Myers: Mark Alt convinces fans, father of his blue line prowess
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You're given a son blessed with athletic talent, whose dream since he was a young boy is to skate for the Gophers. You want to make sure he makes the right college choice. So naturally, before you sign his national letter of intent, firming up his commitment to play hockey at the University of Minnesota, you make him go on one last campus visit.
To a stadium in Iowa. To attend a spring football game, of course.
Such was the last-ditch effort by two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman John Alt. More than a decade after he retired from his Kansas City Chiefs career, where he spent his time protecting the likes of Bill Kenney, Steve DeBerg and Joe Montana, Alt was playing the role of good father, making his final stand in favor of football, trying to influence a son whose heart was set on manning a blue line, rather than taking snaps from behind an offensive line.
This is the long and winding road that led Mark Alt from football (and hockey) stardom at Cretin-Derham Hall, to a veteran presence among the Gophers hockey defensive corps.
"We recruited him at a pretty young age, in 10th grade," said Gopher hockey coach Don Lucia. "But his dad was probably hoping he'd play football and kept pushing and pushing and wouldn't sign the NLI in the fall. Finally he relented in the spring, but not until he took Mark to the Iowa spring game."
John, who had been a football hero for the Hawkeyes before making a good living inside Arrowhead Stadium, wasn't just dreaming about his son's football potential. As a prep, Mark followed in the footsteps of a few notable athletes - namely Heisman winner Chris Weinke and baseball All-Star Joe Mauer - as the starting quarterback at Cretin. Protected by the hulking mass of Seantrel Henderson, Mark led the Raiders to a state title and was named the state's top gridiron talent as a senior.
Still, from the time he'd been five years old and a neighbor had brought over some old hockey sticks to play with, the frozen rink had been calling his name.
"Football has been a huge part of my life growing up, obviously with my family as it is," Mark said. "We're a football family, so it's always been in my blood. But there's always been the hockey-driven side, which I focus on. When it came down to it, hockey is what I knew I wanted to do."
And eventually, it's what the senior Alt knew that his son needed to do too.
"There were plenty of dinner table talks and convincing going on to get him to sign over the NCAA papers and hop on the support train," Mark said. "But he knew that he needed to let me do what was best for me. He knew I had skill in hockey and had a promising future here, so he was good about it in the end, but there was definitely some convincing going on."
For the Gophers, who begin their WCHA season Friday in Duluth, there's an intense focus on the defense, where, in just his second year of college hockey, Alt has already been thrust into a veteran leadership role.
"We don't have a senior defenseman," Lucia noted. "We only have one junior, and the rest are freshmen and sophomores. So they'll have to grow a great deal between now and the end of the year."
And it's widely known that the end of the year needs to come, at minimum, during a visit to the NCAA tournament (for the first time since 2008) to satisfy the emotional needs of a hungry fan base. Alt has taken the rapid role adjustment in stride, and looks forward not only to the challenge of the WCHA season, but the new weight on his shoulders.
"We lost a couple seniors last year and had a bunch of freshmen come in this year, so it's kind of that quick transition," he said. "You feel like you're a veteran all of a sudden and you're only a sophomore. There are roles to be filled, and you have to find your role."
The role for the Gophers in the WCHA and the NCAA was once (not very long ago) the big, bad bullies: the Blue Devils, the Yankees, the Lakers. But the fall from that pedestal was rapid. This weekend Minnesota Duluth will skate out on home ice to face their long-time nemesis and will be able to glance up to their rink's rafters at the most recent national championship banner. The most optimistic prognosticators have pegged the Gophers for fourth place in the 12-team WCHA, but you'll find no sign of worry in Lucia's voice as he speaks of the conference schedule commencing.
"The last few years we've had great games with UMD," he said. "They all seem to be one-goal games that could go either way. Last year we were 1-1-2 against them, and I thought we played pretty well up at Amsoil last year."
Part of that optimistic picture is the contributions from that youthful defensive corps. Where Alt was once helped on the football field by teammates like Henderson, who gave him time and covered up mistakes, today it's senior goalie Kent Patterson assisting the defense. Through the first 120 minutes of the season, Patterson has been perfect, and Alt joked that the way the goalie played in a season-opening sweep of Sacred Heart, he's not sure the Gophers will allow a goal this season.
"I don't know, with the way Kent's playing," said Alt, with a broad grin. "When you've got him behind you, you're going to be all right."
And while he admits still getting a charge when he sees the Gopher football team head out onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium for a game, Alt seems like a kid confident that he listened to parental advice, and followed his heart to the correct U of M athletic venue. And he adds that when his father sees him make a football-like play on the ice, and flatten an opponent along the boards, he knows that dad is smiling. For Lucia's part, after spending a college coaching career dealing with an unhappy parent from time to time, after convincing Mark to play hockey, he's happy that he's gotten unwavering support from his parents.
"The best news is his dad didn't play hockey, he played football," Lucia said. "He says, 'I know nothing about hockey,' which is good for everybody because I don't want big John walking in my office and banging on my desk."