It’s late in the third period, and the UW-Eau Claire men’s hockey team is nursing a one-goal lead.
The other team has its goalie pulled for an extra attacker.
The Blugolds goalie freezes the puck. There’s a faceoff to be had in the defensive zone. Hearts are racing. Sweat is dripping. And somebody needs to take that critical draw to secure a victory.
For the last couple of years, there’s nobody else but two-year captain Jake Hopfner who coach Matt Loen has wanted in the dot in that moment.
“I like having that responsibility and being able to hold myself accountable in a big play,” Hopfner said. “I’d rather be the guy in that situation taking control and having it land on my lap.”
There are things hockey coaches can teach. Leadership isn’t one of them. It’s somethings a guy either has or doesn’t.
Hopfner had that “it” factor long before he got to Loen.
As an NAHL prospect with the Michigan Warriors, Hopfner captained a team coached by former Minnesota North Star Moe Mantha, the same guy who coached Loen with the AHL’s Cincinnati Mighty Ducks back in the day.
The two are still close, and when Mantha delivered a glowing endorsement for the do-it-all center, it was a no-brainer for Loen to go after Hopnfer and bring him to Eau Claire.
“The reputation and comments from Moe Mantha spoke loud for me as a character reference for Jake,” Loen said. “We got him here, he’s a likable guy, works hard on the ice and has good grades. Hopefully the younger guys can look up to him and ask questions. He’s having a great experience here.”
Loen got Hopfner when the Blugolds still had senior leaders left over from the 2013 national title team — guys like Ross Andersen and Jack Callahan.
The leader in Hopfner was learning from them what it took to lead a hockey program with national prominence. And then it became his turn just two years later. Following Hopfner’s sophomore campaign, his teammates voted him captain for the upcoming season. He hasn’t surrendered the “C” on his jersey since and has been the unquestioned leader the past two years.
“A captain has to command a room, guys have to like him and he’s got have a loud voice and a silent voice in the locker room,” Loen said. “Jake has that. He organizes team events. He’s a good liaison between the coaches and players. He can speak up when he needs to, and his silent voice is his work ethic.”
And of course, a captain has to step up in uncomfortable and nerve-wracking situations on the ice.
Hopfner’s always been on the ice when the other team’s top line is out there. He rises to the occasion, something not lost on his young teammates.
“He’s a clutch performer who can do anything under pressure, and that’s huge,” said freshman Braxton Collins, a former Regis/McDonell standout.
Hopfner has 37 career goals and 29 assists with three game-winning goals.
And he’s done all this while serving the team off the ice.
The biggest challenge of being a captain of a college hockey team, he said, is taking in all the input and prioritizing what’s most important for the team. Hopfner, a native of Eastpointe, Mich., knows he has to deliver the word of 28 guys to the coaching staff. And he’s got to assess things relatively quickly. The secret is knowing every single one of your teammates individually. A read-and-react thing, really.
He’s a leader both by example and vocally. When he decides it is time to talk, guys listen.
“Whatever he says, we have to take it very seriously,” Collins said. “And he also works his tail off every day.”
Hopfner defines leadership as someone who is able to get a group of people to chase the same common goal. That can be hard in college hockey, in which guys come from all kinds of different amateur leagues and have all been studs at some point in their lives.
But his approach to it all is similar to his playing style. Hold yourself accountable and do whatever it takes.
“It’s kind of been taught as you grow up to work for the guy to your left and your right,” Hopfner said. “I think being able to get a team together that comes from all facets — we have guys from all across the country with different playing styles — and getting them to come together and work hard for one another is a sign of a good leader.”
His time as a Blugold is coming to an end. UW-Eau Claire has got UW-Superior at home Friday night before traveling to UW-Stevens Point for the regular season finale.
No matter at what point the season ends — UW-Eau Claire probably will need to win out to have a chance at the NCAA tournament — Hopfner will turn in his jersey with the captain’s patch for someone else to take the baton. He’s set quite the standard.
“I hope that the guys here this year, especially the freshmen now, are saying the same thing about me that I said about my previous captains,” Hopfner said. “Leaving a good impression and making sure that they are moving and doing the right things.”
And as far as Loen’s concerned, Hopfner has done that and then some.
“He’s the total package,” Loen said. “He’s done a great job. Academically he’s very good and is going to get his degree and get a great job. He’s well-liked. He’s a hard-worker. We’re going to miss that guy we can rely on when the going gets tough. Overall, he’s been a great, great Blugold.”