Growing up in Michigan, C.J. Motte and his brother Tyler would go down to their parents' unfinished basement, painted to replicate a hockey rink, and play against each other.
C.J., four years the elder, would play goalie, while Tyler fired shots at him. Other days, the brothers would go down the street to play pickup games of roller hockey with kids in the neighborhood.
All that work in the duo's youth has paid off for both. C.J. is one of the top goaltenders in the ECHL, while Tyler is in his rookie season with the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks.
"I think pushing each other in the summer has worked out, doing stuff in the basement, he sees me getting better so he does something to try and get better and then I see him doing it," C.J. said. "It’s back and forth, pushing each other so I think that helped both of us in the long run."
C.J. is in the midst of a stellar season in net for the Quad-City Mallards, adding his name to the growing list of goaltenders to enjoy successful stints under head coach Terry Ruskowski. Despite allowing a season-high four goals in a loss Wednesday night to Fort Wayne, Motte still ranks atop the league with a 2.22 goals against average and is second with a .933 save percentage.
His success, coupled with the play of fellow goaltender Adam Vay, has made the Mallards the stingiest defensive team in the league, allowing a league-best 2.73 goals per game.
"That relies a lot on the team and we’ve gotten tremendously better over the last few months in the defensive zone, guys getting on the same page, blocking shots, keeping guys to the outside which really helps me a lot," Motte said. "So I think a lot of my success has a lot to do with the team success."
Motte joined the Mallards this year after playing his rookie season with the Elmira Jackals. He went 15-22-2 there, and he ranked outside the top 20 in both goals against and save percentage. However, that first year provided him with a lot of valuable experiences. He skated in the Buffalo Sabers' developmental camp and learned how to prepare himself for the professional game after a college career at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.
While looking for a new team this offseason, Motte wanted to go where he'd get the opportunity to play, and hopefully be successful. Ruskowski knew the Iowa Wild were sending down Vay, who is highly thought of by the NHL's Minnesota Wild. After having two contracted goalies on the team last year, Ruskowski wanted to make sure he had a player he could rely on if Vay were to move up and down between leagues.
The union has been a good one, with Motte and Vay sharing playing time early in the season.
"I told Coach when I signed here I’d be ready to play any game he wanted me to play," Motte said. "I just prepare the same way every game whether I’m starting or not starting, just to feel and settle into that groove a little more."
Motte is about as even-keeled as they come, and his consistently calm demeanor off the ice shows on the ice. He's not flashy or loud, but he puts himself in good positions to be successful. In college, that consistency was recognized with two nominations for both the Hobey Baker and the Mike Richter goaltender of the year awards. He took the Bulldogs to the Western College Hockey Association Final Five each of his last two seasons, and he was the first goaltender in Ferris State history to serve as team captain, a rarity for that position.
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"The team voted on captains so being voted captain was a real honor to go out there and lead those guys," he said. "I think they voted me captain just because I went out there and was consistent, they knew what I was going to bring every day so I think they liked that. Plus, sometimes I’m not afraid to say something to someone and I’m harder on myself."
Ruskowski has been fortunate to have good goaltending with the Mallards since taking over as head coach in 2012. Neil Conway, Thomas Heemskerk, Parker Milner and Steve Michalek were all standouts, with Michalek making it all the way to an NHL playoff roster last season. Ruskowski thinks Motte is just as good, if not better, than all those who came before him.
"He definitely ranks up in the one or two, no question about that," he said. "He just plays confident and he’s good, but he doesn’t tell everybody he’s good, he shows everybody he’s good."
While Motte is enjoying his time in the league, his brother is playing well in Chicago, with four goals and three assists in 28 games. He recorded his first career point in his first career game, which C.J. and his parents had the fortune of attending.
Motte would like to join his brother in the NHL someday and is hoping for at least a call to an AHL team. He's not under contract with any AHL team, which means he can sign a tryout agreement or standard contract with any team that wants him, but also means he's not necessarily the first option teams with contracted goalies think of.
He's not worried about any of that. Right now, he's just focused on playing.
"I feel like if I keep doing what I’m doing, that shot will come, whether it’s now, end of the season, next year, a couple years, I’ve just got to keep focusing game by game and take it from there," he said. "There’s a lot of good goalies out there and there’s not a lot of jobs in the NHL or AHL. It’s tough to get that opportunity, hopefully whenever it comes around I can make the most of it."