By Fluto Shinzawa
At Thursday’s UMass-Lowell practice, the player with the best flow on the Tsongas Center ice was a 43-year-old alumnus. Dwayne Roloson, the stringy-haired goalie, was taking a spin in his new role among youngsters who weren’t born when he arrived in Lowell in 1990.
“Different rink, different everything,” said Roloson, who played in Tully Forum from 1990-94. “I haven’t been back for about three years now. There’s even changes from three years ago. It’s totally different. The downtown core is totally redone. So is the campus itself.”
The development of the school and the city is not unlike the transformation Roloson underwent to become a modern NHL goalie. Like Tim Thomas, a contemporary, Roloson adapted to the game’s changes. He evolved into a goalie who came up just short of backstopping the Lightning to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2010-11.
Now, Roloson is transitioning again, although he trusts it is a temporary shift. Roloson is Lowell’s volunteer assistant coach. On Thursday, Roloson traveled from his home in Stillwater, Minn., to Lowell, where he will stay until Tuesday.
For the duration of the NHL lockout, Roloson will join the team approximately once a month. He will work with the entire team, not just the goalies, assisting the River Hawks in whatever manner they wish.
The plan was more than 20 years in the making. Shortly after touching down in Lowell in 1990, Roloson and classmate Norm Bazin became fast friends. As freshmen, they talked about how they might partner later in life, on or off the ice.
Bazin, who is in his second year as UMass-Lowell’s coach, believed this would be the right time for that reunion to take place.
“It’s very good for our guys to see someone who’s not only been able to play at the next level, but who’s been able to graduate from here and who is an alum,” Bazin said. “I think it didn’t hurt his career. It helped it. He was able to mature and take that extra time.
“Right after we graduated, Tim Thomas graduated from Vermont. He took some time to go to Europe to further develop, further mature. Both of them had longer careers than anyone who left early at that time.
“So many young men are in a rush nowadays to move out the door. They think if they don’t grab their pro opportunity now, it may be lost. It’s just the opposite. If they’re prepared to do something when they have that opportunity, they’ll be in better position to have a longer career.”
Roloson was an undrafted 20-year-old freshman when he began his UMass-Lowell career under then-coach Bill Riley. Had UMass-Lowell not given him a chance, Roloson’s 606 NHL appearances (Tampa Bay, Islanders, Edmonton, Minnesota, St. Louis, Buffalo, Calgary) might not have been possible.
“I was a 20-year-old junior guy,” Roloson said. “Picking Lowell was the best thing that ever happened.”
So as a form of payback, Roloson is making himself available. Last month, he was with the team for road games against Denver and Colorado College. On Thursday, Roloson was one of the first skaters on the ice — no goalie equipment, just a warmup suit — for shooting drills before practice.
Assistant coach Cam Ellsworth is the one primarily responsible for working with Lowell’s goalies. Roloson’s role is to serve as another resource.
“He’s not trying to reinvent the wheel with us,” said goalie Doug Carr. “He’s just trying to fine-tune our game and give us little tips that have helped him. Now he’s trying to help us, so it’s great.”
Coaching interests Roloson, although he acknowledges the stress that would accompany the position. But he is not ready to trade his mask for a whistle. Roloson (13-16-3, 3.66 goals-against average, .886 save percentage for Tampa Bay last year) believes he has tread remaining on his tires and has been skating with former Wild teammate Andrew Brunette to stay in shape.
“I want to play,” Roloson said. “My body is just as good as it was 5-6 years ago. If I didn’t feel like playing, didn’t want to play, didn’t have the drive to play, then obviously it’s over. But I’m just trying to be ready in case that call does come or the opportunity comes to play.”
If Roloson were younger, he might have signed overseas. During the 2004 lockout, knowing that a stoppage would be lengthy, Roloson joined Lukko Rauma in Finland in October. Now, with sons Brett and Ross requiring dad’s attention, Roloson opted to stay put.
Roloson is facing a significant challenge. He is an unrestricted free agent coming off a down year. Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon are the likely goalie combination in Tampa. Roloson does not want to play in Europe or the AHL.
“There are so many uncertainties now with the lockout,” Roloson said. “With guys playing, they could get hurt. That could open up more doors. Right now, realistically, there’s probably 3-4 teams that are looking. Other than that, it’s going be tough, barring injuries or something strange happening.”
But he has hope. He thinks an NHL job remains within his capabilities. It is the kind of approach his students aim to learn.
“He plays like he has the experience,” said goalie Connor Hellebuyck. “He plays confident and calm. He knows he’s going to make the save.”