Freshman standouts are a rarity in Minnesota boys high school hockey.
Less than a handful of the state’s 150-plus teams used freshmen as their primary goaltenders last season.
All of which makes Zach Thompson's story as unexpected as it was amazing.
Entering last season, Duluth Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley knew he had a great young talent in Thompson, who had spent the previous two summers working with Minnesota Wild goalie coach Bob Mason, a former Minnesota Duluth star from International Falls.
Not even Smalley would have imagined Thompson would become his workhorse in net or post the kind of numbers (2.32 goals-against average, .921 save percentage).
“He’s about as calm as you would ever want to see,” Smalley said about Thompson. “Nothing really frazzles him out there.”
An early-season injury to sophomore goaltender Christian Coffman allowed for Thompson’s trial-by-fire initiation to varsity hockey.
“He’s the real deal, that’s for sure,” Hermantown coach Bruce Plante said about Thompson.
The 6-foot-1, 160-pound Thompson made 45 saves in Denfeld's 3-2 loss to the Hawks in the Section 5A championship game. Hermantown went on to reach the Class A championship game.
“That just shows that a hot goalie can make all the difference,” said Andover co-head coach Mark Manney, whose high-scoring Huskies managed only a 3-2 victory over Denfeld early in the season.
“I didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Thompson said about his expectations heading into last season, which ended with the thrilling loss to Hermantown in front of a huge crowd in Cloquet. “It was a blast. The only thing that could have been better is if we could have made it to state.”
Thompson, who posted three straight shutouts spanning December and January games, was so dominant that he not only tops the Hub’s list of 2009-10 freshmen, he also caught the attention of USA Hockey National Team Development Program coaches. Thompson was invited to attend the program’s evaluation camp that concluded March 30. He declined.
“It took me a couple of days to figure out what I wanted to do,” said Thompson, whose twin brother, Alex, is a Denfeld forward. “I kind of realized I wanted to stick around and play with my buddies. There are a couple of them out in the driveway right now.”
Among Zach and Alex Thompson’s friends is Levi Talarico, a freshman who scored a team-high 37 points for the Hunters last season. The return of the Thompsons and Talarico as well as an influx of players from Duluth Central, which will combine with Denfeld in 2010-11, could make for a formidable team.
Zach Thompson said he plans to prepare for his sophomore season by making his usual appearance at the Roloson-Mason goalie camp in Minneapolis in June.