Hockey boundaries are drawn hard in Minnesota.
If you are from the northern part of the state, say, Grand Rapids, like Lowell Devils coach Kurt Kleinendorst
, you might look at someone like Jeff Frazee
, from the Burnsville/Edina areas near the Twin Cities, and think he was a little soft.
"We always felt like the city boys are cake-eaters," Kleinendorst said. "He knows he is. It's just the way it is."
Frazee's reply? Well, he doesn't have much to say about that. When you are a rookie goalie trying to make a name for yourself, it's best not to chirp back at your coach. He's just going out and showing his backbone with his play, which is probably what Kleinendorst had in mind all along.
"I have never really experienced life in northern Minnesota," Frazee said diplomatically. "Back when he was growing up, that (the characterization of city players) was a stigma."
The two cultures have intersected in Lowell this season, to the benefit of both coach and player. Kleinendorst has given Frazee the opportunity to escape the onerous expectations of their home state. Frazee has responded with one of the toughest fill-in jobs facing any player in the AHL this season.
Frazee has gone 16-8-2 for the Devils, is second among rookie goalies with a 2.38 goals-against and is second among all goalies with a .931 save percentage. That effort earned him a spot on the PlanetUSA squad for the AHL All-Star Classic.
"In my opinion, he's been the real deal for us," Kleinendorst said. "This is the streakiest team I've ever experienced. He's been my most consistent performer."
And he's doing it sooner than expected. Frazee spent the past three seasons at his hometown school, the University of Minnesota, dreaming of joining the long line of great Golden Gophers. His play was good, but never rose to the level where he dominated. Frazee skated in 12 games as a freshman, 20 as a sophomore and 14 as a junior. He had the chance to compete for more time as a senior, but didn't feel like he'd reach his full potential hanging around his backyard.
So he left a season early to try to reach the bar New Jersey set by taking him in the second round of the 2005 Entry Draft.
"I don't think I ever played up to my expectations (at Minnesota). I don't know the reason why," he said. "I never really felt comfortable, never happy with the way I was playing. A change of scenery was what I wanted. I've never second-guessed myself. What's done is done."
Frazee barely got to exhale before jumping into the express lane of the pros. With Scott Clemmensen
-- perhaps the AHL's best goalie -- and Dave Caruso at Lowell, Frazee started the season with Trenton of the ECHL. Five games into his season there, Clemmensen went up to replace injured Martin Brodeur
In the span of less than a day, Frazee jumped off the Trenton team bus, rushed up to New Jersey to serve as an emergency goalie in practice there and then popped over to Lowell to begin auditioning for Clemmensen's job.
"I didn't get too much sleep, I can tell you that," Frazee said of the turnaround. "It was just a whirlwind. You learn that you can never get too comfortable. You never know what is going to happen."
Frazee was kept even more on edge when Kleinendorst gave both he and Caruso a chance to take Clemmensen's minutes. Neither grabbed the prize exclusively at first, although Frazee eventually played well enough to entrench himself in the crease.
"I just wanted to fit in with the team in the beginning," Frazee said.
"We waited before we passed him the torch,'' Kleinendorst said. "Then Jeff went in there and started to win games for us. Once he started to realize he could play at this level, he took off. You know what I like about him? He listens. Anything you say to him, he says, 'Yep, I'll do that.' He doesn't carry an attitude at all."
"I think I surprised some people because I never had much success at Minnesota. I always knew I could play at this level. I just had to prove it day-in and day-out. I would rather prove people wrong than let people down." -- Jeff Frazee
The flip side of Frazee's new challenge is that even with the best of preparation -- perhaps coming off a couple of years of a heavy workload in college -- his rookie wall would be growing higher brick-by-brick with each passing game. Frazee is spinning in the heavy rotation cycle with a resume and frame of reference relatively light on playing time.
"It's definitely a completely new experience for me. It's definitely something I have to learn and experience for myself," he said. "I have to learn how my body is, what it takes to get ready before each game. I feel pretty rested. You have to take advantage of your days off."
Kleinendorst isn't inclined to put any bubble wrap around his emerging stopper. He is so wowed by his prospect that he drops the weighty "B-word" when discussing Frazee. That's "B" as in Brodeur, the gold standard for the position and a comparison not made lightly. In Frazee's case, Kleinendorst sees a bit of the superstar in Frazee's stick work and rebound control.
Frazee has been superb at not surrendering rebounds, Kleinendorst said. He has the knack of batting or angling the puck to teammates to start a rush the other way. Frazee said that sort of artistry has been a point of emphasis in workouts with goaltending coaches Jacques Caron
and Chris Terreri
"I have an ability to direct the puck away (from opponents). I kick it out pretty far. That helps my teammates," Frazee said. "It's just kind of read and react. You do whatever you can to keep the puck off the other guy's stick."
Pretty solid reasoning, especially for one of those cushy city kids. When it comes to Frazee, Kleinendorst has been a believer for a while. Others across the hockey landscape may soon fall in line.
"I think I surprised some people because I never had much success at Minnesota. I always knew I could play at this level," Frazee said. "I just had to prove it day-in and day-out. I would rather prove people wrong than let people down."