Northern Michigan’s Tolvanen, on attention from scoring goalie goal last month: ‘It’s been pretty surreal, to be honest’

 (photo: NMU Athletics)
Northern Michigan goaltender Atte Tolvanen is hoping a strong senior season can lead to pro hockey opportunities next season (photo: NMU Athletics).

It’s been just over a month since Northern Michigan’s Atte Tolvanen became only the 11th goalie in college hockey history to score a goal.

And he’s still all the talk around town in Marquette.

“My phone has been blowing up quite a bit,” said Tolvanen, whose goal helped the Wildcats top rival Michigan Tech 5-3 on Dec. 7 at the Berry Events Center. “To be honest, I had to turn off the notifications so I won’t be too distracted.”

In fact, Tolvanen was a half hour late to this interview because he was stopped at the bank. He went in for just a simple transaction. He couldn’t leave until he answered all the tellers’ questions.

“They asked me for my name, and they were like, ‘So you’re the guy who scored the goal?'” the senior said. “It’s been pretty surreal, to be honest.”

So how did we get here? Why did Tolvanen even have the green light to shoot at Michigan Tech’s empty net? The answer is simple, really: NMU coach Grant Potulny is just a cool guy.

“I think, for me, I still see the game through a player’s eyes,” said Potulny, whose Wildcats are only three points back of first place in the WCHA standings. “When a guy gets a penalty shot, the coach actually has an option to take a power play or the penalty shot. I would never, and could never, take a penalty shot from a player.

“So I figure because Atte is such a good puck handler that I don’t want to take that opportunity or moment away from him. He’s got the green light if he feels he’s got time to do it.”

 (photo: NMU Athletics)
This season, Tolvanen has started all 21 games for the Wildcats, going 11-10-0 with a 2.16 GAA, a .923 save percentage and four shutouts (photo: NMU Athletics).

Potulny said the goal has been a boon for his team. The video of Tolvanen’s goal went viral on social media and was featured on popular websites like Deadspin, and The national attention NMU has received has provided a morale boost for a team that has been jockeying for a WCHA title with MTU and Minnesota State.

“It’s just been great,” the second-year coach said. “The building was full that night. It was against our biggest rival, and it just capped off a great night for both us and our fans.

“What a great moment for not only him but our fan base, community and all the people in town who couldn’t get into the game because it was sold out. They’ve all been talking about it around town, about how they’re bummed they missed it in person. Everyone is sharing the stories about how loud the building was and about the excitement.

“It was such a cool moment.”

Both Tolvanen and Potulny didn’t immediately feel the excitement around town because, following the game, the Wildcats hunkered down and watched film at the arena. But Potulny’s wife and the team’s doctor filled in the players about the chatter at the post office, restaurants and bars.

“It exploded quite a bit,” Tolvanen said.

Coincidently, Tolvanen isn’t the only one on the team with a goalie goal. Volunteer coach Dieter Kochan, a former NMU goalie himself, scored a goal for the B.C. Icemen of the now-defunct United Hockey League in 1999.

What’s more, Potulny hopes the recent attention Tolvanen has received puts him on the radar of pro teams.

At about 6-feet tall, Tolvanen is considered undersized for the NHL, but he has been one of the best goalies in the conference’s history. He’s averaging just 1.59 goals against in the WCHA this winter, to go alongside four shutouts. That’s not bad for the All-WCHA Preseason Goalie selection, who will need all the accolades he can collect to garner a shot at the next level.

“That’s the goal,” Tolvanen said. “Coming into the year, I made it my goal to get into the pros next year. That’s been my mindset all the time. I want to play as good as I can and, hopefully, I’ll get an opportunity to play in the pros next year.”

If professional hockey doesn’t work out, Tolvanen will always have that goalie goal to look back on during his college days. The corralling of the puck, the shot, the handshake line, the constant phone notifications.

“It’s been pretty cool,” he said.