Denise Semptimphelter always marveled at her son’s equal commitment to academics and hockey. TJ knew the rules. He had to finish his homework before he could go to practice, but hockey was such an important and time-consuming part of his life that there was little time left for anything else.
“I don’t know if that routine made him become a really high achiever, but he always wanted straight As and that wasn’t something that we put on him,” said Denise, a third-grade school teacher. “He put that on himself because he always wanted to be the best, whether it was the best goalie, the best mathematician or the best writer. But that meant that he missed a lot of things that kids normally do. He missed dances. He missed parties. He missed cotillions because of hockey.”
It was worth it in the end. TJ had his own coming out party last season before a raucous crowd at Boston’s TD Garden. With Northeastern’s regular starter, Devon Levi, playing for Team Canada at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, Semptimphelter, a freshman walk-on, took over in the net for the three-time defending champion Huskies at the famed Beanpot Tournament. Northeastern lost to Boston University 1-0 in the final after beating Boston College in the semifinals, but Semptimphelter won the Eberly Award for the highest save percentage (.972) in the event, including 41 saves in a 3-1 win over BC.
“I think it almost benefitted me that, being a kid from Jersey, I didn’t know much about the Beanpot so it was just like playing another game,” Semptimphelter said. “Playing in front of all those people didn’t bother me. I just wanted to give our guys the best chance to win and four-peat.”
With Covid restrictions still in effect and the week just getting started on a Monday, most postgame celebrations were muted. There was still a small, late-night gathering in a dorm room on Northeastern’s campus, however. Denise and Joe were there, and they were accompanied by Semptimphelter’s longtime goalie coach, Chris Kanaly.
“We wedged a brick in the doorway and snuck in downstairs,” Kanaly said, laughing. “It was me, his mom and his dad just hanging out. It’s a Monday night and I’m screaming, ‘F’in unbelievable, buddy!’ He’s like, ‘Coach, you gotta be quiet. People are studying.’”
Everybody knew what that performance meant for Semptimphelter. For the first time in his collegiate career, and perhaps the first time since his youth hockey day, scouts, coaches and analysts were looking past Semptimphelter’s supposed shortcomings and seeing his immense potential instead. A kid who was forced to play in the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) because he couldn’t even get a sniff from the USHL or NAHL was suddenly on everyone’s radar.
“For him to go in and make his first college starts in that environment with that kind of pressure and that kind of exposure; it was really impressive,” ASU coach Greg Powers said. “Everybody in college hockey, including me, was like, ‘Who is this kid?’”
By the time Levi, a Florida Panthers draft pick, told Semptimphelter that he was coming back for another year and Semptimphelter chose to enter the transfer portal, he was a hot commodity.
“I was fortunate to have been contacted by teams all over the map,” he said. “I was talking to teams from the NCHC, Hockey East, ECAC, and the Atlantic [Conference].”
Semptimphelter chose ASU for a variety of reasons including Powers’ coaching philosophy, the opportunity with a program that needed a goaltending upgrade, the weather, and brand new Mullett Arena. Since his arrival, the greater hockey community has learned what he can do as a leading man. Entering this weekend’s games, Semptimphelter had faced more shots than any goalie in the nation (313), he was third in minutes (544) and games (9) and among goalies with at least three games played, he was tied for 11th in save percentage (.930) in his first season as a collegiate starter for No. 21 ASU, which has won four of its past five games.
“I knew he was really good. That’s why we went after him as hard as we did,” Powers said. “You can’t do what he did in the eight games that he got at Northeastern last year without being really good.
“But is he better than we even thought? Yeah, he is. I mean, he’s a special, special kid and it comes from how he approaches every day at practice. Every day is a challenge for him. Every day is a day of preparation. When you prepare like that every day like he does, it translates into consistency in games, and he’s given us a chance to win every game we’ve played this year.”
Semptimphelter’s humble beginnings
Semptimphelter had a lot of mentors along the way, starting with Joe, an insurance salesman, and Denise. Kanaly has been a constant force in his life, offering advice, encouragement and sometimes a kick in the pants. And then there’s former Coyotes goalie Brian Boucher, who gave his one-time pupil and lifelong friend a shout-out during ESPN’s broadcast of the first NHL game at Mullett Arena on Oct. 28.
Boucher’s son, Tyler, played with TJ in the Philadelphia Flyers’ youth programs in Voorhees, New Jersey, where the Flyers built their practice facility and TJ would see goalies such as Steve Mason and Ilya Bryzgalov all of the time. That’s how the Bouchers and Semptimphelters met, but Boucher later coached Semptimphelter as a pee wee, winning a league championship that Boucher likes to mention as a humorous flex.
“I can talk about TJ all day long, any time of year,” Boucher said. “He’s just a great kid that has never had a bad day in his life. I always thought his demeanor was perfect for the position. He was competitive, but it wasn’t obvious. It wasn’t like a kid that you couldn’t talk to on game days, or a kid that got nervous or got worked up. He just had an enthusiasm for the game and a real passion to play from a young age.”
Sometimes, that enthusiasm needed an outlet.
“The kid is just a nut,” Boucher said, pausing to stop his laughter. “We were in Chicago for a tournament and we’re at the hotel. He and my son would go in the pool to swim, but then they’d get out of the pool and run outside in the freezing cold to jump in the snow and do snow angels, and then jump back in the pool. It was TJ’s idea. Definitely TJ’s idea.”
It is somewhat of a surprise that Semptimphelter chose hockey. He comes from a football family and claims that he is the only male in that family who has not played organized football at some point. His first cousin, Scott Semptimphelter attended two Dallas Cowboys training camps and played five seasons in the Arena Football League. Another cousin, Brad Costello, punted for the Cincinnati Bengals and was also on the New England Patriots practice squad.
“He was maybe three and a half years old and we happened to be on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland, and there was this hotel that had an ice rink so we took him there and we put him on skates,” Joe said. “He enjoyed it so much that I said to my wife, ‘There is a learn to skate program at the Voorhees rink. Let’s take them there and see what he does with it.’
“By the time he was 5 or 6 years old, I went out and I bought him a Marty Biron shirt because we’re big Flyers fans and the next thing you know, I’m buying pads and gloves and skates and a helmet.”
When the Semptimphelters attended Flyers games, they sat behind the goal and TJ would go down to the glass and gawk at the goalies.
“I always loved the goalie pads, the designs on the helmet; I kind of loved everything about the position,” he said. “My parents tell me stories to this day of me going to learn-to-skate sessions and while all the other kids would be doing the drills, trying to speed through the cones, I would be next to the instructor, tugging on their pant leg, saying ‘Hey, can you let me get in net? Like, let me go sit in the crease and just hang out.’”
Hockey is an expensive sport. Buying goaltending equipment makes it all the more expensive, but Joe and Denise always found a way to support their only child’s passion.
“My dad would figure out what pair of skates I liked after I tried them on, he’d wait until they hopped on clearance and then he’d buy like five pairs for the rest of my career,” TJ said, laughing. “I was wearing Graf skates with the foot protector for pretty much my whole career growing up. My dad used to joke, ‘They’re brand new, what do you mean?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, they are brand new, but the model is about six years old.’”
One day, Joe brought home a pamphlet from the The Lawrenceville School, an elite prep school in New Jersey that caters to a lot of old wealth and blue bloods. Denise took one look at the cost on Page 2 and ripped the pamphlet up, but when TJ applied and was accepted, the Semptimphelters found a way to make it work again through a combination of financial aid, more hard work and plenty of penny pinching.
“When you think about it, it’s unbelievable, the opportunities they helped create for me,” TJ said.
Planning a future
Semptimphelter has been fortunate with the goalie coaches he had along the way. Both Kanaly and Boucher believe in allowing young goalies to develop, free from the over-coached structure that now permeates the goalie coaching ranks and turns a lot of goalies into what critics call robots.
“I never got into anything like post integration and stuff like that,” Boucher said. “We worked on skating, understanding your edges, using his hands, but most of all, I wanted him to be an athlete. If anything, it was just more about mindset, more about what it takes to be a goalie.”
Kanaly’s philosophy emphasizes freedom.
“It’s pretty frustrating for me that we all want to put these kids in a box,” he said. “I think that a lot of younger goalie coaches really want to stress the skating and the technique and they limit the athleticism and the reading part of the game.
“I look at goalies kind of like snowflakes. Every one of them is different so for me, it’s certainly not a philosophy of one size fits all. Our philosophy is to create a situation for the goalies where they’re very comfortable because they play better when they’re comfortable. And then you give them the tools, technique wise, that may work for them, because what works for TJ may not work for Jim or Frank or whoever. TJ’s a super athletic goalie. You don’t want to take that away from him. I think sometimes coaches are so focused on the structure of the position that they limit their goaltenders ability to read and react and make what I call athletic saves.”
Kanaly has worked with other notable goalies such as the Dallas Stars’ Scott Wedgewood and Montréal Canadiens prospect Cayden Primeau. He designs drills focused specifically on making athletic saves. One such drill will start with a simple pass from the goal line to the faceoff dot for a shot so that the goalies can make sure everything is right technically, from their hand positioning to having the short side covered to deciding whether to stay up or drop into the butterfly. At the end of the drill, however, he implements what he calls a live puck that simulates game action and asks the goalie to read, react and use his athleticism, rather than default to droned-in structure.
“That’s where the real growth is made with our goaltenders,” Kanaly said. “They’ll make a save but if there’s a rebound where they’re just a very boxy goalie, they’re gonna get scored on. If they’re athletic and can dive out of their butterfly, or stretch out of their compact stance, that gives them an opportunity, in my opinion, to really explore and create almost like almost like an artist would.”
Kanaly encourages loyalty in his goalies. Initially, he wanted Semptimphelter to remain at Northeastern, whose coach, Jerry Keefe, he calls a friend. But Levi’s return this season, coupled with another recruit that the Huskies had lined up, convinced him that the transfer portal was his best option.
Armed with that knowledge, Semptimphelter walked into Keefe’s office after the postseason had concluded (he didn’t want to be a distraction while games were being played) and asked a simple question: “What are your plans for me?”
When the answer was clear, Semptimphelter thanked Keefe for the opportunity, he walked into AD Jim Madigan’s office and thanked him, and he was off on a new adventure without a second thought.
“I think some of that willingness to embrace new experiences is a byproduct of him going into prep school where you meet some really interesting people; families that have a lot of money where it was a different life than what he was used to,” Boucher said. “TJ is able to be almost like a chameleon. He can adapt to different situations. He’s very social and he’s got such a good personality. I think he had that going in but these experiences just brought it out even more.”
Powers has noticed how well Semptimphelter mixes with his teammates.
“This kid is immersed in the team culture,” said Powers, a former goalie. “He’s popular in the room. He’s always joking around. He’s normal. Most goalies are weirdos. He’s not.”
Sun Devils captain Josh Doan sees another rare quality in Semptimphelter.
“The way he just handles everything about his job and then the way he talks to the guys is something I’ve never seen before. He’s always making sure we’re aware of things that he’s seeing from the back end that we might not be seeing. He’s also pretty vocal for goalie. You don’t get a lot of vocal goalies so just having him in the locker room is awesome.”
Chasing a Sun Devil hockey icon
Any discussion of ASU’s short goaltending history begins and ends with Seattle Kraken goalie Joey Daccord, who owns all of the program’s meaningful records. Coincidentally, Semptimphelter attended Brian Daccord’s Stop It Goaltending school on his path to ASU.
Semptimphelter has a long way to go to catch up to Daccord, but the early returns are surprising.
“I didn’t think he would play every game when we started,” ASU goalie coach Eddie Läck said. “We knew that he was good and obviously what he did last year was really solid, but it’s different when you play nine straight games compared to just playing a game here and there so for him to be that consistent has been really impressive.
“He’s very positionally sound so he’s never really out of a play and that leads into the second thing I see from him which is that he competes hard. That’s why he’s never really out of a play. He never gives up on pucks. He really thinks the game well and that’s what I’ve been mostly impressed with.”
ASU (5-4) took some time to get its legs under it this season. Powers has 13 new face in his lineup, the Sun Devils opened with four road games and when they returned home, the grand opening of Mullett Arena drained the team of emotions on the back end of a series with Colgate.
Through it all, Semptimphelter has been a rock, facing 30-plus shots in the team’s first six games and hitting the 40 mark twice.
“The way he just handles the pressure is unbelievable,” Doan said. “He knows that we need him to be good every night and he has been so we feel confident we can beat anybody because if he shows up and takes the game away from someone, then we just need two or three goals and it’s a win.
“But he does more than just stop the puck. He kind of just grounds everybody and makes sure everyone’s relaxed and easy. He’s our backbone back there.”
So far, this is exactly the scenario that Semptimphelter envisioned when he chose ASU over a litany of other schools.
“I was working a lot with coach Kanaly over the summer, just making sure my footwork and skating and everything was kind of up to speed,” Semptimphelter said. “Obviously, I got a small sample last year in the eight games, but I knew what I wanted to work on. I knew I was coming to a strong program that deserves to win and has the capabilities to win, so my expectations were to just come here and help the guys and the coaches and do everything in my power to win.
“Like I said before, winning in college hockey is infectious. Once you get the first win under your belt, you just want to get the next one. I knew that I wanted to be somewhere where I could give myself the best opportunity to be with a program where I could help them win. I just felt like ASU was the best spot to do that and I’m so happy to be here.”
Top photo of TJ Semptimphelter via Getty Images