Aligning yourself in front of a 70 mph slap shot doesn’t require any special skills or tricks, or a screw loose, necessarily.
The key to blocking 76 shots and counting, or an average of two and a half per game - good for second in Division I hockey - is just willingness, according to a man who’d know, Air Force defenseman Phil Boje.
“It’s not going to be fun, but it’s something you just have to do,” Boje said.
“That’s what ice bags are for.”
In four years at Air Force, Boje has routinely taken one for the team, with the numbers and marks to show for it. He said the puck has a way of finding unpadded areas.
But the proof is in the record for Air Force, which has gone from ninth in the Atlantic Hockey Conference to tied for fourth in three weeks and is on the cusp of clinching a first-round bye heading into its final regular-season series at Robert Morris.
Six one-goal wins, and certainly four ties, could have gone another another way if it weren’t for a deep breath and a strategically placed limb.
“He’s not blocking those shots because he wants to lead the nation in blocked shots,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “He’s doing it because he wants to help his teammates win.”
The Shoreview, Minn., native is on track to surpass last season’s total of 83, despite missing four games.
“I take pride in it,” Boje said. “I’m better at blocking shots than scoring goals, so I might as well do what I can to help the team win.”
“He’s a defensive defenseman with a big shot,” Serratore confirmed. “He’s not a great offensive player. He doesn’t really see it.”
In spite of this, Boje was third on the Falcons in scoring last season with nine goals and 21 assists. So it came as a surprise when it took him until the Feb. 16 win against Canisius to net his first goal.
In the meantime, the assistant captain did what he’s become known for. He blocked a career-high seven shots against Niagara on Jan. 27, and six twice more. He spared junior goaltender Billy Christopoulos five more saves last Friday against first-place Canisius.
Christopoulos appreciates the help.
“He seems to be the guy that’s always there,” Christopoulos said. “It’s great to have guys like him and (Dylan) Abood, who are just fearless.”
Boje has a “friendly competition” in blocks with fellow senior defenseman and team captain Abood, sitting at 52 so far this season, and acknowledges that he usually wins.
“We have a running joke. I always say, ‘Hey Booder, I didn’t see a blocked shot that period,’” Boje said.
After what the Falcons (17-13-4, 12-11-3 AHC) hope is another deep run, the team will seek another physical presence on the blue line as Boje takes to the skies. After he’s commissioned in May, Boje is on to pilot training, briefly in Pueblo and then Del Rio, Texas, for a year and a half.
“We will not be able to replace him with one player. ... We probably can’t replace that with five players. There’s no way,” Serratore said. “We’ll have to replace him collectively.”