HAMDEN — The winningest goaltender in college hockey ambles into a downstairs office at High Point Solutions Arena holding a clear plastic cup filled with an odd-looking substance and apologizes for his tardiness.
Eric Hartzell had an early morning. He was there at 6 a.m. to scrub the arena’s 3,286 seats with Quinnipiac hockey teammates. Punishment, he says, for a couple of bad penalties the Bobcats took the previous weekend.
The menacing liquid in his cup, a mixture of luminous colors and black specks, appears to be cleaning solution. At least until Hartzell puts it to his lips and takes a sip.
“What is that?” I ask, mildly horrified.
“That,” Hartzell says, smacking his lips and placing the cup on a table, “is a smoothie.”
Only 10 minutes earlier, roommate Russell Goodman later explained, Hartzell had wandered into their kitchen, apparently awoken from a nap by a text message reminder of his interview. In a hazy stupor he broke out the blender, whipped up the concoction and silently sauntered out the door. Yet by the time he arrives at the rink office he is wide awake, upbeat and chatty.
“That’s Hartzy,” Goodman said. “He’s a character; just a lot of fun to be around. The things he does are so unique. Living with him...every day is something different.”
Chances are if you don’t have an amusing story about Hartzell, you probably haven’t met him. Outgoing, quirky and free-spirited, the senior from White Bear Lake, Minn., rarely ceases to amaze.
His pre-game juggling routine, Hartzell whipping tennis balls off walls and bouncing them off his feet, is worthy of vaudeville.
While most teammates prefer music with a harder edge, Hartzell often blasts reggae in the locker room.
A popular team tradition is the requirement of freshmen, at random moments, to stand up and either sing or tell a joke. When Hartzell was put on the spot for his initiation three years ago, he broke into a three-minute beat box solo that left the room stunned.
“It was pretty impressive,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “He’s a different cat, that’s for sure. But everyone loves Hartzy.”
His on-ice performance has left similar reactions in arenas across the country. Against Harvard earlier this month, a turnover allowed three Crimson skaters an uncontested breakaway. Three-on-none, Hartzell made the save. Countless times he’s kept his team in the game with stops most college goalies simply don’t make.
A three-year starter, Hartzell was no slouch as a sophomore and junior, his combined goals-against average just 2.24. But this winter is shaping up as his masterpiece. His 17 wins lead the nation. He’s second in GAA (1.45) and shutouts (4). A clear Hobey Baker Award candidate, he’s a major reason the Bobcats are riding a 16-game unbeaten streak and ranked fourth in the country.
“He’s been this good since his sophomore year,” Pecknold said, “The biggest difference this year is the consistency. He’s matured and more focused in practice. When he does let one in, he moves on quickly.”
Hartzell, at 6 feet 4 and 190 pounds, comes from athletic stock. His parents, Kevin and Mary Beth, met at the University of Minnesota, where both were athletes. Kevin played hockey for coach Herb Brooks, scoring 140 career points and winning a national championship in 1979; Mary Beth, who once scored 50 points in a Minnesota high school game, was on the Gophers’ basketball team.
Hartzell is the second of three children. His older brother, Brandon, is a touring professional golfer and younger sister Whitney is a student at Minnesota State and an aspiring actress. Hartzell learned the game from his father on a pond in the family yard. A forward early in his development, he decided to become a goalie around age 10. Kevin, a longtime coach in the United States Hockey League, later coached his son during his tenure with Sioux Falls (S.D.), an experience Hartzell says he wouldn’t trade for anything.
Colleges soon took notice. Most high school players in Minnesota dream of playing for either the home-state Gophers or North Dakota. Despite the family legacy, Hartzell wanted to carve his own path. There was a mutual interest with North Dakota, and Hartzell figured if a scholarship was offered he’d jump at the chance to play for a perennial national championship contender. Quinnipiac offered first. He was instantly smitten by the bucolic campus, adjacent Sleeping Giant mountain among the things catching his eye. Everything else fell into place.
“It would have been pretty cool to go to North Dakota, but I’m extremely satisfied where I’m at,” Hartzell said.
Not only has Quinnipiac emerged as a legitimate Frozen Four threat, but it’s provided Hartzell a vehicle toward his other dream: the National Hockey League. On the knob of his stick, scratched in ink, are the letters N-H-L. These days it’s not so much a dream as a legitimate career option.
Scouts and high-ranking personnel are at every game. Just before New Year’s, close to 40 NHL representatives were in Hamden for a weekend series with Nebraska-Omaha. Among the heavy hitters was Mark Messier, special assistant to New York Rangers president Glen Sather, who sat a few feet away from Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren.
Hartzell has always had desirable size and athleticism. Only recently has his mental approach, a continuing work in progress, become another asset. He credits Steve Valiquette, a former NHL goalie and Quinnipiac volunteer assistant, with helping develop in that regard.
“My impression is that he will play in the NHL,” said Valiquette, currently a goalie consultant with the New York Islanders. “He has everything it takes to be an NHL goaltender: the size, athleticism, technique and mental mindset. He’s as competitive and hard-working a guy as I’ve ever been around.”
His work ethic has proven contagious. Footloose and laid back almost everywhere else, Hartzell is all business when it comes to hockey. Teammates have noticed his practice approach and its obvious role on the path to his success. It’s no fluke the Bobcats, running away from the pack in the ECAC, are on pace to reach heights unequaled in program history.
“Every time he comes to the rink, he wants to get better,” Goodman said. “One thing Hartzy always told me, if you want to be a pro, you better start acting like a pro. That’s what he lives by, doing everything as perfect as he can.”
There’s always unfinished business, Hartzell says. He can improve individually. More importantly, he wants to achieve his team’s goals: an ECAC regular-season title, the league tournament crown, and, an NCAA championship ring. The latter is an aspiration Hartzell once thought could be achieved at established programs like North Dakota. Now, it’s a realistic objective for Quinnipiac.
“There’s zero complaints, not even the 6 a.m. wake-up stuff,” Hartzell says, smiling, as usual. “I’m more than happy to wash some more seats if we can keep this thing going.”