For free agent goalie Steve Racine his immediate future really seemed take shape and shine through in a matter of a few months at the end of his senior season at Michigan. Perhaps it was the feeling he had after the Wolverine's Big-Ten Hockey Championship win or the bond he formed with his volunteer goalie coach, former Sabres goalie Steve Shields, that sharpened his focus on the upcoming summer. Or perhaps it was putting on a strong performance at this year's Buffalo Sabres Development Camp that locked him in on the immediate future. Or maybe it was a convergence of all three for the soon-to-be college graduate as he hits the off-season with ton of confidence. But regardless of who, what or where, Racine is ready to get his professional goaltending career moving. Right now.
Racine has already positioned himself for life in the real world via college and I caught up the political science major after class at Michigan last week as he's finishing up his undergraduate studies this summer. Last year, as mentioned in a article by Steve Kornacki at mgoblue.com, Racine interned at J.P. Morgan's Cash Equities Sales Trading Intern Program on Wall Street and was invited to return again this summer to continue his internship. When I asked him if he was headed over there again this summer he quickly said, "No, no, no. I'm playing pro."
About a year ago Racine was headed into his senior season, and an ensuing goaltending battle, after three rather inconsistent seasons for the Wolverines. His college career began well enough as he proceeded to log the best goals-against average of his four-year career (2.65,) but Racine's freshman campaign ended on a sour note with a loss in the final 2013 Central Collegiate Hockey Association Championship Game that would knock Michigan out of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 22 years. Racine was in goal for the 3-1 loss to Notre Dame that put an end to the Wolverines season and start a string of three consecutive seasons without Michigan in the NCAA tournament.
From a statistical standpoint, Racine was putting up fair numbers but nothing that would catch the attention of an NHL organization at the draft. Even last year he had stat-line that didn't look all that promising as he finished with a 2.89 goals against average (.03 better than the previous season) and .914 save percentage (his career-best by .002). Racine's record, however, was pretty strong at 20-6-3 thanks to a high-flying Wolverines offense.
Racine backstopped the highest scoring team in Division-I college hockey to the Big-10 crown and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. They were lead by the "CCM Line" featuring Hobey Baker nominee Kyle Connor (WPG) and former Sabres prospect JT Compher (COL) who finished 1-2 in the D-I hockey with with 71 and 63 points, respectively. Fourth in D-I scoring was the "M" portion of that line, Tyler Motte (CHI,) who finished the season with 56 points.
"We were kind of a run-and-gun team this year," Racine told me, "we didn't play much defense so I knew the other team was going to get goals. It came down to me making more saves than the other guy."
Shields, who is a Michigan alum (1990-94) and was with the Buffalo Sabres from 1995-98, likened what the Wolverines were doing last season to the high-flying, mid-80's Edmonton Oilers teams with Wayne Gretzky. With the offense in overdrive all game like those fun-to-watch Oilers teams, Shields told Racine, "You need to be our Grant Fuhr."
Fuhr, who also played for the Sabres (1992-95) never put up great stats either but he hoisted the Stanley Cup five times and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. "He knew the score was going to be 6-5," Shields told Kornacki in the mgoblue.com piece. "Grant Fuhr just knew he was going to make the last save. Steve [Racine] can play and not have to think about keeping our team in the game."
Keeping the team in the game is what Racine did well under Shields' tutelage as he wrestled away the full-time starter's spot from Zach Nagelvoort mid-way through last season. After Racine and Michigan got revenge over the Fighting Irish (and Sabres top goalie prospect Cal Petersen) in the first round of this year's NCAA tournament, Michigan coach and hockey legend Red Berenson raved about Racine. “He took over the starting job at Christmas in the (Great Lakes Invitational) and look what he’s done since then,” Berenson said to the Detroit Free Press. “We have the odd bad goal against — I watch TV every night, I watch the NHL, and they give up bad goals. But Steve Racine is giving Michigan a chance to be where we are.”
Even while struggling with inconsistencies throughout his first few years at Michigan, Racine said Berenson was always supportive. "It seemed like he always went to bat for me." No more so than after the Wolverines were eliminated by the eventual NCAA Champion North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the second round of the tournament.
Michigan lost that game 5-2 as breakdowns and turnovers lead to the Hawks pummeling Racine with 48 shots. Even so the game was tied 2-2 in the third until North Dakota scored on two deflections with minimal resistance from the Wolverine defense. Said Berenson at the post-game presser, "we think you need to do three things in these big games: you need goalkeeping, you need to put your chances in and you need to check the other team's best players.
"I thought we did one of those three things and it was goalkeeping."
The goalkeeping by Racine (2.50 gaa/.933 sv.% for the tournament) that Berenson alluded to was in no small part due to the mentoring of Shields who pulled Racine from a casual approach to his craft into a more professional one. "He was huge for me this year," said Racine of Shields. "He taught me how to train like a pro and how to act like a pro. How to prepare for games. How it's not something that starts an hour before the game, it starts on Monday morning when you wake up after a weekend [of games]."
After Michigan players celebrated their Big-10 title at center ice, Racine skated away and headed towards the bench to shake the hand of his mentor. Kornacki highlighted that calling it a special moment. "That's why you do it, right?" said Shields in the Kornacki piece. "I do this because I want to have a relationship, and I want the guy to feel like I'm a guy who's got his back. He's shown up for work every day so, he came over to me, and we've worked closely for the last six months. I've got to have a relationship with him, and know how the guy feels.
"When you have those kinds of moments, it makes you feel like it paid off, and I liked that. Maybe I got to him, and that makes it worth it."
With his college career over after the loss to North Dakota, there had been talk between Racine and his agent about the possibility of attending one of a handful of development camps in July but nothing materialized. On July 4th while visiting friends, he got the call from his agent saying there was an opportunity in Buffalo. Goaltender Linus Ullmark was ruled out for the camp opening the door for Racine.
As a Sabres fan growing up, remembering the '99 SCF "as if it were yesterday" and having Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller as his hockey idols, it was a big opportunity and he took full advantage of it. He got some notice in the drills early on in the camp and came in half-way through the Blue and Gold Scrimmage stopping all but one of 27 shots then allowing only two shootout goals in the French Connection Tournament--the annual 3-on-3 tournament that closes out camp leaving an impression on the club, "they said they liked my game."
The Williamsville native has seen the changes that have occurred in Buffalo from both a team standpoint as well as the revival of downtown because of the Pegula ownership and is pretty excited about them. Also, being in the Big-10, a successor to the CCHA conference he came into as a freshman, he's gotten a first-hand look at what Sabres owner Terry Pegula has done for hockey at his alma mater, Penn State. Before I could finish the question on his thoughts about Penn State and the D-I program that Pegula's $80 million donation started from scratch, Racine chimed in with "It's unbelievable," agreeing that it's a first rate environment from the facility to the fans.
As for the downtown Buffalo transformation, Racine called it, "amazing."
"The last time I was down there," he continued, "it was like a deserted island. Nothing going on, no people. Now you have a lot of life there."
It's something that highlighted his experience at D-camp. "They're putting a lot of money into the team and you can see it in the staff," he said and talked about the great experience he had, about the outstanding staff and "the specialists" on board for "what seems like every little thing there is."
Racine is like many college players are getting a college education and enjoying the college experience while also witnessing more and more opportunities for college players to pursue their NHL dreams. The inroads college players are making into the NHL are growing stronger each year and he's in tune with that.
"For me, having gone through it and having played with the players I have," he said, "it seems like every year there's a guy off of my team doing really well in the NHL. For American players, college is definitely the way to go. The experiences you have at college are unbelievable. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Yet when it comes to NHL dreams, if the odds of a drafted player making it to the NHL are extremely long, the odds of an unrestricted free agent from college are even longer. Still, every year college players who are overlooked in their draft year are honing their skills at the college level and getting noticed by the time they're ready to graduate. The Sabres just signed one of those types in defenseman Casey Nelson. Another is Drake Caggiula, assistant captain on the North Dakota Championship team, who was signed by the Edmonton Oilers.
If you can dream the NHL dream and get an education, especially one that prepares you for the real world whenever your hockey dreams end, all the better. As for right now, however, Racine is focusing on only one thing--playing pro hockey. The internship was there for him this year, but that's on hold while he chases his dream. "I did that last summer but I delayed [interning at JP Morgan] until I'm done playing" he said. Just how far down the road that will be is yet to be determined.