Looking Out For Number One

Boston University goaltender Jason Tapp had to wonder whether his moment in the spotlight would ever arrive.

During his freshman year, the newcomer from Kelowna, British Columbia, was all but relegated to the role of innocent bystander as the Terriers struggled through their first losing season in 10 years.  Unfortunately for Tapp, the Terriers’ lone bright spot that year was their netminding: Hobey Baker finalist Michel Larocque started 35 of 37 games that season, and there weren’t even many chances for late-game relief.

Now Larocque is playing in the minors, and could see time with the Chicago Blackhawks this season.

Before his sophomore year even began, the Terriers successfully recruited the hottest goaltending prospect in the country, Rick DiPietro.  Tapp played more frequently but took a back seat to the youngster whose stickhandling captivated fans and scouts alike.  Although DiPietro’s flair as a “third defenseman” with the puck received the attention, he won the respect of the hockey cognoscenti with his mental toughness and ability to stop the puck.

All of which left Jason Tapp, well, looking out for number two.  And with DiPietro being a young freshman — one who would need to roll the dice and risk his development if he chose to opt in to the 2000 Draft, it looked probable that Tapp would be destined for a third year as understudy to a star.

But a few funny things happened on the way to the 2000-2001 season.

First off, Tapp started to show what he could do in the net.  After several mediocre outings early 1999-2000, he put together a number of solid if unspectacular outings.  He shut out Denver 4-0, posted a victory against Merrimack in November and earned an overtime win against UMass-Amherst in early December.

He narrowly missed another shutout against Yale in January when a late goal cost BU a 1-0 win, as Tapp made 22 saves.  He had 33 saves in a 5-3 decision over UMass-Lowell between DiPietro’s Beanpot wins in February.  Most importantly, he finished the regular season strong when his counterpart looked a little distracted in the net shortly after the Beanpot.  After DiPietro was pulled following three goals on just six shots, Tapp picked up a win against Providence College — making a huge, momentum-turning save against Josh MacNevin in the process.

The following weekend, Tapp had his best numbers ever, stopping 41 of 42 shots to beat Northeastern 3-1.   It was enough to make snakebitten NU coach Bruce Crowder draw comparisons to Groundhog Day afterwards, as he once again saw his team robbed of a win despite a barrage of shots.

“When you see a lot of rubber, you get into the game and you feel real good when the puck’s hitting you,” Tapp said at the time.

However, Tapp’s future prospects changed most dramatically after the season ended, when DiPietro surprised many by opting in for the 2000 draft.  It was a gamble that paid off, as the super-confident teenager became the first goalie in the current draft format to be picked first overall. 

So with DiPietro gone to the New York Islanders’ organization, Tapp’s big chance had come at last.  But first he would have to deal with the naysayers.  BU was seventh in the USCHO preseason poll, but many thought they would have been ranked first or second had DiPietro stayed.

Tapp shrugs off the inevitable speculation.

“It’s just the situation I’m in; I was in the same situation the year before with Michel [Larocque] leaving,” Tapp says. “Michel was a great goalie.  I was in a rough spot for two years — there’s not much I could do with two All-Americans in front of me.”

After Tapp played tentatively, albeit with the right to sue his defensemen for lack of support, in this year’s opening loss against Rensselaer, BU coach Jack Parker decided to put the issue on the table with his netminder.

“I was talking to him about worrying about what everybody else was thinking,” Parker says. “‘Geez, BU’s going to be pretty good if I can just be a decent goaltender, and blah blah blah.’  

"I was in a rough spot for two years — there’s not much I could do with two All-Americans in front of me."

— Jason Tapp, on playing behind star netminders Michel Larocque and Rick DiPietro at BU

“I told him, ‘Just go out and have some fun and stuff, [instead of] thinking about talk radio,'” Parker adds. “‘This isn’t what you should be doing here.’ I think he got that monkey off his back, too.”

And how.  Tapp got the win in his next start, stopping 27 of 28 shots from a Vermont team hungry for action following the cancellation of much their season last year due to hazing allegations.

“Last week I was putting pressure on myself that I didn’t need to put on myself,” Tapp says. “I didn’t come up with the big save last week, and this week I made sure I was going to come up with the big save.”

The result was especially satisfying given that the Catamounts had lit up the goalie for seven goals on only 20 shots last season, almost one year ago to the day.

“Must be the same guy, but he played differently for sure,” Vermont coach Mike Gilligan said.

Another thing that is a little different is his uniform number: you probably can’t think of another goalie who has ever worn 83, but Tapp wears the unorthodox number in honor of his sister, born in 1983.  Jessica Tapp suffers from curvature of the spine.

“I talk to my sister a lot during the week with the Instant Message on the computer,” Tapp says. “My sister is a big supporter….She’s always cheering me on and hoping I’m doing well.  She’s an inspiration to me, and that’s why I wear it.  And I can’t wait for her to come down and watch me play.”

What?  He’s a junior, and she’s never seen him don number 83 for BU?  Tapp has to chuckle over that one.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on the pine in the last two years, so she really hasn’t had the chance to see me play,” he says. “But hopefully this year she gets out to cheer me on in the stands.”

Initially, Parker was not amused to hear that a recruit wanted such an off-the-wall number to wear.

“He asked Brian Durocher, who was recruiting him, and Brian came back and said, ‘Oh, by the way, Jason Tapp would like to wear number 83,'” Parker recalls. “And I said, ‘No way anybody’s wearing 83.’ 

“He said, ‘Before you make a decision, you might want to get Sally [Ward], our academic advisor, to show you his application essay.’  Where he talked about the role of his sister in his life and why he wanted to wear 83. 

“And I said, ‘Yeah, you can wear 83.’  We’d be stupid not to let him wear 83!  So he wears 83.”

Now Tapp is pushing to make sure that his number is not the only exceptional thing about him on the ice.  And if the game against Vermont is any indication, he’s on the right track.

“He played tonight like he played the second half of the season for us last year,” Parker said. “He was real confident; he was on the puck, and he was very aggressive.”

Meanwhile, thus far, another BU goalie recruit — promising freshman Sean Fields, a netminder with a butterfly style — is forced to wait in the wings and see how much of an opportunity he will get to play this year.   An incoming recruit from the BCHL, Fields was widely sought, but must wait for his turn in the limelight.  He’ll probably figure in some early-season blowouts and gradually get his shot to show that he belongs, to prove that he can be a number-one goalie.

He has an excellent mentor for that role.