Each time Lukas Hafner faced an obstacle, he fell back on the advice that his father gave him.
When his father, Todd, died nearly two years ago, Hafner couldn’t call or visit anyone. He had to draw motivation from within himself.
“He has been the biggest influence in my life, in every aspect of it,” said Hafner, a goalie on the Western Michigan hockey team and a 2010 Central Catholic graduate. “He was a big believer in me, especially at times when it looked like things might not work out. He always believed in me and he always told me something: ‘Keep working hard, because things are going to work out.’ ”
Hafner heeded that advice plenty of times, whether it was after a rough outing in goal or when he had to find a new place to play hockey.
“He taught me about perseverance, and that was the biggest thing,” Hafner said. “Whenever you hit a bump in the road, it’s how you respond to it.”
Even in 2012, only a few months after his father died, he had no idea where he was going to play hockey until he got a call from the Western Michigan coaches.
Now, as a sophomore, Hafner is 6-3-1 for the Broncos in 14 games this season, with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .924 saves percentage.
Western Michigan is fourth in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and is in contention to host a league playoff series. The top four teams earn home ice for the NCHC quarterfinals.
“We needed someone on our team with really strong character,” Western Michigan coach Andy Murray said. “Lukas is a really good person who really fits the mold of what we’re looking for at Western Michigan.
“He’s a quality person, but we also want to know, are you a good listener? He’s outstanding. We also want to know, how hard will you work? He’s totally changed himself and his body. He knows the importance of fitness and nutrition.
“I don’t know if Lukas has any bad habits, but it was a matter of him becoming aware of the things he was doing. Players in junior hockey might not know what it takes to play at an elite level, and he learned that as part of this program.”
Hafner, 22, went 34-9-4 with a .929 saves percentage and 2.11 goals-against average for the Cornwall Colts of the Central Canada Hockey League in 2011-2012 yet had few prospects of playing college hockey. He planned to return to junior hockey for a fourth season and hoped that would become an avenue to pursue a spot on a college team.
Iin the summer of 2012, Western Michigan reached out to Hafner — only a few months after his father died of complications from a blood clot, weeks after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was one of the few schools that was serious about Hafner, and it wasn’t that far away from Toledo.
“I lost my dad, and it was very fresh for us,” Hafner said. “Being 10 to 12 hours away from him was really tough in juniors. When they need to see me or I need to see them, it’s so much easier to get home.”
In his first season, Hafner played six games in relief of Frank Slubowski and Nick Pisellini, allowing three goals on 47 shots.
“Lukas had to come in and see if he could earn ice time against a goalie who has become one of the top goalies in college hockey, Frank Slubowski,” Murray said. “He gave himself the best chance possible by making a total commitment.”
Not just to hockey, but to balancing his time between hockey and school.
“I played three years of junior hockey and I didn’t have to take any classes,” Hafner said. “All I had to worry about was hockey. You come to college and you’re taking a full course load, I’m working and playing hockey and I learned how to balance my time.”
Hafner attributes his success so far this season to his offseason training. He stayed in Kalamazoo, held a part-time job, and trained five days a week in preparation for his second season with the Mustangs.
He’s seeing the benefits of this now, at a point in the season he labels as “the grind.”
He and the Broncos are at a point in the season where the practices become shorter, where the road trips become a little longer, and where many players have found their routine.
“The caliber of talent in college hockey and the players in it, the margin of error is becoming so slim,” Hafner said. “The harder you work, you’ll get that edge that might separate you from the competition.”