be more than good enough.

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