March 12, 2013

Stevens: Tye Belanger's Time is Now for Mammoth

by Neil Stevens |

''We know we can pull out victories if we can put a full 60 minutes together,'' Mammoth goalie Tye Belanger said. ''The morale in the dressing room is high right now. We're confident we can go from here and have a strong finish to the schedule.''
© Michael Martin/Colorado Mammoth

Tye Belanger never imagined when he first began playing lacrosse that he'd become a pro goaltender.

It never dawned on him because, at first, he hated being a goalie. He was only three when his parents registered him to play in Sarnia, Ontario, which is just across the Bluewater Bridge from Port Huron, Michigan. The coach of one of his first lacrosse teams had trouble finding any kid who wanted to face shooters.

''Nobody wanted to play goal so we had to take turns,'' Belanger recalls. ''When it was my turn to put on the pads, I was kicking and screaming and crying. I didn't want to be in the net at all. When they put me in, I hated every second of it. But I guess I was good enough at it that they kept asking me to play goal so I eventually stuck at it.''

The family would move to nearby Wallaceburg where he continued to play both hockey and lacrosse.

''By the time I turned 16, I didn't really feel a passion for hockey anymore,'' he said. ''Lacrosse was taking over. I felt that was the path to take. It turned out to be a good one.''

He played Jr. B lacrosse in Wallaceburg, stepped up to Jr. A in Brampton and Peterborough, where his play for the junior Lakers led to his selection as Canadian goaltender of the year. He was practicing with both Peterborough's junior and senior teams during his summers. Dan Carey and John Grant Jr. were playing for the Lakers after a winter with the NLL's Colorado entry and they were talking up Belanger. Mammoth coach Bob Hamley took a look and the Mammoth drafted Belanger in the second round, 16th overall, in 2011.

''I was getting up to speed with NLL shooters before I was drafted and that helped me tremendously,'' said Belanger.

He backed up Mammoth veteran Chris Levis last year and, despite seeing only 21 minutes of regular-season action, he picked up his first pro win in an odd way. It happened last March 31 in Rochester, New York. Levis started for Colorado. The Knighthawks scored three goals 65 seconds apart early in the fourth quarter to tie it 12-12. Hamley lifted Levis and sent in Belanger.

''I had no idea the coach was going to put me in,'' Belanger recalls. ''He just turned and looked at me and told me I was going in. We wanted a little momentum killer. He wanted to relax the team, give the guys a minute while Chris and I changed places. I went out there and made two saves, Derek Hopcroft went down and scored for us, and they put Chris back in.''

Rochester never scored again and the Mammoth won 16-12. Belanger had been in the crease for just two minutes and 11 seconds but the winning goal was scored during that time so he got credit for the win.

Belanger suffered an arm injury playing volleyball last November and went home to Wallaceburg for physio and rehab. Colorado placed him on the physically unable to perform list on Dec. 20 when NLL rosters were due at head office.

GM Steve Govett began the season with a pair of veterans, Levis and Matt Roik, in the nets. He released Levis after a terrible start and brought in youngster Dan Lewis to back up Roik. Belanger wasn't quite ready but he was back in Denver.

''I practiced for a month while Roik and Lewis were the goalies. Once they released Roik, I felt confident it was my turn. They said the future is now: 'We're going with you and Dan so be ready.' I felt confident enough in my abilities that I didn't feel a whole lot of pressure. I felt the time is now and let's go.''

He was added to the active roster on Feb. 25 and dressed for the first time this season on March 2 for a home game against Rochester. The Knighthawks won 12-11. Last Friday night in Toronto, Belanger relieved Lewis at 11:47 of the second quarter after the Rock went up 8-6. He stayed in the rest of the way except for a brief respite late in the game, and stopped 15 of 21 shots on goal. His longest stint of NLL action was quite an experience.

''A big group came in from Wallaceburg,'' he said. ''I think they had more than 80 tickets. They came to support Sean Pollock, too, who also is from Wallaceburg. My grandfather (Tom Hyatt) even came. He doesn't leave (Lambton County) often. He does his thing on the farm and doesn't go into the city often. I didn't want to think about that too much when I went into the game because I had to focus but visiting with family and friends after the game was one of those moments in time I'll never forget.''

Belanger got his first NLL start in Buffalo the next night.

''I just needed to stay focused,'' the 6-foot-1 goalie replied when we asked him what his mindset was as he prepared for the big night. ''I was pretty confident in my abilities. I've been seeing the ball well. My stance was bang-on.

''After practice the last couple of weeks, I was telling the coaches and players after shootarounds, 'I'm getting comfortable in NLL nets. I'm up to speed.' I just had to take out the distractions, like playing in Banditland with 16,000 fans in one of the craziest crowds in the NLL. I knew our defense had been playing phenomenally the previous couple of games and they'd get me the easy shots to save.''

He played the entire game except for the last 31 seconds when he was rested after a line brawl. He faced 36 shots on goal and stopped 30 in a fantastic 12-6 Mammoth win. They'd trailed 3-0 after one quarter. They scored the game's last eight goals.

''That was a big relief,'' Belanger said of the win, which put the brakes on a five-game losing streak. ''I didn't know we'd have such a strong push at the end because most of the first half we'd been nearly shutout. I was thinking it might be a long night. But we tied it and battled hard and in the fourth we got a couple of quick ones. I was able to stop a breakaway, our defense was holding the fort on the back end and the offense was putting the ball behind (Anthony) Cosmo at the other end. It was a big relief and now we're off to the next one.''

It was a complete effort by the hungry Mammoth.

''We know we can pull out victories if we can put a full 60 minutes together,'' said Belanger. ''The morale in the dressing room is high right now. We're confident we can go from here and have a strong finish to the schedule.''

The Mammoth and the Bandits renew acquaintances in Denver this Saturday night and, after what he did in Buffalo, Belanger will likely get his first NLL home start. His previous on-floor Pepsi Center exposure was four minutes in a 2012 regular-season win over Toronto and a couple of minutes late in a playoff game against Minnesota.

''Playing in front of our home crowd will definitely be a plus,'' he said. ''I'll do the same thing as in Banditland: zone in, and once we score that place will be rockin' and fully supporting us.''

A strong work ethic is one of his strengths.

''That comes from my father,'' he said. ''When he was younger, he was a taekwondo champion for Canada. His friends have told me that he trained super hard. He ingrained that it in me, that you've got to work hard in practice so you can play great in the game.''

The Mammoth will be counting on Belanger and Lewis heavily in the six games that remain in the 16-game schedule.

''I feel I can do it,'' said Belanger. ''Dan and myself, if one of us falters or stutters then the other one will step up and play even better. If there is a hiccup, Dan has my back and I've got his back. I feel we can bring this team to the playoffs. We've got to look at it one game at a time. We can't look too far ahead. We'll just focus on the next game.''

He's a standup goalie.

''I don't want to flop around too much or bite on fakes,'' he explains. ''I don't overanalyze the game. I go out there and hold my ground and react to shots. I study game film for tendencies of shooters. I remind myself: don't overthink it. I play my own game, make the saves. go shift to shift. I try to stay in the now and focus on the next save and plug away.''

He wears No. 31 because of his birth date of July 31, 1990.

He has arrived. His time is now.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli — a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor — are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.

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