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NCAA PRO-file with Dwayne Roloson

by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning
The current box-office hit, "The Fighter," stars Mark Wahlberg as pugilist Micky Ward, who made an indelible mark in Lowell, Massachusetts, and boxing history.

Thomas-Roloson connectors

The Islanders faced off against the Bruins on Dec. 9. Two veteran NHL goaltenders with NCAA roots were once again in respective dressing rooms, never having met personally. Ironically, Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson share common career and life experiences. 

"Dwayne's senior year was my freshman year," Thomas told "I was originally recruited by Michigan Tech and UMass-Lowell by Bruce Crowder. Both had returning All-Americans. I could have red-shirted or played four or five games max at Lowell. That's why I jumped on the opportunity to go to Vermont and play right away.

"Dwayne Roloson actually had an impact on where I ended up going to school and impacted my whole life -- everything, actually. I married a girl I met at Vermont. I don't believe I've ever had a conversation with Dwayne; played against him once freshman year and won, and against each other in Finland the lockout year. But our paths never crossed.

"You start out as a stand-up. Dwayne started changing his style as his career progressed and got very good at new techniques. I'm still a little more of the butterfly than he is. It's a constant development since college -- a work in progress. I didn't have any exposure to butterfly until my first professional training camp in Hershey.

"You have to adapt or you'll fall behind. Find some way to make yourself better. You can't control getting older to a certain extent, but you can control your learning process and technique. For me, I don't think anything's [gone] yet. So far, knock on wood, I don't know what's gone. My read of the game has actually gotten better. It all seems the same for Roli."

Said Roloson that day about Thomas' comments: "Yeah? I didn't know all that. I'm glad it worked out for both of us."

-- Bob Snow

If Wahlberg attempts a sequel such as "The Goaltender" featuring the Lowell standout in NHL history, Dwayne Roloson -- traded last Saturday by the New York Islanders to the Tampa Bay Lightning -- will be the leading name.

"Roli" etched his mark in the former mill city on the Merrimack River 40 miles north of Boston in calendar sync with Ward, arriving at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in the fall of 1990, and leading the then Lowell Chiefs to within one goal of reaching the Frozen Four in the 1994 NCAA Tournament.

Only Craig MacTavish and Ron Hainsey retain Lowell roots remotely close to Roloson in NHL history, playing two seasons each in the late '70s and late '90s respectively. 

For Roloson, out of Simcoe, Ontario, there was never a question about his route to the NHL -- one that also has common ground with Boston's Tim Thomas. (See sidebar.)

"I went back to junior after a couple of offers from Division III," said Roloson, now 41, and the oldest netminder in the NHL in his 17th year in the profession. "Lowell was one of the first teams to offer me a scholarship. I was going the NCAA route somewhere. Wanted the education and got the degree; make sure if hockey doesn't work out I have something to fall back on."

The Chiefs -- who changed to the "River Hawks" nickname in 1994 -- played in Hockey East, another factor in Roloson's decision.

"It's one of the best -- maybe the best league -- in college hockey," Roloson said. 
"I knew the teams and competition coming into Hockey East. The Lowell program was just starting and going through transitions, but the school did a lot of work to make us a contender and vie for championships at the NCAA and Frozen Four."

Another irony in Roloson's career is that his former bosses, Islanders' GM Garth Snow and goaltender coach Mike Dunham, opposed him as the goaltending tandem at the University of Maine, leading the Black Bears to the 1993 national championship.

"I had a lot of recollection of playing against them, that's for sure," Roloson said. "They were a dominant program at that time that won it all in '93.

"All of my four years the Hockey East dominated the Frozen Four teams. There was a lot of history of BU and Lowell not getting along, for example. But when they were in the [national championship game] my last year, I was rooting for them."

Those BU battles stand out most in Roloson's memory.

"That final year, the BU-Lowell game for the Hockey East championship was [at the old Boston Garden]," Roloson said. "For me, we lost 2-1, but the BU fans as much as they hated us during my years there, they gave us a standing ovation and I was Hockey East Player of the Year. It was presented that night, also with a standing ovation, so that was pretty rewarding."

So was the NCAA tournament the following weekend.

"Against Minnesota in the second round [a 2-1 double-OT loss], unfortunately we played the late game the night before [beating Michigan State, 4-3], and Minnesota was the early game the next day. I was talking about that game a month ago, and we were physically exhausted. I think we had maybe 20 shots. We only had 10 in regulation and then 10 in the two OTs. It was tough losing that opportunity to go to the Frozen Four [against BU in the semifinal], but looking back, things you'll never forget."

It was only one of three NCAA appearances in Lowell history, sandwiched between 1988 and 1996.

The undrafted Roloson left Lowell with a degree in one hand and a Calgary contract in the other.

It was the start of the NHL learning curve that remains to this day, beginning with ups and downs between the Flames and the AHL, and backing Dominik Hasek in Buffalo's bid for the Stanley Cup in 1999 after being traded from Calgary.

"When I left college," he said, "I was a stand-up, skate-save goalie and when I first turned pro, made a lot of changes to my game. It took a while for all of it to sink in. I was pretty inconsistent the first three or four years, played 18 and 14 games my two years in Buffalo, then a year in [the AHL] working with Keith Allain, now at Yale, before going to Minnesota."

The key to his NHL longevity?

"You need to stick with it," Roloson said. "Working on it. My old goalie coach, Rollie Melanson, would say: 'You do something a thousand times, you'll be good at it; you do it 10,000 times you'll be great at it.' I just constantly work on repetition, repetition, repetition to get better."

Roloson landed in Minnesota in 2001, and for most of the next five years was half of one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL with Manny Fernandez.

He was named to the 2004 All-Star Game, the year in which he posted his best career stat: a 1.88 goals-against average in 48 games.

His trade to Edmonton late in the 2005-06 season united Roloson with MacTavish -- and set the stage for a second run for the Cup.

"I don't think Lowell had anything to do with the trade to Edmonton. I do have a lot of ironies, huh?" Roloson said. "But playing for Craig was a great honor and a lot of fun, knowing his history at Lowell."

That season would mark the only time in NHL history an eighth-seeded team would play in the Final -- with Roloson leading the way. 

Until it ended for him in Game 1 due to injury, as the Oilers went on to lose in seven against the Hurricanes.

"Edmonton was my second opportunity to play for the Cup again until the knee sprain knocked me out for the series," he said.

Last year, Roloson signed a two-year free-agent deal with the Islanders; last weekend, he joined his sixth team in Tampa Bay.

In 532 NHL games before the recent trade, Roloson is 196-229-42-33 with a 2.66 GAA. He is but one of 11 NHL goalies to play after turning 41.

His 1-0 shutout in his 533rd game Tuesday night at Washington in his Lightning debut provides the beginning of a third opportunity for a run at the Cup come spring.   

"It's a lot of fun to play large in the playoffs," said Roloson a few weeks back with seeming premonition around cap limits and trade deadlines. "It's something I want to be a part of again, whether playing or sitting on the bench. Playing in the playoffs is the best thing about playing in the NHL.

"You need to feel young and feel excited; excited to put your gear on. I'm living a dream. I get to go to work everyday loving what I do."

And after you hang up the skates, Roli?
"I'd like to stay in the game somewhere, somehow, whether coaching or TV or radio. Find the right spot to do that," he said.

Maybe even a spot in a movie.

Author: Bob Snow | Correspondent

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