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8B - The Michigan Daily - Faceoff 2002 - Thursday, October 10, 2002
The Michigan Daily - Faceoff 200
DIFFERENT HATS, SAME TRICK
or Eric Nystrom, hearing his name called in
the 2002 NHL Entry Draft last June was the
biggest thrill of his young career.
Jason Ryznar's first response was relief. He sat in
Toronto's Air Canada Center through two full
rounds before being handed a pro jersey with his
name on the back.,
And Dwight Helninen? He was on vacation. He
checked the Internet periodically, and said it was
"pretty neat" to see that he'd been picked. Not exact-
ly unfettered excitement.
Then again, you should expect varied reactions
from the three Michigan sophomores. They have dif-
ferent backgrounds, personalities and styles of play.
But they all share one thing: a crucial role in
Best friends since their junior hockey days -
when they were members of the U. S. National Team
Development Program - the three Wolverines click
on the ice and are together all the time off the ice.
Nystrom and Ryznar are roommates, and Helminen
often joins them to watch television or just hang out.
But their on-ice intensity doesn't just melt away
once they leave the rink.
"We compete in everything," Ryznar said.
"School, on the ice, off the ice. We're pretty com-
petitive kids and I think that carries over all the time.
Me and Eric get in little tussles sometimes off ice,
Ryznar, who said living with Nystrom is "quite
the experience," added that most of their fights are
over the remote, and in the end they both lose.
Helminen usually takes control of the television.
Program preferences are just the beginning of the
differences between the three.
"Ryznar's from Alaska, I'm from New York -
the city-boy,"Nystrom said. "Ryz is a farm-boy, and
Dwight's from the big family in Michigan."
Ryznar wasn't so sure about that description.
"Farm-boy?" he laughed incredulously. "I don't
know if I'd call myself a farm-boy, but I guess com-
pared to Eric, I would be because he's sort of a city-
boy. Kind of preppy, kind of a mama's boy, I guess.
You can definitely tell that he's from New York. The
way he dresses, the way he acts. He's kind of prissy."
Nystrom, who's from Syosset, N.Y., takes that
kind of verbal abuse from both Helminen and
Ryznar. But as the most talkative of the group, he
gives it right back.
And Nystrom's "farm-boy" comment probably
didn't surprise Ryznar much. He's used to miscon-
ceptions about his background and gets all kinds of
reactions when he tells people he grew up in
"I actually get the question, 'Do you live in an
igloo?' or 'Do you mush to school?"' he said, adding
that people would be surprised to know that his
home town is not snowy and cold year-round.
The third member of the trio is neither a "city-
boy" nor a "farm-boy" and unlike the other two,
Helminen stayed close to home (Brighton) when he
Helminen described himself as an outdoorsman
who loves fishing and hunting - interests passed
on by his grandfather. He is also the quiet one of
"I'm kind of laid back, easy going, a more relaxed
type," he said.
The three friends are also three different types of
hockey players. Nystrom, who describes himself as
"a rah-rah guy" that likes to get guys pumped in the
lockerroom, racked up 18 goals and 13 assists while
playing on Michigan's first line last season. The
New Yorker was the top rookie point-scorer on the
team, and that scoring touch is one reason why the
Calgary Flames made him a first-round draft pick.
As the 10th overall selection, the skilled for-
ward may get an opportunity to sign with an
NHL team before he finishes school. Nystrom
doesn't rule out the possibility of turning pro
early, but he said timing is critical.
"As of right now, I still have so much to learn, and
I'm nowhere even near the NHL level, he said,
adding that he does not want to leave school only to
end up in the minors.
"I want to be able to step out of college and step
right into a role on an NHL team."
Helminen, for one, hopes Nystrom will
stick around. He enjoys playing with his
"You go out there, and you know he'll be in the
corner with you," Helminen said. "He's one of the
hardest workers on the team. It's always fun playing
with someone who's going to work hard and (who's)
not going to back down out there."
Nystrom takes pride in his work ethic, and spent
this summer trying to improve his skating and
increase his speed.
Skating is Helminen's specialty. At 5-foot-10 and
191 pounds, the soft-spoken southpaw is smaller
than Nystrom and Ryznar, but he makes up for it
with his speed. An eighth-round draft pick by the
Edmonton Oilers, he scored 18 points in 40 games
last season, and was only partly satisfied.
"I thought maybe I'd have a more productive
year," he said. "This year I definitely have to pick it
up and be one of the leaders on this team"
The 6-foot-4 Ryznar towers over Helminen, but
their leadership styles are similar. Like Helminen,
Ryznar doesn't say much in the dressing room, but
that doesn't mean he's not effective.
"He leads by just the way he works in the corners
on the ice," Nystrom said. "His physical play, that's
the way he leads."
The bruiser netted 16 goals in his freshman sea-
son, while using his size to drill opposing players.
The New Jersey Devils selected Ryznar in the third
round of this summer's draft.
The three forwards have a certain synergy on the
ice, and Nystrom said part of that could be because
they're such good friends.
"It's crazy how that works," he said. "Chemistry
off the ice leads to chemistry on the ice. There are
some guys that you just click with. And when you're
around them all the time you seem to have a sixth
sense of what they're doing."
Another reason they play well together may be
that they were teammates long before they came to
Michigan. All three played on US-NTDP teams
from 1999-2001. They traveled all over America
and Europe, facing some of the best young players
in the world.
With most of the team living away from home,
Nystrom said that all 22 players relied on each other:
"We were all kind of like brothers," he said.
Ihree of the brothers were particularly close, and
that influenced their decision of where to play col-
lege hockey. Helminen and Nystrom chose
Michigan first, and they convinced Ryznar to join
them in Ann Arbor.
All three players had an immediate impact as
freshmen. While Nystrom teamed up with former
winger Mike Cammalleri and current senior captain
Jed Ortmeyer to power Michigan's offense, Rzynar's
physical presence and Helminen's grittiness were
also vital to the Wolverines' Frozen Four run.
But that was last year. With high-scoring
defenseman Mike Komisarek and leading goal-
scorer Cammalleri leaving early for the NHL, these
sophomores know this is a new team, and they have
"Last year we had a big impact on the team, but
this year we have to have a bigger impact,"Nystrom
said. "People are going to be looking at us to step up
"I think there's definitely added pressure from last
year," Ryznar said. "You're a sophomore, you're not
an inexperienced freshman anymore. Every day you
have to get better, and you really have to show that
you improved from last year."
Helminen added that the team doesn't talk about
the departures of Cammalleri, Komisarek and goal-
tender Josh Blackburn much, but everyone is well
aware of the holes they left behind. And despite the
off-season losses, the three sophomores like the
makeup of the 2002-03 Wolverines.
"I don't think we're going to have a lot of
superstars, but every game we're going to give
it our all," Ryznar said. "We'll compete every
shift in every game."
Nystrom set the tone at a team gathering before
the season started.
"It's not about who's missing; it's about who's
here," Nystrom told the Wolverines. "And it's those
guys who are going to win the games, not the guys
who are gone. They're gone, they're history, they're
The city boy, the suburbanite and the kid from
Alaska are all still here, and there is nowhere else
they'd rather be.
A l Montoya is not your average 17-year-old.
LAMost 1 7-year-olds haven't taken mail corre-
spondence courses in addition to a normal aca-
demic load to arrive at college a year early. Most
17-year-olds haven't left their families when they were
15 to move to Texas to play hockey with guys five
years older. Most 17-year-olds aren't preparing to have
6,800 screaming fans watch their every move each
weekend as he continues a legacy left by Steve
Shields, Marty Turco and Josh Blackburn.
When Montoya takes the net against Niagara, he will
become the fifth straight goalie to start as a freshman at
Michigan and the youngest of those five.
But to Al Montoya, this is nothing new.
When Montoya was seven and playing in a local
league in Glenview, Ill., a suburb just north of Chica-
go, his coach pulled him out of the league and put him
on the travel team.
"When I asked (the coach) 'Why are you doing
this?' he said, 'Leave him alone, he's OK where he's
at,"' said Dr. Irene Silva, Al's mother.
As Montoya was shot at 50 to 60 times a contest,
his squad wasn't given much of a chance according to
Silva. However, with Montoya in net, the team made it
to the league finals.
When Al was 11, he was invited onto a team of 12-
year-old Chicago-area travel players to represent the
United States for a one-week tournament in Sweden.
He was invited by the father of current Michigan
freshman Danny Richmond and former Michigan
player Steve Richmond.
But throughout all this, Montoya was never really
sure that he wanted hockey to be his life. After playing
AAA hockey for three years in middle school, Al
became exhausted from all the weekend trips around
the Midwest and never really being able to hang out
with his friends from school. He then played football
at nearby Loyola Academy - where his brother
starred for four years as a lineman before playing at
the Naval Academy, and played on the varsity hockey
team. While in net he helped his team of 17- and 18-
year-olds to the state semifinals. But the competitive-
ness wasn't enough for him.
"When I went to Loyola Academy, I was like,
'Maybe I want to take it down a level. Play football, see
what I wanted to do."' Montoya said. "After I played
that year, I was like, 'Oh, god. I really miss it. I got to
get to the same competitive level that I used to be at."'
Preparing to return to back to AAA Hockey that
next school year, Montoya got the chance of a lifetime.
At a USA Hockey Festival that summer, he played
well enough to catch the attention of the Texas Torna-
do of the United States Hockey League. Shortly after
he began his sophomore season at Loyola, the Tornado
offered him a chance to move to Fort Worth to become
the youngest player in junior hockey.
When he told his mom of the opportunity in Texas,
she was in shock. However, after meeting the host fam-
ily that Al would be living with, his mom got over it.
"She knew that's what I wanted to do," Montoya
said. "She's didn't want to stop anything. She wanted
to support me 110 percent."
Current Michigan sophomore defenseman Nick
Martens lived with that same host family the year
before and played with Al that season. While Montoya
only played in 16 games, Martens and the others took
him in as one of their own.
"I was sort of like the little brother to all the guys,"
Montoya said. "I got lucky, they took me under. The
coach treated me with the same respect as the other
guys. But I think if it was not for that one team I went
to, it could have been trouble."
As Montoya was adjusting to life on his own, on the
ice he was making his mark, and still does, is in practice.
"In practice, he was the most competitive kid I
have ever seen out there as a goalie," Martens said. "I
think that early year away really helped him grow up.
Even though now he's still a young kid, he's a lot
After the season, Montoya was invited to come to
Ann Arbor to join the U. S. National Team Develop-
ment Program's Under-17 Team. Playing again in the
USHL against older kids, Montoya had a 3.23 goals
against average and a .912 save percentage, but his
real accomplishments were at the World Challenge
Championship in Manitoba this past January. Playing
against some of the best Under-17 players in the
17-year-old Al Montoya is about to become the
fifth straight Michigan goalie to start as a
freshman. But for someone who's always played
with older players, this is just...
THE NEXT STOP.
By Bob Hunt. Daily Sports Writer
world, Montoya won three games for Team USA to get
them to the championship game. In the title game
against a Canadian Pacific All-Star team, Montoya
entered the game with eight minutes remaining and
the Americans down by one. Team USA then went on
to win the game in overtime.
"It was the most amazing feeling that you can get
when you're in front of 7,000 fans and you score in
overtime," Montoya said. "You expect to hear fans and
all you hear is dead silence in Canada."
Montoya was originally interested in Notre Dame,.
Boston College and Wisconsin along with Michigan.
But in December of last year, he learned he could
likely become the Wolverines' starting goaltender this
year. The opportunity was too good to pass up.
Because he was only a high school junior, he made
his decision without ever officially visiting another
However, there was a slight problem. In order to be
on campus this fall, Al had to take enough classes to
graduate from high school a year early. Therefore he
took five courses through the mail in addition to tak-
ing seven classes at Ann Arbor Huron High. For those
classes, Montoya was sent all the books to read and
papers to write. Then after sending those in, he was
sent the final. He accomplished all that school while
playing on a team that travels to places such as Pitts-
burgh, Texas and Slovakia.
"It takes a lot of time management," Montoya said
After all that, Montoya seems ready to take the
CCHA by storm. While he is the youngest player on
the team - senior captain Jed Ortmeyer is six years,
five months and 10 days older than he is - his desire
for competition can help him rise to the challenge.
"I like the way Al plays," Michigan goalkeeping
coach Stan Matwijw said. "He's really competitive and
he really battles. He reminds me a lot like a cross
between a Steve Shields and a Josh Blackburn. The
way that he presents himself on the ice he resembles
Steve Shields. But the way that he battles really resem-
bles Josh Blackburn."
In fact, sometimes he can almost be too competi-
tive. Unlike most goalies, Montoya has been know to
get into scuffles with players on other teams if he feels
they have been taking advantage of his teammates.
Last February he was suspended for a game for get-
ting into a fight.
"He's a good team guy. He loved his teammates,"
said Moe Mantha, his US-NTDP coach last season.
"When he sees someone being taken advantage of,
he'll help out. His competitiveness wears off on other
people. He doesn't even have to say anything. He leads
While everyone raves about his competitiveness and
his athleticism, he has real poise in net and his puck
handling skills almost make him a third defenseman
behind the goalline.
"When I saw him last year, you always kept hearing
'athletic, athletic, big athlete," Michigan assistant
coach Billy Powers said. "He's a good positional goal-
tender, and doesn't always just rely on the fact that he's
got great reflexes and that he's got a really nice glove.
He's very calm and posed in the net, where I thought
he may be a little jumpy. He looks sharp."
One thing that Montoya says helped him adjust to
the play at Michigan was when he was one of only
four players his age to be invited to an under-20 World
Junior Camp this past summer with players looking to
play in the World Junior Championships this Decem-
ber. Dwight Helminen, Eric Nystrom, Mike Komis-
arek and Mike Cammellari played in that same
tournament last year.
For now, Montoya is just getting ready to take the
next step. And considering how's he hung with an
older crowd before, this should just be the next stop on
the journey ofAl Montoya.