By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
When Stephon Williams first put on goalie equipment, he and his parents had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
Or what they weren’t.
He was 7 years old, and the young boy in Fairbanks, Alaska, didn’t have goalie pants.
“Just goalie (leg) pads and a chest protector,” Williams, the Minnesota State’s men’s hockey team goaltender, recalled. “Luckily, we were all 7, and nobody shot the puck very hard. But we thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably good to know.’ Ever since then, it’s been a learning experience.”
That wasn’t the last time Williams was on the ice without an important piece of equipment.
During the United States Hockey League playoffs last spring, playing for the Waterloo (Iowa) Black Hawks, Williams lost his catching glove during a play and ended up making a save with his bare hand, deflecting the puck over the back of the net.
The save was caught on video, and naturally, it became a bit of an internet sensation, getting embedded on various websites, including Yahoo Sports and Deadspin.
With all his gear accounted for (at least for now), Williams is on a mighty fine run for the Mavericks, right now, starting the last five games and winning four in a row.
After starting his college career with an 0-3-1 record, he won his first two games on the road at Wisconsin two weeks ago — “two emotional wins,” he said — and, last Friday against Bemidji State, recorded his first college shutout.
All of a sudden, Williams ranks second in the WCHA in goals-against average (1.92) and fourth in save percenrage (.923).
“I just feel more comfortable at the level of college hockey,” Williams said. “It definitely is a transition. Goaltending, it’s a really different process than it is for players. The speed of reading things is so much harder; shots are harder. It’s a completely different game.”
For now, Williams, who has the Alaskan flag painted on the back of his goalie helmet, has the job over senior Phil Cook, a Midwesterner who ended up playing junior hockey in Williams’ hometown.
Williams left Alaska when he was 17 years old, moving to Sioux Falls, S.D., to play junior hockey for the Sioux Falls Stampede. He finished high school there and won 20 games that season.
In the middle of the following year, the Black Hawks traded for him, and he backstopped a playoff run that ended in a loss in the fifth and decisive game of the USHL playoff championship series.
Already this year, Williams has shown some swagger that made him a successful junior goaltender. Some of his antics at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center didn’t exactly endear him to Badgers fans. They booed him after he threw the puck down the rink after a big save as well as while he danced in front of his net after a penalty was called on Wisconsin and when he himself got called for roughing. (No gloves were dropped.)
But there was no question that a college character was born.
“I’ve always been told go out and have fun,” he said. “I want to enjoy myself. That’s why I love the game because I love to play and I have fun. It’s not the kind of guy I am to just, ‘Stop puck. Robot. Drop it. Ok. Game. Go.’ I feel good. You feel happy when your team scores You feel good when you make a save. You feel great when your team blocks a shot.”
The good feeling, of course, is mutual.
Coach Mike Hastings said a few big saves in key situations — early in the game, during a penalty kill, in the third period of a one-goal game — have been instrumental in the Mavericks’ recent run.
“A lot of it is timing,” Hastings said.