It was about this time a year ago when Steven Summerhays and Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson had it out.
Irish goalie Steven Summehays is fourth in the country with a 1.57 goals against average.
Summerhays, a sophomore at the time, was boiling over after watching most of the first half of the season from the bench. The Irish were at the tail end of a four-game losing streak in which the goaltender’s only appearances were in mop-up duty. He thought he deserved more time on the ice and a shot at the No. 1 spot.
“That was probably a healthy thing to get his thoughts off his chest, and he knows what my thoughts were,” Jackson said. “I told him he’s got to earn it.”
Summerhays needed to be in better shape. He needed to develop better practice habits and rid himself of the lazy tag that sometimes landed on his sweater.
Enter Flattop. The 3,510-foot peak a few miles south and east of Anchorage, Alaska, Summerhay’s hometown, is about a 45-minute hike from the trailhead at a brisk jogging pace. That’s where Notre Dame’s newest star, and the conference's most recent goaltender of the month award winner, earned it.
More specifically, he got the mental and physical edge he needed at the stairs — a particularly vertical stretch halfway up the mountain terraced by large wooden planks wedged into gravel and earth. It was there, in late May, that Summerhays realized what he was up against. It was his first time scaling the mountain. He was running out of excuses as to why he kept falling behind his older brother, Jeff, and Tyler Currier, a training partner and senior forward for the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves.
“It was just miserable,” he said. “I remember getting halfway through the stairs and they were cruising. I was like, ‘Uhh, I’m going to tie my shoe.’ I remember sitting there for about 20 minutes and, after a quick throw up, just kind of waving to them at the top.”
Currier continued to push Summerhays up the mountain on the days they didn't spend in a weight room. His selling point was the nature-made chute of snow, Alaska’s version of a waterslide, that took them halfway down the hill after they reached the top. “It’s kind of a treat,” Currier says. Summerhays disagreed.
Eventually, though, the Notre Dame junior left about 20 pounds of body weight behind on the trail and was making a competitive race out of their climb. He returned to South Bend in the best shape of his life and has since cinched the No. 1 spot for the fifth-ranked Irish.
Summerhays said the extra conditioning this summer allowed him to take more reps in practice and stake his claim to the starting position early. That’s led to his .936 save percentage and a 1.57 goals against average, which is fourth best in the nation. It’s been a major factor in Notre Dame starting the year 7-1 in conference play with the second-best scoring defense in college hockey.
“This summer I think he kind of realized that he wanted to have that breakout season. He really pushed himself,” Currier said.
Irish netminders have a history of breaking out in their junior seasons. David Brown and Jordan Pearce both took over the everyday duties between the pipes in their third season under Jackson in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Both went on to set career records in winning percentage, save percentage and goals against average. Summerhays is on pace now to break their single-season marks in all three categories.
But the life of a goaltender in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association is about mental endurance as much as it is physical endurance. That’s the next mountain Summerhays must climb.
In November, Summerhays powered his team through a five-game gauntlet of some of the sport’s traditional offensive superpowers (Michigan, Boston College and North Dakota). Now, as he and the Irish settle back into CCHA play, they’re approaching a wall of conservative, plodding teams that take their time waiting for scoring chances.
“You sit there for sometimes 10, 12 minutes without a shot,” he said. “It’s cold. Your body cools down and you have to stay engaged. … It’s just about staying mentally engaged. I just gotta stay focused and in tune with the game.”
Last Friday, Lake Superior State scored two goals that Summerhays characterized as "soft" while firing just six shots on net per period. It’s hockey equivalent to getting fooled by a change-up. This week Notre Dame welcomes Michigan State (5-8-2) for a weekend series in South Bend. The Spartans have been held to five shots or less in the four of their last nine periods. During that drought, they have scored only one goal and lost all three games.
This weekend's games against Michigan State are followed by a first-half finale against an equally frugal Bowling Green team next Friday. If the Irish can maintain their focus, they have a chance to head into the winter break a world away from where they were a year ago, and so does Summerhays.
“He’s making good progress,” Jackson said. “I see what he does physically, but I can’t see what’s going through his mind. He has to just make sure that he understands that’s going to be a big part of what he’s going to need to do.”
Here come the stairs.