Here's to the Alex Wagners

John D'Onofrio

It's almost fitting that Alex Wagner's name is listed at the top of the Western New York Athletics' Federation Ice Hockey web page on goalie statistics because he represents so much more than just a high school hockey player whose “job” it is to block shots.

The dedicated keeper Wagner's 2.72 goals against average so far this season isn't just great, it's astonishing for a senior on a last place North Tonawanda Lumberjacks' team that's 3-12-1-1 and sitting in eighth place in Division 3 (West Seneca West currently leads, followed by Kenmore West, Williamsville East, Hamburg, Frontier, Iroquois/Alden and Lockport/Niagara Falls).

Even in last weekend's 8-0 loss to the Starpoint Spartans at the Cornerstone Arena, Wagner stood out as a talented puck stopper and team leader. He stood tall, facing 28 Spartans shots, but that was like a night off for the Jacks' team captain, compared to the average 38-and-a-quarter shots he's faced each game this season. Remember that's an average, so if he's facing 28 shots one day, he's facing close to 50 another.

As of Monday afternoon, Wagner had faced 459 shots on goal in just 12 games this season between the pipes for the Lumberjacks, He's saved a league-best 420 of them for a ridiculously impressive 0.915 save percentage. Others bombarded with a high number of shots game in and game out include Sweet Home senior Ian Burgess, who's seen 490 shots (that's almost 41 shots per game) and saved 414 for a 0.845 save percentage.

You talk about unsung heroes you don't read a lot about who take a lot of pride in the many hockey leagues and programs that they grew out of, not to mention the sacrifices their families have made getting them to the rink at unGodly hours over many years ...

The fact that players like these put so much of themselves on the line each game against mostly better teams (for now) is one thing, refusing to quit, leading vocally and by example, but to think about the fact that someone unselfish and not easily rattled like them is going to have to step forward and fill those critical goalie skates next year is another.

Wagner and Burgess are among two of the most important “franchise” players in the entire Federation this season mainly because they won't be back next year, leaving the void of a dedicated, quality keeper that's going to be difficult if not impossible to fill — many times involving programs already beset by  low on numbers.

North Tonawanda head coach Alan Zbytek will do his best in the offseason to try and hold together a promising, but young Jacks program still a few years away from title thoughts, but he'll be the first to tell you that this spring becomes a critical one for the Jacks' future when the team loses Wagner to graduation.

Zbytek described Wagner as, “the heart and soul of our team and without him we wouldn’t be in every game as we are. He just gives us an opportunity to compete and with a couple of lucky bounces and some goals maybe we can do something in the playoffs.”

While remaining optimistic, as all good coaches are, Zbytek knows he's missing more than a goalie this summer, the program is losing someone who proves that character, dedication and endless sacrifice, not just ability, can get you far in sports.

When it comes all wrapped up in one giant No. 40 package, it's a blessing.

Here's to the next Alex Wagner on the local scholastic sports scene. Will it be you?

Follow veteran Lockport sports writer John D'Onofrio on Twitter at @JohnD'Onofrio7.  

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