LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Fresh off a 33 save performance in Gustavus Adolphus’ 2-0 NCAA quarterfinal win over the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Gusties senior goaltender Matthew Lopes will lead his team into the Division III final four.
Lopes’ route to Lake Placid has been anything but conventional; however, as two years ago he would have been about the last person anyone would have picked to be backstopping a team to the outskirts of the Promised Land. And it all started before he even played one collegiate game.
After graduating from Bishop Stang and Vermont Academy, respectively, the East Falmouth, Mass. native attempted to hit the junior circuit.
“I was kicked all over the country,” he said. “I mean I really suitcased around. Minnesota, Montana, Manitoba, Texas, Vancouver–wherever it was I probably played there.
“I talked to everybody–I mean you name the junior team or league. NAHL, EJHL, USHL, BCHL, I talked to everybody and finally landed a spot with the CD Selects and proved myself enough that I landed a D-III spot over at UMass-Boston.”
As far as why he originally chose to play for the Beacons, Lopes’ answer was a simple one.
“I had no other choice.”
He earned the starting job early in the season and though the Beacons closed out the 2005-06 season at a winless 0-23-3, Lopes performed fairly well considering he was asked to make over 44 saves per night.
“I started as a freshman and I played well,” said Lopes about his time with UMass-Boston. “Then we got a new coach, Peter Belisle, and I just didn’t get a shot. The year he came in I never got a chance so then again I hit the streets and talked to pretty much every college because all I wanted to do was play hockey,”
When Lopes speaks to hitting the streets to try to find a team that would give him a shot at playing time, he isn’t exaggerating. He literally scoured the East Region looking for just a single taker.
“I talked to every team in the [ECAC West, SUNYAC], I don’t care what conference a team was from; you name it and I talked to them.”
Lopes’ efforts finally paid off as SUNY-Potsdam and former head coach Glenn Thomaris expressed interest.
“I went out for a visit and met Glenn Thomaris when he was coaching there,” explained Lopes. “I took a trip and went to a Potsdam-Plattsburgh game and everything was a go.”
Exactly how close was he to ending up at Potsdam?
“I got maroon on my pads. I got the retro-brown maroon going and got everything to match.”
Unfortunately for Lopes collegiate hockey career, Thomaris retired after the 2006-07 season and new head coach Aaron Saul had plans of his own as to who would take the net for the Bears.
“I was all set at Potsdam and when Glenn Thomaris left. Aaron Saul didn’t want anything to do with me.”
Despite the matching pads, Lopes never suited up for a single Potsdam practice. The turn of events was devastating considering how much effort he had expelled just to catch on with another team.
“I kind of gave up my career almost, but I kept training and did everything I could and ended up talking to some Western teams,” he recalled.
Much like his efforts out East, Lopes tried just about everything possible to catch on with a team out West.
“I called every single hockey team out here and whoever called me back I was ready to play for.”
Enter Gustavus Adolphus.
“[Gusties' head coach Brett] Petersen gave me a shot and said ‘come on out, we’re looking for some goalies.’ So I went out there and he gave me the shot and that’s how I ended up at Gustavus Adolphus.”
Lopes showed up in St. Peter, Minn. prior to last season and though things weren’t quite the same as they were out East, he says he knew right away he had finally found a match in the Gusties.
“There was a little bit of difference culturally,” said Lopes. “But coach Petersen was amazing at making me feel at home and the guys on the team became like family. I was a quiet guy but after making the transition I blended in with the guys.”
“It was a different kind of atmosphere out West than it was out East,” he added. “Guys just accepted me here and it was like having a family away from home.”
Lopes introduction to West Region hockey came in a less than ideal setting as he received his first start in a Gusties’ sweater in a road game at St. Norbert in November 2007. The Green Knights were the top-ranked team in the nation.
“The funny part about that game is that I let in every shot in warm-ups. Every shot.”
Despite his lack of success in the pre-game prep, Lopes stopped 27 of 29 shots in the contest and the Gusties handed the Green Knights a 4-2 loss. It was the only loss of the season for the eventual national champions.
“I was no nervous,” recounted Lopes. “It was my first game in two years and we’re playing at St. Norbert. It was a huge win to beat the number one team in the nation.
“I remember telling my dad after the game: ‘Hey, I can still play.’”
In the past two years with the Gusties, Lopes has seen action in 25 games. 15 of those have come this season and he enters the final four with an 11-4-0 record, 2.15 goals against average, and .909 save percentage.
Though the biggest game of Lopes career is mere hours away, it pales in comparison to the fact Lopes finally found a hockey home at Gustavus Adolphus.
“I really just want to make sure I state how great it really is to be on this team,” he said. “Also how great the coaching staff and all the guys have been. Without all of them being who they are absolutely none of this would have been possible.
“I would say ending up at here was almost random, but then again it almost feels like the stars aligned in picking Gustavus. It’s almost like a rags-to-riches story.”
While certainly more than content with the way his collegiate hockey career blossomed over 1,000 miles from home, the fact remains that Lopes and the rest of the Gusties are indeed in the Division III final four–a mere two wins away from the first national title in program history.
“Just being able to play, period, I’m thankful for,” expressed Lopes. “But as a senior to be able to play in a Frozen Four is a dream come true–especially with the team I am on right now.
“The coaches I have, the guys–all of it. It couldn’t be a better situation.”
For a player who had to put in more effort than most to even find a spot on a college hockey roster, Lopes admits that his tribulations out East just might add a little incentive this weekend. After all, win or lose, he will close out his collegiate career at the peak of collegiate hockey, hosted at a location within throwing distance of numerous programs that wanted nothing to do with him.
“Absolutely,” he joked. “I got a little axe to grind.”