Mike Fitzpatrick has played every minute in goal for the Notre Dame ice hockey team this season. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

Mike Fitzpatrick saw a little bit of time for the Notre Dame High ice hockey team last year, and planned on seeing a little bit more this year.

Until it suddenly became apparent that he would see all the time.

Heading into the Feb. 18 Mercer County Tournament semifinals, Fitzpatrick had played every minute of every game in goal for the 10-8-2 Irish.

He had some clunkers and there were times he sparkled, but he has gotten better late in the season, having allowed one goal in the three games prior to the MCT semis. That could bode well as the Irish prepare for the state tournament in March.

“He stepped into a tough role this year and when he’s dialed in we have a good chance to win,” coach Mike McVey said. “He’s getting better with his experience. We rely on him. If he’s ready to go we’ve got a good chance to play with anybody.”

The Hamilton resident played for the Nottingham-Hamilton co-op team before transferring to ND last year. He had to sit out the mandatory 30 days and got three starts while playing in parts of two other games.

Fitzpatrick appeared to be in line for about the same workload this year until ND’s incumbent starter decided not to come out for the team. Suddenly, Fitz was it.

“He played some solid games last year,” McVey said. “We kind of knew a little after the start of the season he was gonna be the guy this year. So that was good and bad. It’s a lot of responsibility. You need to be the number one guy. You need to be present every night. There are no games off. It showed a few times, but he’s also done some really good things and done what we’ve needed him to do. He’s won some big games in there.”

Obviously, Fitzpatrick loved the sudden fact that he would be getting all the playing time he wanted. He also had some slight anxiety about it.

“I felt pressure knowing I was the only goalie,” he said. “That meant if I were to get sick then there’s no one else to take my spot, so I had to play it safe a lot. But the excitement was there because I got to start every game.”

Notre Dame won its first five with Fitzpatrick in net but then had a rough stretch of 0-5-2. That was followed by five wins in eight games, including the goalie’s second and third shutouts of the season.

Considering the role Fitzpatrick was thrust into, his coach feels he has handled it well.

“I think it’s a learning thing to kind of go from ‘All right, I’m the back-up, I’ve got a guy who’s gonna start over me,’ and then at the beginning of the season you find out ‘Whoa, I’m the guy,’” McVey said. “We’ve got some really good players here and high expectations for the season so he’s done well to absorb that and continue to grow.”

Fitzpatrick agreed that he spent the season sharpening his knowledge of the position.

“It has definitely been a learning year for me but it’s been a lot better than last year because I only had a few games,” he said. “This year I’ve learned some things. I got better in tracking; I’ve gotten better at keeping my legs down in the butterfly and in my movement across the crease.”

Fitzpatrick began playing hockey as a forward but, after one year, decided to play goalie.

“It seemed like a lot more fun,” he said. “I always need to be in the action. If any sport was going too slow I didn’t like it. With goalie it always seemed fast paced and moving, which I enjoyed.”

Fitzpatrick started club with the Mercer Chiefs before moving to the Lawrence Flames, the Jaguars and the Princeton Tigers. He opted out of club upon reaching high school, figuring academics and varsity hockey were enough to try and handle.

In his one year with Nottingham, Fitzpatrick shared time with fellow freshman David Thompson, who has since gone on to be one of the Colonial Valley Conference’s top goalies.

In that sense, things worked out well for Fitzpatrick as playing time might have been tough with the Northstars this year. Instead, he and Thompson were both regulars and gave Hamilton Township three standout goalies as Steinert junior Trevor Malik is also a top-tier net minder.

Now that he has the job, there are some things Fitzpatrick needs to work on.

“For me, it’s his focus,” McVey said. “He’s a pretty laid back, funny kid. He’s just always laughing and stuff. He needs to focus. A lot of the ones he’s let by are because he’s not fully engaged.

“You can’t take a shift off. You can’t take a second off when you’re playing some of these teams; when you’re playing Hun, Princeton, St. Joe’s. These teams are solid. They can beat you in a second and you’re down by one or two goals.”

The coach feels that mindset has to start before the puck is ever dropped.

“It’s about his routine coming into the game, his effort level in practice,” McVey said. “You’re not going through the motions anymore. You’re not just showing up. The team is relying on you and I think he’s absorbed that pretty well.”

Fitzpatrick feels it’s fairly obvious when he is concentrating, and when he isn’t.

“Everyone knows when I’m focused; from just watching my games you can tell if I’m focused and I’m doing really good,” he said. “But other games you can tell when I’m not focused.”

He has decreased those “other games” as the season goes along, saying he puts in his earplugs, listens to music and blocks out every thought but stopping the puck prior to a game.

One thing he does not focus on is feeling bad after letting up a goal.

“When I get scored on I just think of what I did wrong and what I could do to avoid it if that same scenario happens again,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think about what I can do to make the save.”

It is a quality that McVey admires.

“He keeps a very level head; he doesn’t take it too hard,” the coach said. “I know there’s some he’d love to have back and then he’ll turn around and make a great one and I’ll be like ‘How did he save that?’ He does not let it get to him. That’s a huge thing, especially in some of these bigger games. A couple big saves can change the momentum and hockey is all about momentum.”

And Fitzpatrick is all about hockey, which is what made his unexpected workload so enjoyable this year.