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'Proud of where I come from': Kindersley's Justen Close reminisces on NCAA hockey journey in final season

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Justen Close, 25, who hails from Kindersley, Sask., is in his final season of NCAA hockey with the University of Minnesota.

“It’s pretty cool. I mean, It was a goal of mine. I didn’t really know a whole lot of what it would entail. But you know, looking back, growing up in Kindersley I had a lot of fond memories there and it gave me an awesome childhood and I hope kids are still doing the same thing and dreaming big,” said Close reflecting on his journey to college hockey.

The goaltender played junior hockey for his hometown team, the Kindersley Klippers, from 2016-19.

“It was awesome. When I started playing junior when I turned 18, there wasn’t really anywhere else I wanted to play. Always growing up watching the Klippers, it was something I wanted to be a part of. It was awesome to be able to play in front of my friends and family for three years and we steadily got better every year and I had a lot of fun,” shared Close.

However, Close said it was not until his 20 year old season that he realized he may have a shot to go south and play NCAA hockey.

“Some teams started calling. It was always a goal but not something that came into reality until my last year of junior. I was just trying to make the most of it and see what happens,” he shared.

“I remember they [Minnesota] gave my coach, Clayton Jardine, a call and I remember him being pretty excited about the phone call. To be honest, I was a little bit oblivious to everything that college hockey but I could tell from his excitement that it was the right place to be.”

“I remember that [phone call], it was just before the SJHL/MJHL showcase and they were going to come watch and thankfully that game he played he got a shutout. He came off the ice and I gave him a big hug like he won the Stanley Cup,” exclaimed Jardine.

However, his first few years playing for the Golden Gophers were a learning curve. Not only were his first couple of seasons affected by the pandemic, he also was now a rookie on a veteran team. In those first two years, he only played four games between the pipes. This was new territory for Close who had spent his minor hockey and junior years as a primary starter.

“That was definitely a different experience. It was a different two and half years for me. It was a lot of learning, a lot of patience, and a lot of making sure you’re getting everything out of practice. I was lucky to have some good goalie partners and good teammates who made it fun,” said Close.

“I understand the Division I process, I played it myself for four years and it’s even harder for one goalie there being one net but I was fully confident when he got that opportunity that he wasn’t going to give the net up,” shared Jardine on watching Close’s early days in Minnesota.

Ironically, the goalie he was backing up was the only other Canadian on the team at the time, Jack LaFontaine. But in his third year, LaFontaine signed a pro deal which meant Close would finally get his opportunity.

“I was kind of the next guy in line and coach gave me the call and I guess that was that and haven’t looked back,” he shared.

Close is now in his fifth and final year of eligibility. In his time at U of M, he has completed his undergraduate degree in Entrepreneurial Management and is currently working in a graduate program studying Sports Management.

But his time on the ice has seen its fair share of excitement and heartbreak including losing in the 2023 National Championship to Quinnipiac just 10 seconds into overtime.

“That was definitely difficult. You know, there’s not a lot to say about how it ended. It sucked,” he sighed. “But I think it’s been a motivator for some guys in the locker room this year to come back and make another good run at it.”

The loss does not take away from Close’s pride in being a kid from Saskatchewan who made it all the way to Division I hockey.

“Every day coming to the rink and trying to build something with this program has been an absolute privilege and joy for me every since I got here. I’m very proud of where I come from and very proud of my community and the people I know. There’s not a lot of us. I’m always happy when I come across Saskatchewan people wherever I’m at,” said Close proudly.

He also added that in his time down south, not only have there been very few Canadians around him, there have been even fewer from Saskatchewan along the way.

“Saskatchewan has had some good representation the last few years. Matthew Perkins (Balgonie), I remember playing Jimmy Lambert a few years ago on Michigan, I think he’s from Saskatoon,” he named a few quickly.

Laughing, he then added he did not want to forget anyone so he better stop there but added he has been happy to play against any Saskatchewan player in the NCAA.

“I’m just proud to sit back and watch him every single game and become the young man that he is. He’s the most humble, caring, hardworking guy that I’ve ever coached … It’s a guy that you want to hire if you’re starting a business and you know there’s the old joke too like who do you want to date your sister? He’s the guy, he could come join my family any day,” joked Jardine.

There are still plenty of regular season games left on the schedule for Close and right now, his team is ranked seventh in the nation for NCAA Division I hockey. Boston College sits in the number one spot with North Dakota and Denver rounding out the second and third.

The NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship bracket will be announced on Sunday, March 24.

The Men’s Frozen Four will take place in St. Paul, MN. April 11-13, 2024.

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