I stand outside the door of Hillside nearest Conte Forum, eyeing the entrance to the media suite.
Through the rain-soaked air, I watch as athletes pass through, decked out in Under Armour-emblazoned maroon and gold regalia. Typically, I join in on the sleep-induced shuffle past the murals—Matt Ryan, the first Welles Crowther Game against Southern California, Boston College men’s hockey winning its most recent national title. Jersey on, thoroughly embracing the at-times disappointing reality of my non-athletic-regular-person lifestyle, I’ll hang a right, then a left, through the double doors. Every so often, I’ll pass the couple of athletes who remember me by name, mostly because of classes together or previous features. Then, I’ll either keep going to a practice, or take a seat at one of the tables, wait for the athlete to arrive, and, after the allotted 15 to 20 minutes are up, they’ll hurry along to the next stop in the unfairly constant life of a student-athlete at this university.
In my four years covering BC Athletics, the process has remained exactly the same. And yet, Joseph Woll is anything but the same.
In tan khakis, a gray t-shirt, and a black, damp hat, sans any design save for the UA logo on the side, Woll, the starting goaltender for the Eagles, calls out to me across the cafe. He invites me over to two seats in the corner. I mention that it’s my first time talking to an athlete outside of Conte, to which he responds how he doesn’t like the media suite. Too stuffy, he says. There’s nothing natural about having a conversation in such a formal setting. In the way only a Midwesterner could do, Woll offers to move to a classroom somewhere in Maloney Hall or another building, in case it’s too loud.
For the first time since my first one-on-one, I’m not the one doing everything I can to make an interview between two college students feel normal.
As we sit in the corner, Woll comments on my chosen jersey for the day—a Hartford Whalers Ron Francis No. 10, in bright kelly green. I always try to pick a jersey for the sport the athlete plays as a talking point, but Woll is the first to bring it up.
I tell him I went neutral today. I could’ve gone with either of my Canadian teams: my Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs, for the team that drafted Woll. Or my Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Montreal Canadiens, the team which he will one day despise, on the ice at least. Woll breaks out a smile and laughs, not in a to-be-polite way, but a genuine reaction to that thought.
“It’s funny you say that, because Carey Price is my favorite player,” Woll says in reply. “I got his signed jersey for Christmas a couple years ago.”
Most hockey players like Woll are big into jerseys. But I challenge him to give me his best one, against the collection I have so carefully crafted for many years.
The answer was threefold: Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Vladislav Tretiak. The first two are of Ovechkin and Malkin on Team Russia. The Tretiak is of the club team of the goaltender famous for blowing the Miracle on Ice game. All three are signed.
Again, another first—I’ve been beat.
To anyone who knows the lanky, 6-foot-4 All-Hockey East Rookie Teamer, member of the U.S. U18 IIHF World Champions, and third-round pick of the Maple Leafs, this story should come as no surprise. The “Brick Woll,” as he goes by on Twitter, has always been driven by a pure passion and love for hockey. And he always—always—wins.
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Shelley Woll lucked out when her son started wanting hockey lessons. In typical, child-like manner, he stole them.
Woll had loved the sport, inspired by his dad’s fandom in the hometown Blues, since they bought him a Little Tyke’s plastic set for Christmas when he was 2. Now a 5-year-old, Woll wanted to start the real thing. So every Thursday at 10 a.m. during the school year, when everyone else was learning arithmetic and reading, Woll learned to play. Shelley would drive him to a rink just 15 minutes from their house in St. Louis, Mo., for the open skate at that time. While Shelley sat in the stands, Woll taught himself alone in the rink, donning a miniature Keith Tkachuk Blues jersey. Slowly, he began to figure it out.
But a couple of weeks into the year, school was out, leading to an onslaught of kids on the ice. Led by a local coach, Diana Schaefering, the boys and girls, all wearing Blues jerseys with different names of every player on the team, skated past Woll one by one. Schaefering ran lessons with the children of Blues’ players who hoped to be as good as their dads one day. Wearing the Tkachuk jersey, Woll decided one day, as 5-year-olds are wont to do, to tag along. Shelley, knowing he was invading a private practice, stood at the glass to call him over. The other mothers on the Blues asked if she was Tkachuk’s wife—the USA Hockey Hall of Famer had just been traded to the team. After the practice, Shelley, thoroughly embarrassed, approached Schaefering to apologize.
“But she told me, ‘Honestly, your son hung right in there, he’s welcome to come back next week,’” Shelley said. “So we did.”
Woll started out at forward, but his love of the equipment drew him elsewhere. When he was 8, he saw tryouts for a spring elite team featuring ’98 birth years. His parents wanted him to stick on the wings, fearful he’d never properly learn to skate. But Woll was adamant about getting a mask and facing off against the puck. In tryouts, they put him in mismatched equipment, promising to get him the real stuff only if he made the team. But eventually, he did, to his mother’s amused dismay.
“I tell him, ‘You picked the most expensive position of the most expensive sport,’” Shelley laughed.
Initially, Woll was the third goaltender, and never traveled to away tournaments. But Trent Frederic, then his team’s starting goalie but now a first-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins as a forward, had his first communion. So Woll got his big break, and never left the pipes.
He joined the AAA Blues, a club team that featured future stars like Boston University’s Clayton Keller, in his tween years. As Woll began to prove he was serious, his parents paid for a private coach, Bruce Racine, who had played professionally for 17 seasons and whom Woll saw once a week. Shelley calls him “a spectacular hockey coach, and the most amazing man.” But Racine believes that latter title may belong to her son.
Every so often, Shelley would ask Racine to take him to practice from school when she had to work. Racine, a huge Canadiens fan, would listen to games he recorded on cassettes on the radio with Woll in the back listening. One day, Racine played a recording from inside Montreal’s Centre Bell, in which the first star of the game was the goaltender, Carey Price, Woll’s favorite player. In French and English, the PA announcer blared: “And the first star … et la première étoile … Carey Price!”
“And I could just see that genuine smile on his face,” Racine said.
The following winter, Woll gave Racine a Christmas present: a hand-drawn picture of Price, framed, and signed by Woll.
“He’s probably forgotten about it, but in his spare time, he was just drawing goalies,” Racine said. “It was one of those tells that made me know he had the passion.”
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Mike Ayers had an in. BC’s goaltending coach had just been hired in Chestnut Hill, following a stint at the United States National Team Development Program. But his successor at the program, Kevin Reiter, gave him a call—he needed to make sure he checked this kid out.
“The best goaltenders who I’ve seen profile like Joseph Woll to a tee,” Reiter said.
The scouting report said it all, too. Reiter, now the USNTDP’s director of player personnel, saw in Woll a powerful goaltender with great lateral mobility. He never gives up on a play or shot, because of his willingness to be aggressive. With his background as a skater, Woll has little fear coming out of the net. His version of a 6-foot-4 frame doesn’t strike the same fear as the imposing build of Woll’s predecessor, Thatcher Demko. Sometimes, he makes himself seem small and coiled in the net—Ayers described him as a snake, even still at BC. But Woll always tries to sit upright in the butterfly position. And if it works, no reason to fix it.
Tag-teaming with BU’s Jake Oettinger, Woll traveled the globe, taking down teams in Sweden and Finland. Reiter recalls one game against Notre Dame, a 2-2 tie in which Woll, then 16, stifled one of the country’s best attacks. For the goalie, joining the USNTDP was his peak.
“Knowing all the work I put in, knowing all the weekends I had missed in high school, had finally paid off into something for which I was committed and wanted to do,” Woll said.
But peaks for high-quality high school athletes don’t ever stop just there. Ayers got him to commit in the middle of a snowstorm. And from day one at BC, he’s been expected to produce.
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Michael Campoli and Mike Merulla sat across from me at my kitchen table, laughing about Woll, their eight-man roommate. The two men’s hockey sophomores had an answer for everything, teasing him for his various quirks. They giggled about his tendency to prank Ron Greco by putting garbage in his locker or hiding post-White Mountain ice cream, and how Woll complained that he had to be jelly to Campoli’s peanut butter for Halloween last year. Or about his love for the piano, particularly Coldplay, which he has taught himself fluently despite never learning how to read music. Even more so about Woll’s DJing habit—you can’t not find him on GarageBand when he comes back to his room, Campoli said.
Until one stumped them—in a good way.
If you were putting together Woll’s highlight tape, I asked, which game would you put first?
The two stopped and thought for about a minute’s worth of silence.
“Geez,” Campoli said. “There were countless games, especially early on in the season when we trying to figure out our identity, he was just there for us the whole time.”
Merulla replied. “What about that Hockey East semifinal game against BU?”
Take me back to that one, I asked in response.
Deep within the bowels of TD Garden, the two described a Woll very different from the one they had pieced together for me for the previous 15 minutes. Once you hit gameday, Woll goes from goofy and laughy, Campoli said, to completely serious, all game, all business. As he traipses through the hallway of the Garden’s undercarriage, Woll doesn’t make any sound. He has a set routine that mustn’t be broken, lest you risk a loss that day. He’ll juggle racquetballs for 20 minutes at a time, put his headphones in to blast EDM, and move on and off the ice, without acknowledging anyone else’s existence.
“He’s kind of like a ghost,” Campoli said. “You’ll see him in passing and he just won’t say anything to you.”
And once he got on the ice that night—a night in which the Eagles were essentially fighting to stay alive in the NCAA Tournament race, let alone compete for a Hockey East title—Woll was unstoppable for 58 minutes.
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Ayers, too, recalled that Woll was simply everywhere that night. As he had done all season—a campaign in which he finished his freshman season on the All-Hockey East Team with a 2.64 goals against average and a .913 save percentage—he bailed out BC on shot after shot. He never feared to get on his back and spread out wide. Woll constantly moved out of the net in the game’s opening minutes, when BC’s defense collapsed to allow a BU rush. Clayton Keller and Patrick Harper led a two-man rush at the net, but, twice using only his legs, Woll used his cat-like agility to kick it away while abandoning the comforts of the crease.
“Having a goalie like Joe behind you gives the whole defensive corps a lot of confidence. When you make a mistake, it’s really comfortable,” Campoli said. “It allows you to take an extra risk you might not normally take because you’ve got a goalie like Joe behind us.”
Woll held just enough with 42 saves to give BC time to build up a 3-0 lead. Toward the end of the third period, the powerful Terriers crept back in with an extra attacker to make things exciting. But Woll refused to budge, and helped save BC’s season, even if only for a short time. For Ayers, that game reminded him of one player in particular.
“When he plays that simple game, which he did toward the end last year, he looks like Jonathan Quick,” Ayers said, referring to the two-time champion Los Angeles Kings goaltender. “Especially late in that BU game, he had a lot of pressure on him, he had a lot of shots on him, and he stayed composed and he got us a win.”
What’s next for Woll? At least another year on the Heights, trying to prove he’s the top goaltender in the country, even if he’s doing so silently. Ayers knows he won’t admit it, but Woll has the edge about him that makes him want bragging rights over Oettinger, his longtime friend but on-ice competitor. For Racine, it’s Toronto, and playing at the next level, where he believes Woll will be for a long time.
“I see him easily as a professional goaltender, for sure,” Racine said. “He’s really the entire package that you’d want.”
But as he reflects on a chair in Hillside, Woll’s best memories seem never to come on the ice. He never even mentions a game. It’s the pranks in the locker room, like stuffing Campoli’s locker full of empty Gatorade bottles. It’s serenading his mom in O’Connell House with Coldplay whenever she comes to visit BC. It’s experiences like playing in Russia for the Tretiak Invitational, where he got the jersey that bested me and met the man who many consider to be the greatest who ever lived. Without that, Woll says, there’s no reason for him to be playing.
“I think the best part of hockey is the people I’m around—the coaches, the players, all of them make me passionate. That’s what’s worth it for me.”
For the first time during our conversation, Woll reverts back to typical athlete form, with an answer I’ve heard a hundred times before. Yet with Woll, you just believe it, and know him to be anything but the same.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor