Joe Olen: Illinois’ future in net

By Sean Neumann

Kneeling down on one knee with one arm slugged over a railing, Joe Olen is finally getting used to taking questions from reporters.

If you would have asked him a question about Illinois hockey three months ago, he might have been able to force out a brief sentence or two before looking away and breaking eye contact. But now, three months and 426.9 minutes of collegiate ice time later, he’ll laugh and maybe even make a joke about fighting another team’s goalie.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini said the rookie goaltender will start at least one game this weekend against Northern Illinois, Olen’s former school.

Olen made 45 saves in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to No. 2 Robert Morris and has a 4-2-0 record as the Illini’s backup goaltender this season, looking to add another game to the win column this weekend against the Huskies. 

“It’s cool to see him grow and grab and that confidence and kind of believe in himself, which translates to our play,” senior winger John Scully said. “If he has confidence in himself, we’ll have confidence in him, and I think that really makes it a lot easier on us.”

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Olen began playing goalie around age 10 and said he benefited as a goaltender from being able to grow up practicing with his brother John, Illinois’ leading goal scorer who is currently playing overseas with Team USA.

“He could always shoot on me and we helped each other out,” Olen said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we got as far as we did, really.” 

The Hawthorn Woods native said he first learned to play hockey as a skater but was then put in net because of his size.

“I was really small,” Olen remembered, now standing at 6-foot-1. “I would just get destroyed physically. I was really skinny and I was just getting bossed around, so goalie was my position after that.”

Olen’s attitude is reflective of a player who has adapted to playing against bigger opponents throughout his career. That’s to say he plays smart. When a scrum erupts inside his crease after a play, Olen swiftly skates away from the altercation — something unfamiliar to Illini hockey fans who’ve spent the past couple of years watching Nick Clarke scratch and claw his way into every scrap he can get into around his net. But Olen’s avoidance of scrums isn’t born out of fear. It’s strategy.

“I try to get the refs on my side,” Olen laughed. “Then whenever something happens, I like to get a couple penalties and calls go my way. But I’ll go down there and challenge the goalie one of these games. We’ll see what happens, depending on how big the goalie is.”

Olen remembered a time when he had the chance to drop the gloves with the other team’s goalie a few years ago.

“Everyone was fighting on the ice and the goalie was 6-foot-5, so I just turned around and drank water the whole time,” Olen said, laughing.

Then he remembered the closest he ever came to fighting another goalie. It was during his time between the pipes with the Phoenix Junior Coyotes when a line brawl broke out on the ice. He remembers skating the length of the ice, ready to drop the gloves with the opposing goaltender before being grabbed by a referee at the last second. 

“That was the closest I ever came,” Olen said. “I was five feet away.”

The 20-year-old’s willingness to jump into unanticipated action is what has helped make him a successful backup goaltender for the Illini, already allowing Clarke to rest for six games so far this season.

“You’ve just got to be ready no matter what,” Olen said. “Even if you’re not starting games, you should always be prepared just in case something happens.”

With four goaltenders on the Illini roster coming into this year, Olen wasn’t aiming to do anything more than get himself back into the flow of playing hockey after taking last season off. Now, he finds himself as the No. 1 contender for the starting job come next fall.

“It’s just what happens when you work hard,” Olen said. “You get chances and then you’ve got to make the most of your chances.”

Olen said he and Clarke work together in practice, but he’s learned the most from the senior goaltender by simply watching him on the ice. At the beginning of the season, Clarke said he hoped to lead by example and act as a model for younger players, and that’s exactly what helped Olen the most earlier in the season, according to the rookie goaltender.

“It’s kind of how I got my game back, just watching him,” Olen said. “I wasn’t really concerned with position or the depth chart. I was just trying to get my game back, and that’s still where I’m at right now.”

By putting all his focus on getting back into the motions of a goaltender, Olen now finds himself in the midst of a season long changing of the guard. When the 2013-14 season eventually comes to a close, Olen will be the man trying to replace Nick Clarke — one of the most celebrated goalies in Illini hockey history.

And so far this season, Olen has been doing his best to live up to Clarke’s All-American standard. He has a higher save percentage (89.27 percent) than Clarke (86.80 percent) and only has two fewer wins than his senior mentor, who’s started 10 more games this season than Olen.

But Olen is trying his best not to worry about the responsibilities he’ll face when this season ends. Right now, he said his mind is only on one thing: Northern Illinois.

“I don’t look forward that much,” Olen said. “I just try to live in the now. I’m thinking about the next game Friday, that’s all I’m thinking about.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.