UMASS: COVID-19 protocol absences turn equipment assistant into backup goalie for Frozen Four

Zac Steigmeyer, a former high school goalie and a UMass student manager, is getting called on to back up Matt Murray in the Frozen Four with two Minutemen goalies out (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Whenever a piece of equipment didn’t work out for a UMass goalie over the last few seasons, it was like Christmas for Zac Steigmeyer.

Veteran Minutemen equipment manager Josh Penn let Steigmeyer, his student assistant and a former high school goalie, go through the discarded pads, gloves and blockers to use when he faced shots in summer skates with friends in Western Massachusetts.

Because of that, he won’t immediately look out of place when he skates onto the ice for warmups before the Frozen Four semifinals on Thursday.

Starting goalie Filip Lindberg and third-stringer Henry Graham were among four players ruled out because of COVID-19 protocols. That left Matt Murray as the only goalie on the roster.

When news of positive tests got to the team last Friday night, UMass realized it needed a backup goalie for Thursday’s game against Minnesota Duluth.

Enter Steigmeyer for a bittersweet experience.

“The reality of it is it sucks, honestly,” he said of the team playing without Lindberg, Graham, leading goal-scorer Carson Gicewicz and forward Jerry Harding. “Those guys were a huge part of the team and we had to leave them back in Amherst. But I’ve got to step up. I’ve got to ready to go just in case something strange happens. Fingers crossed.”

All you get from Steigmeyer’s hastily assembled bio on UMass’ roster is that he’s a senior goaltender from Ludlow, Mass., an economics major and wasn’t part of the team’s photo day because he’s not wearing a tie.

Some background: His dad was a goalie too but Steigmeyer started as a defenseman. He moved into the crease and competed with the New England Junior Falcons, where he played with former UMass forward John Leonard.

He played for Springfield Cathedral, later renamed Pope Francis Prep, and still carries emotional scars from losing in the Massachusetts Super Eight semifinals.

Steigmeyer started college at Providence but transferred to UMass in the second semester of his sophomore year. He was living with Minutemen players George Mika, Marco Bozzo and Leonard, who suggested that he become part of the equipment staff.

Two years ago, he was in the seats in Buffalo, N.Y., watching with friends as the Minutemen lost to Minnesota Duluth in the national championship game.

“I think I was actually more nervous watching from the stands than I am right now,” Steigmeyer said.

UMass coach Greg Carvel seemed bemused by the attention being given to Steigmeyer, who missed much of Wednesday’s practice at PPG Paints Arena after his skate blade came off.

“His couple days in the spotlight got shortened by a large percentage,” Carvel said. “I hope we don’t have to see him again. He’s a great kid. He’s been with the program for a number of years so he feels like a teammate.”

From a delayed beginning to Michigan and Notre Dame being removed from the NCAA Tournament because of COVID-19 protocols before they got to play a game, the season has been a volatile ride. UMass got its first positive test of the season days before leaving for the Frozen Four and had to worry whether it would see its championship hopes crushed without a loss.

“This was one of these moments where we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” junior forward and leading scorer Bobby Trivigno said. “I know we’re really grateful that we got the opportunity to come here and we’re not going to squander it.”

The same goes for Steigmeyer. Murray will start for the first time since Jan. 18 but Steigmeyer will get to be there, even as a placeholder.

“It’s obviously been a childhood dream of mine,” he said. “Even if it only lasts a week, just to put on a jersey on one of the biggest stages in college hockey is something else.”