What, Me Worry?

He lives alone with his cat, and he’s afraid to cut his hair.

And at just 166 pounds, he’s one of the toughest competitors on ice.

Michigan State goaltender and Hobey Baker candidate Chad Alban answers the question that’s on everyone’s lips:

“Just what is up with that hair?”

“I just grew it out in the summer, because I’ve had short hair for so long now,” Alban says. “I used to have long hair in high school, and I’ve had short hair for four years now. When I grew it out I started liking it. I like the look of it coming out of the helmet.”

So, do the ladies like it?

Alban laughs at the thought. “It’s too long now. As bad as I want to get it cut, I’m not getting it cut yet. The worst is the back. It’s so hard to control in the back. I like it long on top, so I’ll probably keep it long for a while on top.”

Alban says the haircut will come soon enough. “Two more weeks.”

Not at all debunking the myth that goaltenders are, well, different, Alban claims he has just one superstition, and that’s his hair.

“I try not to have too many superstitious things to deal with. I’d be a mess. I don’t like to change anything from the regular season. I don’t like to shave a couple of days before a game, just because I don’t want that uncomfortable new growth on my face.”

So while other teams are growing their game-faces, Alban and the rest of the Spartans are clean-shaven.

“I’ll tell you right now that I couldn’t play with a beard. It would be itchy. If I had anything, it would be a goatee, which I can’t grow anyway. It doesn’t connect, so it doesn’t look good.”

Besides, says Alban, Ron Mason would never let his players look so scruffy. “Ohio State didn’t look good. It’s just not classy-looking.”

Ohio State may not have been as clean-cut as the boys in green and white, but the two teams nevertheless clashed for one of the more memorable CCHA title games in league history. And if the Buckeyes get through Yale in NCAA play, the Spartans may again be facing the team that took them to double overtime.

Alban says it doesn’t matter who the Spartans face in the NCAA quarterfinals.

“We don’t let things get to us. If we stick with our game and the way we can play, we can beat just about anybody.

“I think we know we’re a good hockey team, yet we know we have play our solid game if we want our best chances of winning. No matter who we’re playing, we worry about ourselves rather than the other team.”

The soft-spoken senior from Kalamazoo, Mich., is mix of seeming paradoxes. At once, he is both confident and humble. He’s a little guy who makes enormous plays. And he’s among the front-runners for an award that’s been given to a goaltender only once.

“I try not to really think about it,” Alban says of the Hobey Baker. “As far as my performance goes, I have nothing to do with it now that it’s all done. It’s nice to know that it’s all done and over with. I try not to worry about it, but it’s in the back of your mind.

“I didn’t let it affect me on the ice, but I’m glad it’s over with.”

Alban chuckles about how his teammates teased him with a “Hobey Baker” chant throughout the season, but he’s perfectly serious when he talks about how being nominated reflects as much on the Spartan team as on him as an individual.

“I heard it enough. They gave it to me enough. But it’s a part of them, too, just like the league’s Most Valuable Player award. Without those guys in front of me, I wouldn’t be the goaltender I am. This means something about our team. It really does.”

There’s a mixture of pride and affection in Alban’s voice when he talks about his fellow Spartans. “The chemistry of the team is so good. Everyone looks out for each other rather than their own stats. This is the closest team I’ve ever been on.”

Alban says that in the four years that he’s played Spartan hockey, he and his teammates have experienced the kinds of ups and downs that turn individuals into parts of a whole.

“I think maybe our senior and junior classes, guys who have been here a couple of years, have been through a lot of tough times as far as winning. We’ve been on the downside of things. That brings you together as a team, makes you close when you go through the hard times.”

This year, finally, this Michigan State hockey squad has come into its own.

“Once we won that first tournament, I think our team realized that we’re a great hockey team and that we can go real far if we just work hard and play the way we can.

“We’ve stepped up every chance we can. We were down a few guys in the GLI, and guys stepped it up.”

Incredibly, the Spartans have won every tournament they’ve entered this season: the Team Cheerios Ice Breaker, the Great Lakes Invitational, the CCHA tournament championship. Spartan head coach Ron Mason says that Alban is a big reason for this team’s success.

“He so good that we’ve built a defense around him. In Chad’s case, he’s able to pass the puck rather than just clear it along the boards. When we’re playing well, we have systems in place that use that ability of his. He can pass to other players and initiate an offensive play.”

All this from a guy who’s been playing competitive hockey for just over a decade. “I was big in other sports until I first started at 11. Once I got into hockey, I fell in love with hockey. That was my sport from there on out.

“That’s why I started playing goalie, because I wasn’t that good on skates in the beginning. I found out later that you need to skate pretty good to play goalie. I stuck with it one year, and then I just kept improving. Before I knew it I was doing well.”

Alban says that good goalies — and that fabled goalie mentality — are made, not born.

“I think you turn into more of a different person when you’re a goalie because you have to be more relaxed. One of the troubles I had when I was younger was that when I’d get scored on, I’d lose my temper. I’m a competitive person and I hate to lose.

“You’re playing a different game out there as a goalie. You can’t really be worried about the score. You’ve got to try to stop every puck you can. There are some games you play your best game, and you lose. Sometimes you play an okay game and you still win.

“The bottom line is winning, but if you let a bad goal in, you have to forget about it right there.

I’ve changed as a person since I started playing goalie. I’ve learned to be more calm. I have a better goaltending mentality. You can’t expect to have the mental aspect of being a goalie right off the bat.”

When it came to choosing colleges, Alban says that he was faced with having to decide between Michigan State and Michigan, two of the schools he grew up watching as a kid in Kalamazoo.

“I just felt really comfortable here at Michigan State, with the tradition and the past and all the great goaltenders who have played here. Because a lot of guys who played here went on to play with the NHL, that helped me make my decision.

“State was always the team when I was growing up, the big team to beat. So it was the kind of a team that I always thought I wanted to play for.”

Alban likes being close to home, and for two years he shared an apartment with his older brother, who just recently transferred to Western Michigan University. Now that his brother is gone, he’s left alone with Puck, his black cat.

“I got her my sophomore year. We always had animals at home, and we could have cats in my apartment complex. So I got a black cat and named her Puck.

“She’s a really skinny cat, really small and hyper. She keeps me up at night and sleeps all day. She needs the attention. She keeps me company.”

With all of the media attention Chad Alban has received, you’d think he would be frazzled, or at least less than gracious.

Neither could be further from the truth.

“I guess it comes with playing well. It hasn’t gotten to me yet. I’ll wait until the end of the year to try to think about it all.”

Hockey locks and all.