By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
When you’re a freshman goaltender new to the program, you can expect a few hurdles on your way to earning a start in net. Often you have to compete with a veteran starter who’s been in goal for a season or two.
Will you be able to raise your level of competition from junior hockey to college hockey? How many other goalies on the roster do you also have to compete with?
Freshman goaltender Ryan Massa expected all of that when he came to Omaha to join the UNO hockey program. John Faulkner is the established starter from a year ago.
After one of the more successful seasons in Maverick hockey, Faulkner moved up to second on the all-time shutouts list, earning six a year ago. When walk on Dayn Belfour joined the team in late summer, it created a logjam of four goalies on the roster.
No problem, part of what comes with the territory. What Massa wasn’t expecting was fighting just to get out of bed and get to practice.
In early September, he contracted mononucleosis and missed several weeks of practice and training.
“It’s by far the worst thing that I’ve ever experienced,” Massa said. “I was pretty much stuck to my dorm room for a good two weeks. Missed quite a bit of school and obviously a lot of hockey.”
The danger with an athlete having mono is not just the obvious health concerns that come with the virus. It’s also how much weight and energy the athlete loses over the course of several weeks or months.
After recovery, they often have to sit out weeks more just to gain back lost weight and get back into playing shape. For Massa, that wasn’t an option.
He couldn’t risk extra time off the ice to get back in shape. That would mean getting further behind Fredrik Bergman and Belfour, who are also vying to be the regular backup behind Faulkner.
If Massa couldn’t return to the ice until November or December, one of the two may have already taken the spot.
“The doctors and Masa (Takaiwa) our trainer, they were very cautious on making sure I didn’t come back too early because it can only get worse if I return to early,” Massa said. “I really had to pay attention to eating right, staying really hydrated and resting as much as possible.”
His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. In the preseason, coaching staffs are only allowed a few hours a week to be at team practices.
Though Massa was absent from almost every practice that Dean Blais was at, the Mavs head coach was always mindful of his missing goaltender.
“To have mono for at least a month, he was bed-ridden for at least two weeks where he didn’t do much,” Blais said. “[He] maintained his school, but more importantly even, maintained his weight and health. He didn’t lose any weight. He was taking protein shakes, he was trying everything he could to make sure he wasn’t weak physically.”
That extra attention to getting back on the ice paid off pretty quickly. In Friday’s loss to Alaska-Anchorage, UNO and starting goaltender John Faulkner gave up three goals before the end of the second period.
After a Seawolf score made it 3-0 at 15:24 of the second, Faulkner was pulled and Massa made his college debut in the Maverick net. He stopped 14 shots the rest of the way and finished the weekend stopping 35 of 39 shots, good enough for a .897 save percentage.
Granted, UNO lost both games, but Massa didn’t get much help from his offense. In the two losses to Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks, the Mavs only managed one goal.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad performance in net by a goalie who didn’t expect to even be on the plane to Alaska.
“Honestly, I wasn’t planning on traveling with the team up to Alaska at the start of the week,” Massa said. “After practice on Wednesday coach Blais asked me if I wanted to go. Of course I was very eager to get playing again, get back in the lineup.”
Blais wasn’t expecting to call on Massa either. So far he’s liked what Massa has done in practice, and circumstances on Friday night called for someone new in net.
Blais said that although Faulkner is the starter, he doesn’t want him playing every game like he did last season. Thus far Massa has given himself a little separation from the other guys competing for the backup job.
“He looked sharper, Blais said. “We watch a goaltender stop 100 pucks a day sometimes. He looked like he was more ready than (Dayn) Belfour or Fred (Bergman). Maybe not, there’s still a lot of hockey to be played, and we’re waiting for one of ‘em to step up.”
Massa’s return to the ice wasn’t completely all on him. He shares a dorm with defenseman Brian O’Rourke and forwards Dominic Zombo and James Polk.
Between the four of them, getting Massa back on the ice was a team effort.
“We did a good job sanitizing the dorm room all the time, making sure germs weren’t shared, that’s for sure,” Massa said. “They did a great job just by keeping quiet when I needed rest.”
“I was actually forcing Chipotle and a lot of high calorie meals. It might have taken me an hour and a half to eat it cause of my sore throat, but I got it down.”
For as much help as they might have been, Massa said they also did everything they could to stay away. Their dorm room had never been cleaner.
Though Massa got playing time up in Alaska, Blais says finding a backup is still a game-to-game decision. As far as this weekend is concerned, Blais still isn’t sure who will start on Friday.
In Massa he sees a competitor who definitely has a shot at becoming the regular backup.
“He trains real hard in the weight room, he works hard on the ice…he’s quick, he’s athletic, he’s smart,” Blais said. “Now we’ll see how good he is. We don’t know if he can make that transition right away from playing junior to college.
“We’ll watch him in practice. We have shooters that can put the puck away just like a lot of teams. So whoever the goaltender that appears to be the sharpest will play.”