John Harvard's Journal | Sports
“Too Normal” for a Goalie?
Merric Madsen was the brick wall in net for last season’s Frozen Four team.
Last March, Harvard goaltender Merrick Madsen ’18 played one of the best games of his life: a 3-0 shutout against Providence, on the road, in the east regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. The contest was a big deal—Harvard had made several NCAA tournament appearances in recent years, but the team hadn’t won a game there since 1994. This season was already something different, though. By the time the Crimson reached Providence, it had begun to seem unbeatable. The players were riding a streak of 14 consecutive wins. They’d won the Beanpot Tournament for the first time in 24 years. Two weeks before the Providence game, they had taken the ECAC conference championship, thrashing perennial foe Cornell 4-1 in the final at Lake Placid, New York. That victory had earned them the chance at this one. And so here they were, back at the NCAAs. Before the game, Madsen told himself that he was going to leave everything he had out on the ice, no matter what. “I thought, I want to be stretchered off if I have to. Because I am trying that hard.”
In the next three periods, Madsen stopped 41 pucks, a furious assault from the Friars, who took half again as many shots on goal as the Crimson. In the first three and a half minutes alone, he made seven saves. That was pretty much how the next two hours went. “I think we had something on our side,” Madsen told reporters after the game. His coach, Ted Donato ’91, put it a different way: “I think it starts with the goaltender.”
And yet, when you ask Madsen to think back on the season that took his team all the way to the Frozen Four, the first game to come to mind for him is an earlier, less glorious contest: a late November matchup against Boston University. At that point in the season, Harvard was 5-2-1; they’d had a couple of significant games, but most were still to come. “We had been playing pretty well, a few blips along the way,” he says, “and we were in a tight game against BU—we always play a tight game against BU—and then we ended up losing.” The final score was 5-3. A couple of the Terriers’ goals were flukey, a weird bounce from the corner, a puck that chipped in off Madsen’s stick. Still, he says, he should have saved those. He remembers thinking afterward that what he was giving the team wasn’t enough, that he would have to work harder, play better, dig deeper. “I carried that with me through the year,” he says.
At 6-feet-5-inches, 190 pounds, with an enormous wingspan and a .923 save percentage, Madsen is one of the few returning players from last season’s core of stars and one of three senior co-captains this year—a rare position for a goalie and a testament, Donato says, to Madsen’s character and work ethic. It is also perhaps a testament to his un-goalie-like calm and equanimity. Madsen’s parents sometimes call to check on him after games, because he looks so tranquil on the ice—maybe too tranquil. He’s intense too, he says, but the calm is important; it moves through the lineup. “If you have a panicky goalie in net, then everyone’s panicky, and you don’t need that.” He doesn’t nurture any superstitions, either. Gave them up years ago, including the one that had him turning over his pillow the night before each game. “I used to be the most superstitious person ever, and what I realized is that it’ll drive you crazy,” he says. So now, during those molasses-slow two hours before game time, he chats with teammates and eats a granola bar. “Merrick’s almost too normal to be a goalie,” Donato jokes. “I say that with affection.”
He wasn’t always so at ease. “People say goaltending is 10 percent physical, 90 percent mental,” Madsen says. The 90 percent is the hard part. “When your teammates are successful, it shows up on the scoreboard. You celebrate. As a goalie, when you’re doing things right, it just means you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. No one is exactly supposed to go out and score a hat trick every night, but every single shot, broken down one by one—I should be able to save almost all of them.” The confidence to do that took time to grow into.
Madsen was raised mostly in southern California—more of a hockey region than people realize, he says—and learned to skate at four years old; he started playing hockey a year later. He wasn’t a good skater at first, he remembers, and he hardly scored. Then his team’s goalie aged out of the league and his father, a former player himself, suggested he try out for the role. Instantly, he became a better hockey player. The net was where he belonged. He stuck with it, and in high school became one of the best players on his team.
Then he came to Harvard and played in only one game his freshman year, a 5-1 loss to St. Lawrence (goalie Steve Michaelek ’15 was the senior star that season). “And that was kind of it,” Madsen says. “It’s tough to come in and not be that guy anymore, the guy who starts every game.” He recalls going to Donato and the other coaches that year, thinking that if they’d just put him in another game, he could find his confidence again. “And I remember Coach telling me something I’ll never forget: he said, ‘You’ll never get confidence from us.’ That the way you get confidence is within yourself, and once you find it there, then you’ll be able to play. I’d never thought about confidence that way,” he says. “My coach was telling me I had to do more work,” build strength, physically and mentally. Donato remembers that moment too. “We were trying to light a spark in him,” he says.
The next year, Madsen found himself competing against incoming freshman Michael Lackey, who’d played internationally—and won medals and accolades—with the U.S. National teams’ under-17 and under-18 squads. They split the season between them, Madsen taking the lion’s share—“We were each pushing each other,” he says—and then last year he locked down the job, starting all 36 games (Lackey was right behind him as backup). It was an incredible season, which ended at the Frozen Four in Chicago, where Harvard lost to Minnesota-Duluth, which then lost to the eventual NCAA champion, the University of Denver. From late January until early April, though, the Crimson had not dropped a game. They ended the season at 28-6-2.
This year, they begin again. Eight players from last year’s roster graduated in May. Madsen is unfazed. “Every year I’ve been here, we’ve always been underestimated,” he says. “Last season everyone thought we wouldn’t be that good, because we had lost Jimmy Vesey [‘16] and Kyle Criscuolo [‘16]. But then everyone showed up.…If anything, we know that we have the ability to prove people wrong. It’s going to be about guys stepping up and playing a bigger role. Those guys who didn’t play much last year—we need them this year. Just like we did before, everyone needs to show up.”