By Phil Perry
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Ryan Rondeau heard the buzzing.
It was last fall, and by most accounts, Yale was slated to build on its 2010 NCAA tournament appearance and repeat as one of the elite teams in the country.
But the Bulldogs were missing one thing, critics said. They needed goaltending.
Rondeau had started only six games for Yale during the 2009-10 season, but he took those assessments personally.
“It’s human nature,” Rondeau said. “If anyone questions you, ‘Who’s going to step up in goal?’ You kind of take that as a slap in the face.”
This season, Rondeau struck back. He seized Yale’s starting goaltender job during the Bulldogs’ second game of the season and started 32 of 34 games, leading the team to the No. 1 overall seed in the 16-team NCAA tournament.
Entering the tournament, Rondeau was first in the nation in goals-against average (1.80), tied for first in the country in shutouts (six) and second in save percentage (.932). He led his team to the ECAC Hockey tournament title with back-to-back shutouts over Colgate and Cornell and was named Most Outstanding Player for his efforts.
Needless to say, the critics stopped buzzing. Yale still had the highest-scoring offense in the country (4.23 goals per game), as it did in 2009-10, but its goaltending was no longer a liability. Rondeau had made it one of the team’s greatest strengths.
“You focus on what you have to do, but you use it as motivation,” Rondeau said of the preseason criticism. “I kind of did that. You hear about how the goaltending’s not great, but you want to show people you’re good and there’s a reason why you’re a college goalie. You want to shut those people up — shut the critics up.”
It was a long and difficult climb for Rondeau to change his school’s goaltending reputation.
Coming from the hamlet of Carvel, Alberta (population: 19), Rondeau had success in the USHL, but even then, he wasn’t an every-game starter. He won a championship while platooning in net for the Waterloo Blackhawks before signing with the first school that asked him to commit: Yale.
He allowed six goals to Princeton in his first-ever start as a freshman, and it didn’t get any easier from there. He had trouble getting on the ice, and got mixed results when given a chance.
He won one of the biggest games in program history last season, beating North Dakota in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. But that high was followed up with a 9-7 loss to Boston College. Rondeau gave up five goals in less than two periods, including one on an embarrassing 170-foot BC clearing attempt, and Yale’s season was over.
Those two games served as a microcosm of Rondeau’s career to that point: flashes of ability marred by inconsistency.
“I felt I always had the talent and the drive to be a starting goalie in college hockey,” Rondeau said. “The preparation part of it wasn’t there for my first three years. I had spurts of success and then would have a bad game and I’d have trouble getting out of it.”
Wanting to rid himself of those ugly stretches, Rondeau knew he needed a change. At 6-foot-1, he had the size and technical savvy to compete for Yale’s starting job; he simply needed to straighten out his mental kinks.
To do that, he went home and worked with John Stevenson, a sports psychologist who also had served as Rondeau’s personal goalie coach since he was 12 years old. Together, they found an approach that cleared his head — and allowed him to consistently stand on it.
“It’s just a lot of preparation,” Rondeau said. “A lot of mental exercises to keep focused.”
He added, “You can’t worry too much about what’s going on outside your own little world as a goalie. It’s kind of a funny position that way. You’re on your own little island. You have to focus on what you do and you can’t let anyone else bother you because you need to maintain that confidence. You can’t let goals bother you. Really, I think I just came in with the mindset this year of having fun. You just play the game to have fun.”
It’s an attitude that’s rubbed off on Rondeau’s teammates.
“It’s always nice to have a calming presence back there,” senior forward Broc Little (Rindge, N.H.) said. “I think that helps everybody from the ‘D’ up to the forwards.”
With the help of a much-improved defense, and with the tutelage of head coach Keith Allain (Worcester, Mass.) and goalie coach Kyle Wallack, Rondeau set the school record for wins and had them fighting for a national title.
The Bulldogs’ masked man between the pipes somehow went unrecognized when the first-, second- and third-team All-ECAC honorees were announced, but Allain — a former Yale goalie himself — knows how important Rondeau has been to Yale’s success.
“Ryan and I had a long talk last spring,” Allain said. “I told him I believed he could be the top goalie in college hockey, but he had to address a couple things. He took the ball and ran with it last summer. Now we’re seeing the results of that hard work. Results like that don’t come by accident.”
No, when it comes to Rondeau, it’s clear that the only accident made this season was on the part of those who didn’t believe in him. He compiled arguably the best season of any goalie in the country and turned away every last naysayer as deftly as one of the more than 800 shots he’s stopped in his senior season.
“I guess that’s what happens when you just come out and work hard,” Rondeau said. “Good things will happen.”
Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org