The Right Choice
Feb. 21, 2010
By Larry Watts
Making a choice between two sports is hardly uncommon for an athlete. But when the coach of the sport you're giving up is your father, now that's a different story.
It was during his junior season at Rochester (Minn.) Century High School that Alex Kangas informed his father, Keith, that he was giving up baseball to pursue his dream in hockey. His father was the National High School baseball coach of the year in 2002.
"I never really asked him if it hurt him, but it did seem a little quiet around the house afterward," the former shortstop/pitcher says. "We're pretty much a baseball family and I'm the only one who strayed away from it. I'm sure he was a little disappointed, but he knew what my intentions were."
Kangas' older brother played baseball at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is now coaching junior college ball in California. His younger brother stayed with baseball throughout high school before heading off to St. Cloud State.
"I came back and played American Legion ball for my dad after my senior year, but my brother wound up playing shortstop and he put me at second base," the University of Minnesota junior says.
Kangas began playing hockey at the age of 7 and became a goalie in his first year at the Squirt level (ages 10-under).
"I wasn't on the best teams growing up, so I kind of got peppered a little bit as a youngster," he says. "But I got noticed and was able to do some summer leagues with elite teams, where we would travel to Canada for tournaments. I knew southern Minnesota didn't get a lot of exposure, so I had to do as much elite stuff as possible to set myself up for a good senior year in high school."
In high school, Kangas was a three-time Big Nine all-conference selection. He led the Panthers to the 2005 state tournament and set a tournament record with 50 saves during a 2-1 loss in the consolation semifinals, one day after making 42 saves in another contest.
Rather than immediately enter college, Kangas chose to play Juniors for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL. He led the Stampede to the league title and was named to the USHL All-Rookie team after posting a 20-6-3 record with a 2.15 goals-against average. His .930 save percentage ranked second in the league.
Following his first year in the USHL, Kangas was drafted in the fifth round (135th pick overall) by the Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL Entry Draft. He was traded that summer to the Indiana Ice. He was 19-19-5 with a goals-against average of 3.31 with the Ice.
"The seasons are pretty long and grinding in Juniors," Kangas says. "We were playing from September until May. In Indianapolis, other than trips to Ohio, our closest bus ride was eight hours.
"But I was glad I did it because it was the top league in the U.S. and it was a chance to get a lot of games under my belt. Fortunately, both teams I played on made the playoffs."
After his second season of Juniors, it was time for Kangas to make his college decision. He visited North Dakota State and had other options available, but once he visited Minnesota, the process was over.
"Growing up in Minnesota, it's every little kid's dream to play for the Maroon an Gold," he says. "It's such a fun atmosphere and the arena is usually sold out. And our games on the road are usually sellouts because those schools want so badly to beat us. This is something I really cherish."
Although the scholarship to Minnesota came with no guarantees, he did expect to play right away. He finally became a fixture in the starting lineup after the holidays and wound up setting Minnesota single-season records with a 1.98 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.
He was named the most valuable player of the WCHA Final five, becoming the second player from a losing team to ever win the award. He was also honored as both the Golden Gophers' Rookie of the Year and team MVP.
Starting 36 of 37 matches last year, Kangas posted a 2.79 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage. However, the Gophers did not qualify for the NCAA tournament.
"Not qualifying for the tournament is a major disappointment around these parts and we don't like to talk about it much because we don't take a lot of pride in it," he says. "It was pretty embarrassing to see another team dress in your locker room during the playoffs and we all went into the summer with a pretty sour taste in our mouths.
"But I think we did a lot of good things together during the offseason and had the right mentality coming in this year, but we unfortunately got off to a rough start. I'm confident we're going to bounce back during the second half of the year though."
At 22, Kangas, who is a junior in marketing education, is one of the oldest players on the team.
"My buddies (from high school) have all graduated or are graduating and now I'm in the same grade as my younger sister (at St. Cloud), which is kind of weird," he says. "My roommate and I were the two oldest freshmen when we came here, but we feel as though we benefitted a great deal from playing Juniors. I have no regrets at all."
According to Kangas, the Thrashers will maintain his rights through graduation.
"It's huge to get drafted and it will be a dream come true if I can make it to the NHL," he says. "Ultimately, it's Atlanta's decision on what they want to do with me.
"They had no problem with me coming here and they have been keeping tabs on me. They could assign me to the AHL to play for the Chicago Wolves or they could cut me loose and I would be a free agent. But if a team drafts you, there must be something about you they like. All I can do is focus on this year and do the best possible job for Minnesota."