Late last Saturday night, as other people around the country were setting their clocks ahead one hour, Lake Superior State goalie Blaine Lacher set his back two years. He was recalling his freshman season: On those infrequent occasions when he did play, he was so tentative that he would incarcerate himself in the goal crease, venturing out of it only when pulled from games by his coach, Jeff Jackson. "I was scared," said Lacher. "I was a mental case. I really believed that I wasn't good enough, that I didn't belong there."
As he spoke, Lacher could take comfort in the certainty that he is good enough now. He had just proved as much, emphatically, at the NCAA hockey Final Four in St. Paul by stopping 50 of 53 shots against Harvard and Boston University, including 24 of 25 in the Lakers' 9-1 flogging of the Terriers in Saturday's championship game.
The title is Lake Superior's second in three years and third in the last seven, an astonishing feat for a school that has rarely landed—or even sought—a blue-chip recruit. Located in Sault Ste. Marie, a small hook of land off the eastern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the school scours lower-level junior teams and weekend beer leagues in western Canada and the northern U.S. for players. "I acknowledge that I'm not going to get the premier recruit," says Jackson. "I want humble, rural kids who are not enamored of bright lights, big cities and big parties."
But to Lacher, who grew up in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Sault Ste. Marie was a big city of bright lights and big parties when he arrived in the fall of 1991. "It seemed like a pretty big place to me, with all the attention that the hockey players got," says Lacher. "I came there, and I felt invincible, that I could get away with anything because I was a hockey player."
Midway through his freshman season, after one particularly sodden bacchanal, Lacher was arrested for disorderly conduct. The charges were dropped, but he did serve a two-game suspension imposed by Jackson. Soon after coming back, he was lit up for 15 goals in a two-game weekend series against lowly Ohio State. Lacher played only four more minutes that season though Lake Superior went on to win the NCAAs. "At the end of that season Blaine came to me and wouldn't even look me in the eye," says Jackson. "He was sobbing uncontrollably. It was then, I think, that he realized how desperate he was for the sport."
It took Lacher another year to rediscover his confidence. He stopped cowering between the pipes and again started littering the ice with interlopers who happened upon his turf. "Now he approaches every game like it's a street fight," says Laker winger Dan Angelelli.
This season Lacher emerged as the top goalie in college hockey, finishing with a 2.02 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage, both tops in the nation. He also set an NCAA record by going more than 375 minutes without allowing a goal.
Despite these achievements, Lacher can't shake the memory of that dismal freshman year. Even after leading his team to the NCAA title, he wore a somber expression as he recalled, "What a wreck I was."