Kyle Hayton understands the skepticism in response to his claim that the games he’ll play in this weekend mean no more to him than any others.
For three seasons, Hayton was the starting goaltender at St. Lawrence, earning national attention through record-breaking performances.
Now, he’s wearing a University of Wisconsin jersey and ready to stop shots from the players he used to call teammates when the Saints visit the Kohl Center tonight and Saturday.
It happens all the time in the pros, where players are traded and find new teams through free agency. In college hockey, however, it’s rare, especially with only nine months elapsed between being friend and foe.
So, really, there’s no more buildup for this weekend than any of the 17 others in the regular season for Hayton?
“I’d say it’s just another game,” he said.
Maybe the 23-year-old senior was trying to avoid stirring the pot before the series. Maybe he was biting his tongue.
Or maybe he’s truthfully visualizing these games without adding the filters that could take him out of his comfort zone.
“It’s going to be fun to play against the old team,” Hayton said. “It’ll be interesting. I don’t know what to expect, exactly. It’s just another game I want to win.”
Count both his current coach and his former coach among those who think it’s more than just two of the 35 games on the schedule.
Badgers coach Tony Granato remembers sleepless nights, excitement and distractions in his NHL playing career before games against one of his former teams.
“Anyone that gets to play in front of their old team or go to your old place where you grew up, whatever it is, there’s always some extra emotions attached to it,” Granato said.
“He’s been looking forward to this one, for the right reasons.”
Mark Morris, the second-year St. Lawrence coach to whom Hayton delivered news of his departure this offseason, said he’d be lying if he claimed that there wasn’t a little more on the line for his players.
Yet there was some understanding of Hayton’s understated outlook from Gavin Bayreuther, who played his final three seasons at St. Lawrence in front of the goalie.
“The thing with Kyle is, no matter who he’s playing, he wants to win,” said Bayreuther, who joined Hayton last season as a second-team East Region All-American and who now is a defenseman for the Texas Stars in the American Hockey League.
“He’s a true competitor. I, personally, wouldn’t be able to feel the same way, just like any other game. ... I would definitely have a few more butterflies in my stomach for that, figuring the way that St. Lawrence is going to want to come out strong and hard. But I think he’ll be OK, and I think he’s going to be strong.”
In his three seasons at St. Lawrence, Hayton was ECAC Hockey’s Rookie of the Year in 2015 and its Goalie of the Year in 2017. His 13 career shutouts broke a St. Lawrence record that stood for 60 years.
For comparison’s sake, his season save percentages of .937, .935 and .929 would have been second, third and tied for fourth in Badgers history behind the .938 Brian Elliott posted in 2005-06.
Hayton’s .933 career save percentage is the best in the country among active goalies who’ve played at least 500 collegiate minutes.
He said he loved his time at St. Lawrence and the personal connections he made at the school in Canton, New York. His desire to have a noteworthy senior season to help launch him into a pro career, however, had him looking into the NCAA’s graduate transfer rules.
A player doesn’t have to serve the standard one-year transfer penalty if he moves to another school for post-graduate work after completing his degree.
So Hayton made a leap of faith, telling Morris and his St. Lawrence teammates that he was leaving the program before he was completely sure he would be able to finish his Business and Economics degrees in time to play this season.
“That just made me work harder toward making sure I got all my classes done and got everything accounted for,” said Hayton, who took nine classes over the summer to accomplish his goal.
How did Morris react when Hayton let him know of his plan to play elsewhere?
“He wasn’t happy,” Hayton said. “I’d say that would be the best way I could put it.”
Asked this week about the change in plans, Morris also took the high road.
“In our year-end meeting, his plan was to come back here. And that changed,” he said.
“It was a bit of a shock but, hey, those are, as he put it, personal decisions, and we wish him well. It’s not what we thought was going to happen.”
There are all sorts of what-ifs in play, but the Saints have started 0-6 after losing Hayton and four of the six defensemen who played regularly last season, including leading scorer Bayreuther.
Undrafted by NHL teams, Hayton will be a free agent when his final season of collegiate eligibility ends. It stands to reason that his NHL aspirations would be helped by team success like what has been projected for the fifth-ranked Badgers (5-2).
At 6-foot and 165 pounds, Hayton is smaller than today’s average NHL goalie but makes up for it with quickness and a vigorous competitive streak.
How competitive? Let Bayreuther provide an example from their time together with the Saints.
“You scored on him in a warm-up drill, he wasn’t happy,” Bayreuther said. “At the end of practice as he’s coming out of his net into the end-of-the-practice stretch, you could throw a little floater to the net, kind of for fun, just to wrap up practice, and he would go out of his way to stop it.”
Bayreuther isn’t among them, but St. Lawrence has 17 players on its roster that Hayton played with last season. The Denver native said he keeps in contact with some good friends who still wear the St. Lawrence shield, just not recently with this series approaching.
“He’s got a ton of friends and people back there that are still big parts of his life,” Granato said, “and I know he’ll want to have a good showing this weekend.”Even if it’s just another game.