HELENA — It’s not uncommon for a son to want to follow in his father’s footsteps.
This desire can manifest in many ways, such as picking up a hobby, attending a specific school or pursuing a certain career.
For Helena Bighorns players Alexander Rogers, it was a love of hockey.
More specifically, goaltending.
When he was as young as 4 years old, Rogers watched his dad, Steve, put on the pads and defend the net while playing in a local adult hockey league.
A lifelong football fan, Steve became hooked on hockey after being given free tickets to an NHL Anaheim Ducks game.
And it wasn’t long before Steve brought his son out on the ice.
“Ordinarily, Xander is not all that coordinated at sports,” Steve said. “His movement wasn’t spectacular, but when he puts on a pair of skates and leg pads, he is phenomenal and a natural at it.”
When Alexander, or Xander to most people, turned six, he stepped in goal for the first time and instantly fell in love.
“There is nothing like it,” Xander said. “This is just so much fun to me.”
Unfortunately, hockey wasn’t offered through the California Interscholastic Federation, which meant he could not play at his high school, Orange Lutheran in Orange, California.
He found ways to curb his desire to be a hockey goalie by goalkeeping on the soccer field or putting on catcher’s gear and squatting behind home plate.
But his heart always found itself back in goal at his local hockey rink playing with his club team.
“It’s always motivated me the most, because I wanted to be the best by doing my favorite thing in the whole world,” said Xander, looking out onto the ice at the Helena Ice Arena. “This is what I love to do.”
Xander tried to play other positions early on in his career, but he always came back to the satisfying feeling of stopping the puck no matter how fast or hard it came at him.
“I feels better to stop someone from scoring than actually scoring,” Xander said. “There’s nothing like it.
“You get rubber disks coming at you at 80 miles per hour by guys who are twice as big as you. You have to react so quickly and it’s harder than any other sport I have played.”
Xander’s hockey career moved him from sunny Southern California to East Hampton, Massachusetts, to now Helena, where he has had recent success.
The Bighorns sit just three points back of first-place Great Falls Americans in the NA3HL Frontier League with two weeks left in the regular season.
Xander is among the top 25 goalies nationally with a 91.3 save percentage over the course of 21 games.
Fellow native Southern Californian Luc Cross has taken shootouts against Xander regularly in practice, and compared to other goalies in the Frontier League, he said Xander is composed.
“He doesn’t move a lot and usually makes the right read,” Cross said.
But while coaches say he has the look and the skill to master his position, it ultimately comes down to the mental focus.
From the very first time Xander was in goal, he said he has been temperamental and hard on himself if a puck gets by him.
“I was always used to being good at other sports, so I got angry,” Xander said. “I still feel it today because I want to stop the puck. It’s my job.”
Brandon Vanada is in his third season as an assistant coach.
Having experience playing goalie in the past and now with the local men’s league, he coaches the goalies both on and off the ice.
“It’s all up here,” Vanada said, pointing to his head. “It’s how to rebound after giving up a bad goal and how to keep that razor’s edge focus all the time. It’s hard.”
Vanada’s strategy comes down to just talking to the players. Not just about their performance on the ice, but what is happening outside.
“Playing in goal is a completely different position,” Vanada said. “Forwards and defensemen can interchange in a sense, while goalies can not.
“They are weird. You have to be a little bit crazy if you want to stand in front of a puck on purpose so they need to keep their mind clear. These guys are kids and and they are learning to cope with every day life such as jobs, girlfriends and all the rigors of skating four days a week with games on the weekend.”
Like many NA3HL players, Xander is looking to play hockey, preferably with the University of Arizona. He passed up an opportunity with the Wildcats last season because they already had two starting goaltenders, but eventually wants to go back.
But right now, he’s just enjoying the moment.
“When his mind is right, Xander is untouchable,” Vanada said.
He might have to be when the Bighorns and Americans preview the upcoming playoffs Friday night in Helena.