Feb. 9, 1998
By Nate Ewell
Chad Alban was always a hockey fan, but had only laced up the skates at odd times until he was 11.
So when he signed up for the sport at that late age, he figured he better keep his limited skating ability in goal. He quickly learned that the athleticism and glove hand he had displayed as a baseball player wouldn't carry him through his early efforts on skates.
"I remember my first year being so bad, I was embarassed," Alban says. "I couldn't skate, and I didn't really know what I was doing. I was at camp and all these kids were just killing me."
Alban's competitiveness - another reason he chose goal in the first place, so he didn't have to leave the ice - helped motivate him to improve.
"Every shot was going in, but I told myself that I would get better," he says.
He did. Just 11 years after picking up the sport, Alban is wrapping up one of the best goaltending careers in Michigan State history while in the midst of one of the greatest seasons ever by a college hockey goaltender.
The senior from Kalamazoo, Mich., has helped make Michigan State the nation's best defensive team and one of the top three teams in the national polls each week. His 1.56 goals-against average leads the nation, and his .923 save percentage is in the top three.
Alban is considered a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
"It's weird to even think of myself as a Hobey Baker candidate," Alban says. "It's a good feeling to know that people think you are playing that well. On the other side, it's scary because two years ago, I felt like I was the new kid with all these great players like Anson Carter. Now I'm being included as that type of elite player in the country."
"Every sport has a key position," head coach Ron Mason says. "I'm not so sure that you can come up with a position that is more important than goaltender in hockey. Chad gives us such a presence at the goaltending position that we know when we enter a game that we are probably going to be ahead of our opponent in that area."
Alban has developed his skills since the first time he played through his athleticism, his competitive nature and a scholarly approach to the game.
"I've always been big about studying goaltenders," Alban says. "I never had a goalie coach when I was little, so I would watch NHL goalies and pick up things on my own."
Much of what makes Alban an elite goaltender lies in the ways he has expanded the usual role of a goalie. Like many netminders, Alban often sheds the extra pads after practice and skates with his teammates as a forward. Unlike any other goaltender in the college ranks, however, Alban often looks like a forward with his goaltending pads on.
He has gone from an 11-year-old who couldn't skate to one of the best skaters on the Michigan State team. His stick-handling and decision-making abilities set him apart from other goaltenders and add a dimension to Michigan State's game.
"He's the best goalie I have ever had or ever seen in playing the puck and the decision-making that comes with it," Mason says. "Chad's skills enhance our game. He's a great passer. It's an instinctive thing and not something you can teach."
"You have got to have patience," Alban says. "It doesn't help if you go back there and panic and shoot the puck out. I have learned to always have an idea where the guys are."
Sometimes Alban's ability to play the puck overshadows his skill between the pipes.
"Although he's known as a goaltender who is athletic and plays the puck extremely well," head Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley says, "he sometimes doesn't get the credit he really deserves for the consistency and stability he displays on a game-by-game basis."
Alban's ability to stop the puck is clear, as his .923 save percentage attests. His save totals are often low, however, due to Michigan State's outstanding defense and his ability to handle the puck and keep it away from opposing forecheckers. Nevertheless, the Spartans count on Alban to make the big saves when needed.
"Playing the puck adds to my game obviously," Alban says, "but no matter how well you play the puck, you've got to stop the puck. I hope that that is the main strength of my game."
It may be hard for most observers to pick out one main strength of Alban's game at this point. And that comes just 11 years after the easiest thing to pick out about Alban's game were the holes at which to shoot.
Chad Alban is having one of the best seasons ever by a college goaltender. How Alban's 1997-98 statistics compare to those of Minnesota's Robb Stauber in 1987-88, when he became the only goaltender ever to win the Hobey Baker Award:
W-L-T Win % MIN GA GAA SV SV % SO CHAD ALBAN (1997-98) 20-3-5 .804 1686:59 44 1.56 529 .923 6 Robb Stauber, Minn. (1987-88) 34-10-0 .773 2621 119 2.72 1243 .913 5 Alban's statistics through Feb. 12