PHILADELPHIA — Connor Hellebuyck’s pro career with the Winnipeg Jets organization will have to wait just a little bit longer.
The goaltender, who elected to leave UMass-Lowell after his sophomore season and signed an entry-level contract late last week, flew in Friday morning to accept the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the top netminder in college hockey.
Hellebuyck, who turns 21 next month, leaves a giant void between the pipes for the River Hawks.
Last season, as a freshman, he led the program to its first Frozen Four appearance after earning NCAA Northeast Regional MVP honors. He finished with a 20-3-0 record, a .952 save percentage, and 1.37 goals-against average.
This year, he finished with a record of 18-9-2, a 1.79 GAA, and .941 save percentage. The team captured the Hockey East postseason crown for the second consecutive year after Hellebuyck posted back-to-back 4-0 shutouts over Notre Dame and New Hampshire.
His career save percentage of .946 is the best in college hockey history.
The River Hawks were one victory away from advancing to the Frozen Four but Boston College squelched that dream in the Northeast Regional final in Worcester, Mass., when Hellebuyck gave up four goals for just the second time all season in a 4-3 loss.
Hellebuyck said it was a bittersweet moment, knowing that accepting the award was his last act as a college player.
“Everything my school has done for me and my teammates have done for me, it’s something I’ll never forget,” said Hellebuyck, who was presented the award by Mike Richter and Richter’s childhood hero, Bernie Parent. “That was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I am so happy that this is the way it got to end. It just tops off my college career.”
Hellebuyck said it wasn’t easy to leave, but he felt ready to take the next step.
“I don’t think I lost a lot of sleep, but I should’ve because of the amount of thought I put into it and the amount of people I talked to,” he said. “It was weighing out the odds and I feel like I’ve got to take a risk and this was the best opportunity for me. Guys around me just made me so much more prepared for it. I feel like this is what’s next.”
Hellebuyck said the experience of the last two seasons made him realize he was ready.
“I had a great coaching staff who really made me a lot better right off the start and I had a great goaltending partner, Doug Carr, who made me better right off the start,” said Hellebuyck. “I’ll always be thankful.”
One of the more difficult aspects of his decision revolved around his relationship with coach Norm Bazin and the staff.
“They really wanted me to stay because they know what they have to offer and I knew what they had to offer and that’s why it was such a hard decision to leave,” said Hellebuyck, who took a week or so to decide after the Jets’ offer came in. “Just growing, a part of that family, and having to leave them is choking me up a little bit thinking about it, but I’m thankful for what they’ve done for me. I hope they know I do respect them as much as I possibly can.”
Former Boston University coach Jack Parker has said the test for him was whether the player will actually play in the NHL. If he was going right to the NHL, Parker was completely supportive, but if the player was going to ride buses in the minors, he felt they were better off staying in school.
Bazin believes that is the best gauge.
“It depends what they’re told and what they’re actually going to do,” he said. “If they’re going to play nothing but National Hockey League, I’ll drive them to the airport. But if they’re going to play in the American Hockey League, it’s better to stay in college.”
Bazin wasn’t blindsided by the announcement but he also couldn’t mask his disappointment.
“This is not something that came out of the blue,” Bazin said. “I have discussions with all the guys who I feel have the chance to play pro hockey and I’m batting 0 for 3 at keeping them.
“Part of my job is to move guys on and give them an opportunity. I want them to fulfill their dreams and I want them to get a degree from a world class university.”
Time to settle title
Union (31-6-4) and Minnesota (28-6-6) will duke it out for the men’s championship on Saturday night.
The Golden Gophers beat North Dakota, 2-1, in Thursday’s semifinals on a shorthanded goal by Justin Holl with just 0.6 seconds remaining in regulation. Holl picked an opportune time to score his first of the season.
The Dutchmen are very skilled and equally experienced. A pair of defensemen — senior Mat Bodie and junior Shayne Gostisbehere — are key contributors to the postseason push.
“I watched both of their games in the [East] Regional [against Providence and Vermont],’’ said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “They’ve had a tremendous amount of success the last three years. They’re balanced with Bodie and Gostisbehere. They’ve got two elite defensemen who are going to jump up [in the play], very similar to what North Dakota’s defensemen did. So they certainly earned their way here.’’
The Gophers are seeking their first national championship since going back-to-back under Lucia in 2002 (beating Maine) and ’03 (New Hampshire). Making the final is a new experience for Union, but the players are taking a very business-like approach. For example, there wasn’t much of a celebration after the semifinal victory over Boston College because the job wasn’t done yet.
“It was a huge win for the team and for the program,’’ said Bodie. “But at the end of the day, it’s just a semifinal game. So, you really haven’t won anything yet. I think that’s why guys weren’t celebrating as much as some people might expect.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Elle1027.