Gophers’ Waibel the definition of a role player

Lou Raguse

When Minnesota-Duluth forward Junior Lessard scored a power-play goal in the third period to put the Bulldogs up 3-1 in last Saturday’s game, it put a figurative dagger in Minnesota’s hopes of earning a series split.

But to the Gophers on the ice during the penalty kill, the goal was personal, because Minnesota’s penalty killers revel in specializing in that role.

For senior Jon Waibel, it was disheartening because he’s made the most of his role there for the last four years.

“Different games call for different roles, but I try to stay solid on penalty kills,” Waibel said. “Last weekend, we got killed on that.”

But on the whole, the Gophers’ specialty teams have been solid this season – scoring 41 power play goals to their opponents’ 24. The Bulldogs scored six of the 24 just last weekend.

Waibel came out of the U.S. National Development program as a major scoring threat. But, in his first season in Minnesota, he became a role player.

He has since developed into a fixture in the Gophers’ lineup, playing wherever the coaches stick him.

“Jon’s a heart-and-soul type of player,” coach Don Lucia said. “He takes great pride in being a defensive player. He’s played some center, right wing, left wing – wherever we need him.”

It’s not that Waibel came to Minnesota hoping to be a fourth-line player, but early on, he realized the importance of different roles on a championship-caliber team.

And as the Gophers kept recruiting high-profile scorers, Waibel focused on the less glamorous areas of the game, such as defense and penalty killing.

“There’s more to hockey than scoring,” Waibel said. “It’s similar to the offensive linemen in football. You need (role players) to be successful. And that’s not just true for us, but for every successful hockey program.”

Even so, Waibel still provides bursts of offense for Minnesota when needed.

In the 2001-02 season, he scored two game-winning goals against North Dakota. And on Jan. 31 of this year, the forward scored the game-tying goal and assisted on Jerrid Reinholz’s game-winner.

The Waibel Factor

Waibel is currently the only Minnesota player with a fan club Web site dedicated to him.

The Web site popped up after his freshman season, and Waibel said he didn’t even know the page’s creators.

“That year, the NCAA compliance guy came down and asked me about the Web site, because they were selling T-shirts on it,” Waibel said. “He thought I was making money off of it.”

Waibel’s bank account might not have swelled from fan appeal, but he certainly appreciates the gesture. He credits his popularity to hard work and gritty play.

Teammate Jake Fleming said Waibel’s quirkiness also plays a part – whether it is wrapping tape around his skates or wearing oversized breezers.

Either way, his teammates seem to be fans as well.

“He’s a different character,” said Fleming, who has played alongside Waibel in the lineup and penalty kill for much of their careers. “He’s a free spirit. Sometimes we’re just like, ‘Waibel, what are you doing?’ “

Bringing a smile to work

When playing on a two-time national championship team, there are usually plenty of reasons to be positive.

But with the ups and downs the Gophers have experienced this season, having a teammate as positive as Waibel has been important to the Gophers.

“I don’t ever see a negative out of him,” Fleming said. “He gets knocked down, but then he gets back up and is like, ‘Here we go.’ “

Waibel admitted that in last weekend’s Duluth series, he, too, was guilty of negativity. But this week, he was back to his normal, lighthearted self in practice, ironing out problems in the penalty kill and preparing for Alaska-Anchorage.

“He’s a giddy-up guy,” senior Matt Koalska said. “He’s the kind of guy that goes with the flow and doesn’t stress about things, and that’s what sets him apart.”