By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
There are stories and there are legends. This is the story of a legend.
University of Alaska Anchorage head coach Matt Thomas knew that securing a goaltender was essential. Fresh off being named the Seawolves' head coach, Thomas looked at his future roster and saw the obvious…after the 2013-14 season his squad wouldn't have a returning goalie with significant experience. Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal were seniors and, at the time, there wasn't anyone behind them on the depth chart. He and his staff were desperate to find their replacement.
"We were new to the job and my assistant (Josh Ciocco) was out watching the BCHL preseason and one of the things we talked about was knowing at the time we needed two goalies, because we had two senior goalies on our roster; never mind finding one good one- we needed to find two," recalled Thomas. "We kind of said that the first good one we see that we really like, let's try to get him."
"I saw Olivier on my first recruiting trip, which was to British Columbia. He was playing an exhibition game (Penticton vs. West Kelowna) and I just kept noticing him make save after save," remembered Ciocco, now an assistant coach with Brown University. "He was outstanding in this game; he just looked the part and moved so well."
Any coach will tell you that more than anything, recruiting can be summed up by one simple word- faith. The coach needs to have faith in his judgement; faith that the player he/she sees is the right fit for the program. The player needs to have faith in the coach, believing what he/she is being told when it comes to where they may one day fit within the everchanging puzzle called college hockey. Some leaps of faith are more adventurous than others. When Ciocco first saw Olivier Mantha, to him, asking Mantha to become a Seawolf was a no-brainer. As for the rest of the hockey community at the time- those who hadn't seen the Québec native play up to that point- Ciocco and Thomas' leap seemed to be more like a jump.
"Olivier was playing his first year of juniors (in Penticton) and had kind of been hidden away up in Québec in the previous years. I knew once other schools saw him they would recruit him, so if we wanted to have a chance of getting him we'd have to act right away," added Ciocco. "Up in Anchorage you don't have the luxury of taking your time in the recruiting process. I met with him the next day and after talking to him, I was sold on him completely. He is obviously a great goalie, but it was his character that set him apart."
Remarked Thomas: "We did some homework and watched some video and next thing you know, we threw the offer out. It was kind of a quick thing for both of us, there wasn't a lot of time evaluating him on how good is he going to be, we just knew that he checked all of the boxes for us right out of the gates and we didn't think we couldn't slow-play things given our goaltending situation, so we wanted to get a good one as early as we could.
"It was a little bit of a risk on our part and obviously it was a little bit of a risk on Olivier's part, too."
Everything about Olivier Mantha's hockey career up to that point had been doused with risk; and driven by faith.
Early on in his career, Mantha remembers traveling a lot. Growing up in La Tuque, Québec, opportunities to play hockey at a high level were few and far between. For that reason, Olivier and his father would have to drive to find it. Mantha recalls at an early age having the desire to be a dominant hockey player, but wasn't exactly sure the right path to take. Then the unthinkable happened- Olivier's sister was diagnosed with cancer. After the diagnosis, it became nearly impossible for he and his father to keep up with the traveling schedule needed to advance Olivier's career, so he made a decision very few aspiring hockey players could make; he hung up his skates and quit the game.
As he puts it, he didn't necessarily stop playing entirely, but in an area where there were already limited avenues one could take to excel on the ice, during that time period, he stopped playing competitive hockey. Instead, he tried to keep his skills from getting rusty by skating with friends and local pucksters, which was a far cry from the talent he needed to surround himself with if he ever wanted to play hockey at the next level. Still, family was more important and it was worth the risk. He just needed faith that it would all work out.
It did. After his sister recovered- coming out on top in the biggest fight of her life, it was his turn to battle. Once again looking for that competitive circle that he had been missing, Mantha applied for, and was accepted into. a junior hockey program (College Lafleche). It didn't mean he was back yet, but it was a start. It was an open door and that's all he had asked for.
"When you are out of that competitive circle, you are always wondering if you are going to be able to get back in it. I was confident in my playing ability and I knew I was good enough to play at a certain level," replied Mantha. "I wasn't thinking about college hockey back in the day, but I knew I was good enough to play a few more years somewhere. Each year I went into it thinking I had a chance to make something happen for myself."
Each season playing with Lafleche gave Mantha an opportunity to acclimate himself back into hockey. After three seasons there, Mantha moved to the BCHL after being invited to the Penticton development camp as a 20-year-old. It didn't take long for him to make an immediate impact on the league and the coaches who were coming to watch him. Coaches like Josh Ciocco.
"After seeing him play one time, in just an exhibition game, I offered him a full scholarship and he accepted our offer the next day. This was the first scholarship I had ever offered, and it was for a crucial position, so naturally when he said yes I was excited, but, I was also nervous because I had only seen him play one time," remarked Ciocco. "I extended my trip in order to watch him play again. His next game was against Salmon Arm and I remember being a nervous wreck before that game thinking to myself, 'You just gave away a full scholarship, for your most important position--a position which I never played, to a kid you have only seen play one time, in an exhibition game!' What if he just played a really good game that day and actually stinks? I'm not a parent, but after that game I understand what it feels like to be parent watching your kid play goalie- it's stressful. Thankfully, Olivier was outstanding, and it was one of the best recruiting decisions I have made."
Who would have known at the time how instrumental those 48 hours would be for Mantha…and for the University of Alaska Anchorage program.
When Mantha arrived on campus to begin his freshman season, he knew that there was a possibility he could play; even start from time to time. Both Thomas and Ciocco told him that. What he didn't necessarily see coming was how much he would play, and how well he would perform. It took two games for Mantha to get his first college experience and his first win; a 4-2 victory over Wisconsin. It wasn't just the fact that Mantha won the game; it was how he did it. Almost from the drop of the puck the then-freshman showcased his agility and athleticism by making one circus-type save after another. At the time the Badgers were the 10th-ranked team in the country. Olivier Mantha shut them down, making 27 saves on 29 shots. In Anchorage, a star was born.
"At the time, to be honest, I didn't know what to expect. College hockey was kind of new for me but after they made their offer, I did some research and I realized they (UAA) had great goalies in the past. They gave me a great offer and talked about the possibility of being a starter as a freshman, which was pretty rare," remembered Mantha. "In the beginning I was a little nervous but very excited. It was a great opportunity for me to come in and be an impact player my first year. The older guys helped me out quite a bit, helping me feel comfortable on the team. It was really a different feel in college hockey compared to juniors; you really don't have a training camp- you are either on the team or not. Right from the start guys take you in and make you a part of the team and a part of the family. I really liked the feel of that."
More dominating performances followed and when it was all said and done, Mantha finished his freshman year with a 7-18-3 record with one shutout and a .914 save percentage, and was ultimately named team MVP for the 2014-15 season. In total, he played in 29 games and was tested in every single one of them. Thomas and company will admit that over the last few seasons the Anchorage roster has consistently changed from one season to the next, and with that, often newcomers (like Mantha) are thrown into the lineup right away. As a result, the Seawolves lacked consistency on the blue line during Mantha's freshman season, meaning there were many times when UAA opponents were able to have a sizable edge in shots on goal. During Mantha's freshman campaign, he posted 40-or-more saves in a game five times- including a 49-save performance against top-ranked Minnesota State on Feb. 7, 2015. To date it's still one of the top-five best single-game saves performances in Alaska Anchorage hockey history. It would not be the first time Mantha's name would be etched into the Seawolf record book.
"One of the things we have struggled with is keeping that consistency in our line-up. The one constant has always been Olivier. In front of him it's been inconsistent. There are guys who have left early, recruits who have never made it to campus, guys who have left at Christmas, guys who have signed early, guys who have transferred. It's been a little tough because we all know that collegiate teams are built with young talent mixed with veteran leadership," replied Thomas. "Teams that play for national championships, that's what they have along with good goaltending. We've had our struggles that have gone along with rebuilding the program. Sometimes you have to cut ties with some players and you have to build within the program and it's a long process. I thought it would be a quicker process but it's a long process and you can't make mistakes. Olivier is a guy who has been a constant for us."
Believe it or not, but last season Mantha got even better. As a junior, the one they call "Manny" finished the season with a goals-against average of 2.82 and a save percentage of .913. While the Seawolves struggled to win games, Mantha was at his best; stopping anything and everything that he saw. He finished with 50-or-more saves in a game twice, including a 53-stop performance against a nationally-ranked Penn State team. The 53 saves rank third all-time in UAA history, while his 867 stops last season is tied for second all-time in the program's record books, matching former NHL netminder Nathan Lawson. It wasn't a surprise to anyone when Mantha was named team MVP for the third-straight year. In addition, the mathematics major and 4.0 student was also named to the WCHA All-Academic team and earned WCHA Scholar-Athlete Award status for the second-consecutive season.
Now in his senior season, Mantha continues to ride the wave of momentum, while toppling program records in the process. Already attached to every goaltending category you can think of inside the UAA record book, Mantha is number one all-time in career save percentage (.909) and is less than 130 saves away becoming the all-time leader in career stops. This season alone, Mantha has made 30-or-more saves in a game 14 times so far (24 games), along with three games with 40-plus stops. He combined for 74 saves on opening weekend against North Dakota, helping the Seawolves to a tie and OT loss to the nationally-ranked Fighting Hawks. Still, no matter how many pucks have been fired his way, Mantha has remained as consistent as ever. He has continued to be the one constant for Thomas, while the rest of his roster falls into place. Case in point- this season the Seawolves have dressed nine different defensemen, including four freshmen and two sophomores. There is no doubt that when you think consistency, Olivier Mantha comes to mind. When you talk about UAA hockey, the conversation begins and ends with number 33.
"He is incredibly quick and he's in phenomenal shape. He's very strong and very agile for a guy who is as strong as he is. He's one of the strongest players on our team. He's very quick and he's as competitive as he is quick, so there isn't a puck that is ever safe from being kept out of the net when he's in there," commented Thomas, when asked what makes Mantha so special in net. "There is no quit in him and his quickness, his power and his strength allows him to move around within that crease. I haven't seen many guys like that and I have coached a lot of kids who have turned out to be big-time NHL prospects. I've never coached a guy who is this powerful and this quick."
"I embrace it. I think it's a great position to be in; being a guy who is always relied on. As a player you always want to be that player who makes an impact on your team and on the game," remarked Mantha, who once again has a save percentage above .900 this season. "At the same time, the way I see it, I just focus on what I can do and how I can help the team. I don't really pay attention to the other things that happen on the ice, I just focus on myself and what I can do to help the team win. I think that's why I have been able to be consistent throughout the years even though we've had some difficult performances and some seasons where we haven't been very successful. Just sticking with the process and focusing on what I can to help the team has been the way to do it for me."
Sticking with the process. Having faith in the process.
Every once in a while, Mantha thinks back to the days when he stepped away from hockey for a brief period as a youngster in La Tuque. He remembers the journey and the faith it took to walk the path that eventually led him to college hockey. Led him to Anchorage, Alaska. Now, about to embark on his final few months of Division I hockey as arguably the best goaltender who has ever worn a Seawolves uniform, Mantha knows that his key to success has always been taking things as they come; one puck at a time. For a player who at one point found himself with a college scholarship and an airplane ticket to Anchorage within the span of 48 hours, you never know what types of challenges, or opportunities, will present themselves. Like a flying puck, you just need to be ready to grab them when they come.
"Right now, I am just focusing on having a good second half, and then we will see where things go from there. Hopefully I can play professional hockey for a few years," explained Mantha, when asked about the future. "Right now, I don't really realize it (his successes at UAA) because I'm still living it, but I think someday I'll look back on it and realize that I'm up there with all of the good goalies at UAA- it's definitely going to be an honor, that's for sure. But, I've been saying it all year and I'll keep saying it; I would trade all of those records to make the playoffs every year, so it's kind of a bittersweet taste for me."
Matt Thomas knows that taste well. On one hand, he doesn't want to think about losing Olivier Mantha after the season. On the other hand, he knows that coaching Manny has been a once in a lifetime experience.
"He has a ton of athleticism and an extremely high compete level. He is consistent with his daily habits and he comes to work every day and tries to get better," added Ciocco, who still follows Mantha closely from across the country. "In juniors, he almost solely relied on his athleticism to make saves, but he's gotten a lot better over the years in terms of his technique and his game is much more controlled now than it used to be. Hockey is all about getting opportunities and taking advantage of them, and I think if a pro team gives him an opportunity, they will be thankful they did.
"He is obviously a great goalie, but it's his character that sets him apart," continued Ciocco. "He is the type of person that will be successful in whatever he does. If he decided to be a lawyer he'd be a great lawyer. If he was a carpenter he'd be a great one. It's a cliché saying, but he's the type of guy you'd want your daughter to date."
In the end, is there a better compliment than that?
Mantha and company return to action this weekend with a home series against Northern Michigan. With 10 regular season games remaining, the Seawolves will play six contests at home, including a weekend battle with Bowling Green on February 15th and 16th. Whenever the season ends, it will close a chapter of Olivier Mantha's UAA career, but not the whole story- after all, the impact of a legend is forever felt.