January 27, 2013
He has kept his net cleaner than anyone in college hockey. Yet when it comes to filling the net, Eric Hartzell admits he is no match for his mom.
"I still can't beat her in a game of P-I-G or H-O-R-S-E," the Quinnipiac goalie said Saturday in Hamden before the No. 2 team in the nation practiced at High Point Solutions Arena.
Mary Beth Bidinger scored 50 points once in 1978 for little Morton, Minn., High. She averaged 32 her senior year, briefly held the state career scoring record and was one of five finalists for Minnesota Miss Basketball. She earned a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
"The day the Gophers went to recruit her she scored 50," Eric said. "She's a natural athlete and does not like to lose. A lot of my mind-set comes from my mom's side.
"I remember my dad saying he saw her play basketball once and was hooked on her ever since … the little creep he is."
Hartzell breaks into a big laugh. Within minutes of meeting the Hobey Baker nominee, you know the hottest goalie in college hockey is also a hot ticket. The big guy has a big personality. Idiosyncratic? A free spirit? Sure.
"After all," his coach Rand Pecknold said, "he is a goalie."
He also is the son of former Minnesota hockey captain Kevin Hartzell, who would coach Eric two years with the Sioux Falls [S.D.] Stampede USHL junior team before he committed to Quinnipiac in 2009. Recruited by Herb Brooks, Kevin played on the 1979 NCAA champions, had 140 career points and was the Gophers' team captain in 1981-82.
Kevin was listed at 5-11 as a player. Eric says mom is 5-11 and her brothers are "are 6-3, 6-4, big farm boys." So, yes, at 6-4, 190 pounds, there are athletically dominant genes at work here. There also has been a long road to maturity for Eric Hartzell.
The numbers indicate how far he has come. Hartzell leads the nation with a 1.46 goals against average and 18 victories [18-2-3]. He is 10th in save percentage at .934 and tied for second with four shutouts. He hasn't lost a start since Oct. 27.
"Hartzy's sophomore and junior years, he was good," Pecknold said. "He was inconsistent at times. He was awesome at times. He really needed to mature and get more focused. This year the big difference is he is great and focused every day in practice and it translates into the games."
These are some heady times at Quinnipiac. Yes, Pecknold has had some very good teams. The Bobcats briefly rose as high as No. 4 on Nov. 30, 2009. But this season is fixing to be something special. Riding a 17-game unbeaten streak and 11-0-1 record in ECAC Hockey, Quinnipiac is No. 2 in both national polls. With No. 1 Minnesota losing Friday, the Bobcats could be atop those polls come Monday. There is plenty of attention these days on the patch of ice in the shadow of Sleeping Giant mountain.
"We've had good media coverage over the years, but nothing like this," said Pecknold, who counted 17 interviews the past week. "It has been relentless. It has been overwhelming. It's also great for our program and the university. This is why we built this rink. This is why we wanted to go big-time in hockey."
For Minnesota kids, big-time hockey long has meant the Gophers or North Dakota. And North Dakota did show interest in Hartzell.
"Zach Hansen, who was my neighbor growing up [in White Bear Lake], played here," Hartzell said. "I talked to him about it all. When I came on my visit, the beauty of the area and the amazing facility was an eye-opener. As as soon as North Dakota called and said it was going in a different direction, it was an easy decision. I jumped at Quinnipiac."
Hansen and Jake Bauer, another former Quinnipiac player, played for Hartzell's dad in Sioux Falls.
"I probably talked to Kevin more before Eric got here," Pecknold said. "As a coach, he knows sometimes parents can be a little overbearing. He knows if I need him I'll call him, or if he needs me he can call me. That's what I would do with my son. Kevin has been to a bunch of games. He's a great guy. He's a great coach."
He's also an effective writer. Ousted as Sioux Falls coach in 2012, Kevin has been writing for Let'sPlayHockey.com and in one of his blog posts he discussed Eric's trials as a freshman. How he won a few games early. How he got sick and lost out to Dan Clarke. How frustrations mounted when he didn't play at all in the second half of the season. How they talked and avoided pointing fingers. For any parent with a young athlete, these are sage words.
"He is both my father and my coach figure," Eric said. "My dad changed his major to psychology after he talked to Herb Brooks and found out what his major had been. He looked up to Herb Brooks, looked at him as a role model. That's how I look at my dad."
Kevin did write that Eric at one point was immature for his age.
"Definitely in juniors, I was immature," Hartzell said. "It's one thing to work hard and another to work hard and smart. I had to learn that. As far as keeping a good mind-set, my dad always has been there for me. The toughest part of hockey is the mental side. He has helped me through a lot of tough situations. When guys don't play, a lot of times they will look for any excuse to make themselves feel better. I used that time as a freshman when I didn't play in games to get better."
The results have been stunning.
"He might be the most improved player over the course of a college career I've had," Pecknold said. "When we came in he was a great athlete and was very raw.
"He might take the same shot 10 times in a row from the same spot and he would do 10 different things to save it. We needed to simplify his game. 'This is the best way to do it and let's do it every time.'
"The other thing with him was everything had to be a save. He's 6-4. He's huge. Sometimes you just need to be there and let puck hit you. At first he was almost too athletic."
With simplicity came consistency.
"When he gets in 5-on-3 situations, backdoor plays, breakaways," Pecknold said, "he can still use his athleticism to make unbelievable highlight-reel saves."
One came when he stopped Harvard on a 3-on-0 break.
"Eric probably is the best goalie in college hockey right now," Pecknold said. "He's a great kid, very well-liked by the guys. He's a character. He's a different personality. He's a free spirit. He is all over the place sometimes. There will be times when I go, 'Guys, make sure Hartzy is at the 2:15 meeting.' I kid around sometimes on the road, I'll put somebody in charge of Hartzell to make sure he gets on the plane and gets off the plane."
Lots of players, the young, the shy, the untalented, fear the moment they have to sing or perform during team's bonding moments. Not Hartzell. He broke into a beat-box act that lasted three minutes and left the team impressed. Years after his act, you know what impresses me? His honesty.
He went undrafted by the NHL. Others who have risen to his station would complain about how they were disrespected or done wrong. Hartzell?
"I wasn't ripped off at all," he said. "I wasn't ready to be drafted. I didn't deserve it. The work I've done at college identified me as a goalie."
So he'll be a free agent at the end of the season. There has been no shortage of NHL brass at Quinnipiac games. He is a hot property. The ECAC finish line, the NCAA Tournament, possibly the Frozen Four, the Hobey Baker, a free-agent signing, the pros … it's going to hit him in a hurry.
"We've had multiple talks," Pecknold said. "I just had him in the office [Friday] and told him, 'Don't get wrapped up about what NHL teams like you or who needs goalies. Just stay focused on being great every day you come to the rink.'"
Is he good enough for the NHL?
"Absolutely," Pecknold said.
After Hartzell tapes his sticks, he takes a permanent marker and writes "NHL" on the knob.
"It's a constant reminder of where I want to be one day," Hartzell said. "But today, I'm 100 percent focused on this team. We are on a great run."
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