Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally written for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper.
On Feb. 6, 2015, Cal Petersen entered Notre Dame’s road game against Maine in relief and made 10 saves to post 25 scoreless minutes in the third period and overtime during a 4-4 tie.
The then-freshman started the second game of the weekend series the following night, a 5-1 Irish victory.
Since that night, Petersen has been absent from the Irish net for just 106 minutes and eight seconds — not even midway through the third period of the second game of one typical weekend series.
And that’s including the 30:12 the Irish have spent without a goaltender at all, either in delayed-penalty or extra-attacker situations.
“He loves playing the minutes,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said of his netminder. “He likes to play, and when you’ve got a horse, you run with him.”
Notre Dame has “run” in 80 games since that weekend in Maine.
Petersen has started between the pipes in every one of them.
Growing up a goalie
Playing between the pipes isn’t usually what kids imagine when first lacing up the skates.
Goalies don’t get to skate around and score goals or hit people, and every time a goaltender messes up, a red light goes off above his head and people yell at him, either in joy or despair.
It’s not a flashy position, at least early on.
Petersen, however, had a perfect role model: his father, Eric, who played goalie at the Division III level for Bethel University just outside of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Dad’s footsteps mattered, but so did goalies’ special gear.
“I really liked the gear so I gave goalie a shot when I was 7 or 8,” Petersen said. “My dad being a goalie probably helped a lot, too.”
Although he gave skating out a shot, Petersen said he knew he wanted to play in net early, and soon his parents were shuttling him 3 ½ hours from his hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, to Minnesota or Wisconsin to play against tougher competition.
“I had to commute back and forth from Waterloo three to four times a week to practice and then would be gone on weekends, so it was probably more of a hard thing for my parents,” Petersen said. “The thing that’s probably hardest is getting to this point. That was probably the hardest for my family and I.”
After spending some time with the Madison Capitals and Chicago Young Americans, Petersen got a phone call from the USHL’s Waterloo Blackhawks telling him to come home. They’d drafted him.
“I played a couple affiliate games [with Waterloo] and I was able to do well,” Petersen recalled. “I was always around the team practicing when I was younger, and just to become a legitimate part of the team, to hear my name announced and hear ‘From Waterloo, Iowa … ’ is always going to be a favorite memory.”
Petersen said he was recruited by a couple other schools, but Notre Dame was where he wanted to be as soon as he came for his visit.
“I was ready to commit on campus,” Petersen said. “My parents were just like, ‘Alright, make sure you think it through.’ So we jumped in the car and drove back, and by the time we got home I was already calling Coach Jackson.
“Things have definitely calmed down and been less hectic, and I think my parents can enjoy it a little bit more.”
A Notre Dame leader
Jackson announced Petersen would wear the captain’s ‘C’ this season back in September, an unusual move in the hockey world. Jeff Lerg captained Michigan State during the 2008-2009 season, but he was the only goalie Petersen or Jackson recalled having captained their team recent NCAA memory.
Only six goalies have ever captained an NHL team, the last of whom was Bill Durnan for the 1947-1948 Montreal Canadians.
Nowadays it’s illegal in the NHL for goalies to serve as captains on the ice, although Vancouver named Roberto Luongo the captain before the 2008-2009 season, a role he held off the ice for two years.
Jackson said at the time Petersen — a fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2013 NHL draft — “best represented every aspect of what we do.” The coach also alluded to a popular stereotype about goalies, who are thought of by many in the game as being “isolated,” “a little free-spirited” and just a little bit off in general.
Perhaps they have to be, to willingly and repeatedly throw themselves in front of a frozen rubber disk.
“We’ve had a little bit of everything with goaltenders here,” Jackson said in September. “And he’s probably more just one of the boys than anybody else.”
Junior forward Anders Bjork seconded his coach’s opinion last week before the Irish jetted off to Maine.
“I mean, I hate to admit it, but I think he’s probably the most normal goalie I know,” he said.
The forward added an important qualifier, though.
“I’m his roommate, so I guess I should say that,” Bjork said, laughing as Petersen made his grand exit from the media room by shouting that the television reporter would need makeup for his roommate’s “ugly mug” as part of the setup for an on-camera interview.
“We’re pretty close friends, but he has his moments when you can tell he’s a goalie,” Bjork continued. “But for the most part, I think I do a pretty good job keeping him in control.
“He thinks he’s a really good dancer, so sometimes he’ll just try to come up with a new move and think it’s sweet, and he’ll show me and I’ll be like, ‘Dude. Think man.’ But that’s probably the biggest reminder of how much of a goalie he is.”
One look at Petersen’s numbers also reminds one just “how much of a goalie” he is, though.
This season, he is currently tied for the national lead with five shutouts and ranks 10th in goals-against average (2.10), 11th in save percentage (.924) and eighth in wins (17).
Before the latest Maine series, Petersen ranked first in Notre Dame history in career save percentage (.927), third in career goals against average (2.28), fourth in career shutouts (10) and seventh in career saves (2,654).
And that’s with a year of eligibility remaining.
In terms of games played, Petersen can already be discussed in the company of Irish legends like David Brown (111 games played), Jordan Pearce (94), Mike Johnson (99) and Steven Summerhays (106).
He’s closing quickly in other categories, too: Summerhays has the school record with 13 shutouts, just three more than Petersen’s 10.
“Those are guys that have meant a great deal to Notre Dame and to the program,” Petersen said. “That was something I was always shooting for: to be in that company and do good things at this school. To be mentioned with those guys is very special, and I’m very proud of that.”
Coming full circle … and then some
The Irish returned to Maine last weekend for the first time since that fateful 2015 series. The now-junior Petersen started both games, posting a pair of victories in career appearances No. 99 and No. 100.
“It’s very cool,” Petersen said last week of his 100th game, admitting he didn’t know he was nearing the century mark. “And on top of that, last time we were in Maine was when the streak started, so it’s pretty lucky that way.”
Petesen’s 80 consecutive starts from Maine trip to Maine trip are tied for the fifth-longest such streak in Division I history.
He has appeared in 81 consecutive games as well — which is conveniently also tied for the fifth-longest streak in Division I history.
Both streaks are easily Notre Dame records. The NCAA records are well within reach, too: Cornell’s Ben Scrivens (104 consecutive starts) and Clarkson’s Dan Murphy (122 consecutive games played) are attainable assuming Petersen returns for his senior year and stays healthy.
It takes a certain bit of luck to reach the heights Petersen’s already soared to, of course: Hockey is an inherently rough game, and even goalies are far from immune to it.
“The biggest part is I’m just really lucky so far,” Petersen said last week. “And lucky to have fit a team where I can be successful and help the team win games and have the coaches have confidence in me.”
Jackson, a goalie himself in his playing days at Michigan State, said that he keeps a close eye on Petersen and gives him a practice off here and there during the season.
“You don’t always have those resources as a coach, so when you get a great player, you want to make sure you’re maximizing their abilities,” Jackson said. “And durability, knock on wood, has been a strength of his.”