Alex Kangas’ career at the University of Minnesota could not have gotten off to a better start.
After taking over as the starting goaltender for the Gophers men’s hockey team midway through his freshman year in 2007-08, Kangas recorded the best statistical season of any goalie in team history en route to appearances for the Gophers that year in the all-important WCHA Final Five and the NCAA National Tournament.
Having been drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the fifth round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and with three years of college eligibility ahead of him, major hockey-related roadblocks in the near future for the Rochester, Minn., native must have been difficult to foresee.
After his breakout freshman year, Kangas posted two more strong seasons, although in both the Gophers failed to reach the NCAA Tournament.
But after the first eight games of the 2010-11 season, Kangas’ record sat at a pedestrian 2-5-0.
Then in December, Kangas aggravated a sore hip that had been nagging him all year. An MRI revealed a labral tear, requiring surgery that brought the senior captain’s season and Gophers career to a premature close.
Kangas watched from the sidelines as his team, after a late-season surge, lost two consecutive home games to the University of Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the conference playoffs, failed to reach the Final Five for the second straight year and missed the NCAA tournament for the third straight year.
“Watching them lose in the first round was obviously tough for everybody,” Kangas said. “Everyone comes in here with high expectations, and that’s the goal here — to win the WCHA and make it to the national tournament and win the NCAA championship.
“For whatever reason, things didn’t connect for us.”
Since he was inactive and recovering from surgery, this year Kangas often found himself in the training room while his teammates practiced, or watching on television as they played on the road.
“It’s not something you want to experience,” he said. “You kind of feel left out, and it’s a little bit unfortunate.”
Despite the disappointing end to his senior season, Kangas now has little time to dwell on what might have been.
Living in Minneapolis for the summer with his brother, he has been skating with current and former Gophers for the past three weeks. He said his hip is back to 100 percent and that he is focused on returning to playing shape, so he is ready if and when the Thrashers — or rather, whatever the Thrashers will be called after they move to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season — invite him to training camp.
As if recovering from surgery while preparing to compete for an NHL roster spot wasn’t stressful enough, Kangas, along with the rest of the hockey world, learned at the end of last month that the team that drafted him was being sold and relocated.
Though he had heard the rumors when the move was finalized, Kangas found out the same way most people did — through the media.
“They had mentioned that the announcement was probably going to happen within the next week, and then I think I saw something on ESPN.com or something when the move finally was complete.”
Since buying the team from Atlanta Spirit LLC, which also owns the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. has already shaken up the Thrashers’ front office.
It remains unclear what the group will choose to call their relocated franchise.
Among the Thrashers’ staff members who will not be retained are general manager Rick Dudley and director of amateur scouting and player development Dan Marr, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Marr held the same position in 2006, when the Thrashers drafted Kangas.
When asked whether anyone from the Thrashers has kept him in the loop since the team’s sale, Kangas said, “No, I haven’t really talked to them much. I kind of knew that I was going to have to wait awhile and see what happens.”
“I’m just kind of waiting around and staying in the best possible shape and doing what’s best for me right now,” he said.
While it may be tough for a former college star to twist in the wind while he awaits instructions from his team, such is life for most professional hockey players, said Charlie Skjodt, who played professionally in four NHL organizations and coached Kangas before college on the USHL’s Indiana Ice.
“He’s just got to forget about what’s in front of him and just focus like he does on every game, every training camp, every practice,” Skjodt said of Kangas. “And that’s what I like about him … I just think he really focuses well.”
No matter what the future holds for him, and despite the relative shortcomings of his junior and senior college seasons, Kangas has cemented himself a spot in Minnesota hockey history.
As a senior at Rochester Century High School in 2005, Kangas led the Panthers to their first appearance in the state high school tournament, where Kangas stopped a tournament-record 50 shots in a 2-1 loss to White Bear Lake in the consolation semifinals.
“That was huge for our program,” said Bruce Frutiger, Kangas’ high school coach. “Once you do something like that, I think players begin to believe that it can happen again and again.”
On whether Kangas has a shot at playing in the NHL, Frutiger said, “I think he’ll make the most of every opportunity that comes his way, so I think he definitely has a chance to break in.”
Despite the inevitable questions raised by the change in the Thrashers’ ownership and management, Skjodt said Kangas’ reputation and talent should be the deciding factor in determining his professional future.
“The bottom line,” Skjodt said, “[is] if you’re a good goalie, if you’re a great goalie, somebody’s going to want you because great goalies are hard to find.”