From a Hotel to the Golden Dome

It’s pretty simple. Pick out any single point on somebody within your field of vision. For me, I like to focus on the little logo on our game socks … eight minutes (exactly) before we step on the ice for warmups. Find a second teammate nearby and pick out the same thing. Then as fast as you can, for a minute or so, keep alternating between them. At first, try not to move your head. Then gradually start moving your head as if you were following a pass. Both spots, back and forth, whether they’re moving or not. Stay locked in. Tune out everything else and concentrate on them for as long as you possibly can.

It’s a good eye-warmup technique. It helps your focus when you have to instantly locate the puck in those critical moments in a game. I learned it from an older guy who had also played goalie when he was younger. We had talked a few times after games when I was playing in the USHL in Waterloo, Iowa. He told me about the technique and it has stuck with me ever since. I do it before every game now.

Maybe it sounds a little weird. But I feel like it’s pretty tame for a goalie as far as pregame rituals are concerned. People who know hockey have all heard the rumors about goalies. How they’re a little bit off. A little bit different. With all the stuff flying around out there, I can’t tell you what’s true and what isn’t.

The eye stretch is legitimate, though. It’s a real thing I do. And I can tell you that I, without a doubt, identify as a goalie — which means you can trust me.

I spent some time living out of a hotel in Chicago when I was 16. But it wasn’t because of a weird goalie superstition or anything like that. (Though I’m sure that if Martin Brodeur came out tomorrow and said he credited all of his 691 wins to routinely staying at a hotel, goalies all over the country would start begging their parents to pack their bags and get on the road.)

I stayed in that hotel for a different reason: I was a little bit in limbo that year. I didn’t know if I was going to get called up to stay for good with my hometown Waterloo Black Hawks or if I was going to spend the rest of the season in Chicago, where I was playing for an under-18 team in the Midwest Elite Hockey League.

Waterloo is obviously a decent drive from any major hockey city. When people think of Iowa, I know that the word hockey doesn’t scream out right away, so maybe it seems a little unusual that my family would be so invested in my youth hockey career.

But my father was a goalie. That’s how it all started. He didn’t play in the NHL, but he minded net throughout college. He taught me to skate when I was four years old. Four years later, I started playing competitive hockey.

Naturally, I was a skater first. My dad didn’t exactly try to prevent me from starting out my playing career as a goalie, but it clearly wasn’t his first choice. Maybe he was afraid that I’d get injured, or that I wasn’t big enough to master the nuances of the position back then. And as an ex-goaltender, he understood the pressures of being the last line of defense. I’m glad he let me though, because we have been best friends ever since.

I loved the pads. Ask any goalie how he first started and there’s a good chance he will say he was enamored with the gear like I was. I had to wear them. It was like I had to be a goalie. I still remember the day I asked my parents for my first set of pads.

It could be that I was always a goalie — like I was born that way and deep down my parents always knew it — but it took me getting to a certain age for them to be comfortable admitting my potential. Like how Dumbledore waited until Harry Potter was 11 before telling him he was a wizard. (Yer a ’tender, Calvin.)

By the time I had turned 11 I was deep into the life. I had my pads. My mask. My life-size Martin Brodeur Fathead on my bedroom wall. The only thing I needed was the stiff competition. Playing for a Triple A team was step one.

And that’s when the driving started. First came a Triple A team in Minneapolis (practically Wisconsin) and a couple of years later, a team in Madison. So three times a week during the season, one of my parents would pick me up after school and drive me 3½ hours to practice around the Twin Cities area. If it was a nice day, my dad would fly me in his small single-engine airplane, and it would cut the travel time down to an hour. The times in the car and the plane with my mom and dad are some of my fondest memories.

My parents only had one rule: “If we’re going to spend half of our days driving you to hockey practice, you’re going to make every single second of practice worth it.”

That was their only condition, and I did my best to honor it. I was always sort of aware that they had contributed a lot for me to be able to play hockey, but I don’t think it was until I got to college that I really thought about just how much time they actually spent just lugging me and my pads around in the car.

No matter how determined I was to play hockey, I literally could not have done it without so much support from them. It would have been physically impossible. No amount of heart or willpower can cover that amount of distance and travel expense. I’m very lucky that I just got to sleep in the car (and play hockey) while they did all of the actual hard labor.

After three years on the road, I stayed home the next year and played for my high school team. In addition to both JV and varsity practices, I practiced every day with the Waterloo Black Hawks. Three-a-days were definitely tough, but each one made me a better goaltender. But I didn’t start a single varsity hockey game my freshman year. That next season, I had the option of staying in Iowa and trying to practice with the local USHL team, the Waterloo Black Hawks, or playing in Chicago for the Midwest Elite Hockey League. The opportunity was too good to pass up. I talked it over with my family and they gave me their support right from the beginning.

It was just a matter of getting the logistics worked out.

During the first few months, we found an unfurnished house for rent, and either my mom, dad, or aunt would stay with me while somebody else stayed back home in Iowa with my sister. It was exhausting, but we worked it out. Moving to a new city, a new school and a new house was tough, but it made me appreciate time with my family that much more. The season went well, but it was definitely a relief to go back home after it was over.

The following season was even harder. I had been drafted to play for Waterloo in the USHL, but I wound up splitting time between home and Chicago because the Young Americans had also invited me back to play for a second year. This time it wasn’t so easy to find a house or create a convenient family schedule. So we ended up living for part of the year in a hotel. And trust me, it wasn’t a nice one.

Parents don’t want to live with their teenage kid in a hotel room. That sucks. It takes a mental toll. It was difficult for my entire family. Even my sister, who had to deal with everybody only being together during holidays, or sometimes on hockey weekends. She probably grew up just as fast as me during those years. She’s the unsung hero.

The sacrifices families make so that one person can pursue their dream is hard to even believe. The only person who ever complained was probably me, when I was sore or exhausted. When I’d start to feel overwhelmed by it all, on nights when my body would ache while I’d be lying in my hotel room 300 miles from my real bed — tucked under a questionable green bedspread that apparently doesn’t get washed regularly — I’d just think about what my parents had told me.

“Make every second count.”

I eventually left Chicago for home to play for the Black Hawks full-time. I got to sleep in my own bed and my whole family was under one roof again. The drive to the rink was five minutes, and I got to play in front of my hometown fans, on a team I had been watching for as long as I could remember, and in a building where I had laced up my first skates and strapped on my first pair of pads. Everything was perfect.

I was excited when I got asked to visit Notre Dame. My family was excited. After I made my first visit, my parents told me to wait a bit and really consider my options. But I called Coach Jackson the night I got home. I couldn’t wait. It just felt right. The campus, the facilities, the culture, the history — there was a sense of a pride that I could feel right when I stepped foot on campus. This was home for me. Plus, the hockey team needed a goalie.

In my mind, there was really nothing else to consider. Stars had aligned. When Coach Jackson and I were talking about whether I would have the opportunity to play as a freshman, he told me something that has stuck with me: “Cal, I promise you one thing, you will get what you earn.” As soon as I put on the Notre Dame sweater for the first time, I felt like this was it. All the years of playing for so many different teams in so many different places, of putting my family through so much, this was where it all came together. I told myself that I was going to make every second in South Bend count.

There’s so much tradition at Notre Dame. And it’s so exciting to be able to play in front of a college crowd that’s your friends, classmates and alumni — all die-hard Irish supporters. It’s the kind of environment you live for, and there is nothing that rivals Compton Family Ice Arena on a Friday or Saturday night. With the band blasting the fight song throughout the building, there is only one goal that comes to your mind, and in giant letters in the building, everyone is reminded: Onward to Victory.

Last year we got a taste of something beyond the regular season. This year feels almost like a continuation of that story. And as the championship field starts, there’s an energy right now in our locker room. This is the most fun hockey can be. All the hard work we put in — all the way back from two weeks after last season ended, through the summer, the regular season and the conference playoffs. At this point, every game matters. Every shot. Every goal. Every save.

You imagine these games in your head — the big moments and the high stakes. Every day that you spent grinding — the bike rides in the summer, the drives to the rink, the infamous Notre Dame Gauntlet Run — you were imagining yourself playing in this tournament. And best of all, you’re going to be playing with 26 of your best friends.

And now it starts. Sixteen teams competing for a shot at the championship. Everything has been leading up to this. Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Waterloo have all led me to South Bend. And it’s time to play hockey … But first, I have to stare at the little logo on our game socks.