By Mike Stackhouse
Photo – Richard Petersen
For the second time in less than a week, a star SJHL player is joining an elite NCAA program.
1998 G Justen Close (Kindersley SK) has agreed to suit up with the Minnesota Golden Gophers come September.
The SJHL Goaltender Of The Year finalist and co-winner of last year’s award has spent all three Junior ‘A’ seasons in his hometown of Kindersley and has posted a GAA of under 3 in every year and a SPCT of over .920 in the last two years.
While his play on the ice speaks for itself, there are many layers to Close that helped him secure this commitment. Klippers head coach Clayton Jardine jokes that Close is a 40-year-old man trapped in a 20-year-old’s body. “He’s the first guy in the dressing room every morning and he makes a pot of coffee for everyone. It’s almost like he should be over at the local A & W with the old guys. We joked with the coaches at Minnesota that if you want someone to make sure there’s always coffee in the dressing room, then you better sign Justen.”
“In all seriousness, the biggest thing for him is that he’s so athletic. He has a great mindset and he never gets rattled, but everyone can see how well he plays the puck, how flexible he is, and how well he moves in the crease. But, the Gophers said they really liked his maturity and they were blown away by his character,” says Jardine.
“A lot of teams knew who he was, but the Showcase was big for him,” said Jardine. It was a game in which Close came within ten minutes of a shutout against an MJHL All-Star team as he made 31-saves. Close confirms the Showcase was the beginning of a commitment that came quick. “They must’ve liked what they seen there. They also said they like my track record and the volume of minutes I’ve played. I don’t think there was one particular thing. They just said it appears as though you are tough to score on and you have the track record to back that up.”
Unlike many hockey players who reach the end of their junior careers, Close has been fortunate to live at home for most of his life. “I lived in Tisdale for two years so I do have the billet experience, but I think Minnesota will be a little bit different,” he jokes. Close has been to the campus already and came away awestruck. “What they have as far as staff, facilities, the campus itself is all very impressive.” Close notes the direct flight from Saskatoon to Minneapolis is a small bonus to make him feel like he’s near to home and while he’s not a big city type by nature, he’s embracing and excited about the possibilities. “I’ve never been to an NFL game, so I’m hoping to take in some professional sporting events. Driving around may be the hardest adjustment, but from what I’ve been told, you get on campus and you end up in your own little bubble and have your certain places that you go. But, I’m looking forward to taking a look around and experience the city.”
Close is undecided on his academic direction, but will spend the coming months narrowing down his choices.
Jardine says, “The old saying that it takes a village to raise a child applies here. There are a lot of people who have helped Justen throughout his minor hockey career and a lot of people who are proud of him today.”
One of those people, undoubtedly, is his older brother Braden; who’s an elite sledge hockey player. “The work he puts in is impressive and we’ve always motivated each other and we both have goals that we want to accomplish. We want to see each other do well and we push each other. He’s definitely someone who goes out and pushes his limits at no matter what he does. I’ve always seen how hard he works regardless of circumstance and that wears off on me as well,” says Close.
Minnesota isn’t known for being a school that comes looking for SJHL players. In fact, they don’t even look at Canada, barely, at all. So, in that respect that makes the Close commitment one of the most impressive in recent memory. Current Gophers netminder Mat Robson (Mississauga ON) is the only Canadian on their roster and Robson was the first Canadian to be on the team since Kris Chucko (Burnaby BC) and Peter Kennedy (Brookfield/Truro NS) in 2006. Before that you have to go way back to goalie and former NHLer Frank Pietrangelo (Niagara Falls ON) from 1982-86.