OXFORD, Ohio – Miami had used some form of a rotation in net for 11 years before Ryan Larkin joined the RedHawks.
There were the tandems of Jeff and Eff, then Connor and Cody, followed by Jay and McKay.
But when Larkin came to Oxford, he took over the starter role between the pipes immediately and has not relinquished control in his four years with the RedHawks, setting Miami’s all-time saves record and becoming the first MU netminder to stop over 3,000 shots.
“He’s faced a ton of pressure and expectations because he’s been our guy, he’s been the guy for four years now,” forward and teammate Karch Bachman said. “And speaking more from a personal standpoint, I’m really proud of him and proud of the effort that he’s put in, and we’re obviously very lucky to have him back there standing behind us.”
Larkin was born, grew up and still lives in Clarkston, Mich., 40 miles northwest of Detroit, where he followed a pretty typical Michiganian hockey path: He started playing with mini-sticks and street hockey then shifted to the ice once he could skate.
His father, Paul, who is from Toronto and moved to the U.S. to play soccer, was a huge Maple Leafs fan and was a key reason Larkin pursued hockey.
But family members near his own age were the driving force. Larkin’s older brother, Adam, ultimately played for Yale and logged three seasons in the ECHL before joining Poprad of the Slovakian League this season.
His older cousin, Colin, played for UMass and recently retired after playing 16 games in the AHL.
Larkin’s other cousin, Dylan, was a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings and has already racked up over 100 NHL goals despite being just 23.
With cousins Colin and Dylan living just a mile away while growing up, the foursome regularly competed against each other.
“I was the youngest out of the four of us – couldn’t quite skate yet – so they made me play goalie all the time because they were just buzzing around me when they were on rollerblades,” Larkin said. “That’s kind of how I started.”
When he began organized hockey, his uncle coached him and stuck him in net for his team’s biggest games.
A travel team that Larkin joined wanted him to shift to defense, but his father preferred he go between the pipes.
Larkin did, so prior to turning 10, he had found his permanent position.
Bachman and Larkin were briefly teammates, but when Bachman was with Little Caesar’s and Larkin Honeybaked and the two met in the state final, Bachman scored the clinching goal off Larkin in the closing minutes.
But overall, Larkin consistently posted goals-against averages below 2.50 even at that level.
“He’s gotten the better of me, pretty much from that point on,” Bachman said. “He made some big stops against me in the All-American Prospects Game one year. So we’ve had our battles all the way up throughout our careers.”
Larkin was drafted by Muskegon in the 17th round of the USHL Phase II draft and started the 2014-15 season with the Michigan Warriors of the NAHL as their third goalie and local option who could be called up as needed.
His cousin, Colin, played for Michigan, so the families knew the coach, but after preseason, word got out that Cedar Rapids needed a goalie, and Muskegon was willing to trade him.
So Larkin split time with current Western Michigan goalie Ben Blacker that season, where he went 15-10 with a 2.43 GAA and a .919 save percentage.
“It was a great time – I couldn’t have had a better experience with the family that I lived with,” Larkin said. “Coach (Mark) Carlson treated me well and Shane Connelly was a good goalie coach, so we started the season hot and made the playoffs but we lost to Gordie and Dubuque.”
Larkin returned to Cedar Rapids for 2015-16 with an ailing hip. The more he played, the pain intensified, so after talking to multiple hip specialists he decided to shut it down for the season after four games and have surgery, ending his juniors career.
He finished that season 3-0-1 with a 2.13 GAA and a save percentage of .917.
Larkin knew former Miami assistant coach Nick Petraglia from a goaltending camp in Ann Arbor, and the two talked regularly. So he committed to the RedHawks, and since he was unable to play following surgery, he came to Oxford in January of 2016 to get a start on his classwork.
“Something that stood out to me was how interested he was in me,” Larkin said. “That’s something that’s really important is you want to go where you’re really, truly wanted, and I could just tell that Trags really wanted me here. Then once I came to campus and visited, it was beautiful and I absolutely loved it – I loved the campus and I talked to my family and they said it was the best situation for me academically and athletically, and socially it couldn’t have better, too. I got kind of got the best of all three worlds there, and then to top it all off, it was a place that just wanted me, which was really important to me.”
While missing most of that year was obviously not ideal, the jump start on school and getting to join the team half a season early while then-starting goalie Jay Williams was manning the RedHawks’ net helped Larkin’s transition to college.
“I got to learn under Jay Williams, and it was great,” Larkin said. “I got to start to work out with the team – spring workouts – so I really got implemented into the team earlier than the rest of the class, which was nice for me going into my freshman year.”
Unlike in Cedar Rapids, Larkin was thrust into an every-game role. As a freshman, he played in 33 games and logged 1,946 minutes, the most of any Miami freshman since Brandon Crawford-West in 2003-04.
While his 8-16-7 record was less than impressive, he posted a 2.77 GAA and .910 save percentage his rookie year with the RedHawks, earning his first career shutout by stopping 33 shots vs. Maine on Oct. 22, 2016.
Sophomore season, Larkin took a step back in every quantitative category except wins. He allowed 111 goals in 36 games, as his save percentage slipped to .886 and his GAA was 3.12, although his did finish with 12 wins, his highest total since coming to Miami.
Then prior to 2018-19, graduate senior Jordan Uhelski joined the team after starting the previous two seasons at Alabama-Huntsville and recording a .907 save percentage there.
No one had seriously threatened Larkin for the starting job his first two seasons, but Uhelski provided Larkin a mentor as well as much-needed competition.
Larkin’s numbers improved significantly, as his save percentage rose to .907, and he notched three shutouts after tallying two in his freshman and sophomore campaigns combined.
“Uhelski was great for me,” Larkin said. “He was a graduate student, so him being a fifth-year, he really had had a lot of experience in college hockey. And playing for Alabama-Huntsville, he’d seen a lot of shots, so it was really good for me to have him here, to help me out mentally. He was one of my best friends.”
Now as a senior, Larkin has morphed into leadership mode, with freshman Ben Kraws and junior Grant Valentine learning under him after Williams and Uhelski played that teacher role to him.
“They taught me, it was always me asking the questions, now I guess that’s me,” Larkin said. “Ben Kraws is always so eager to learn, so is Grant Valentine. They’re always asking me questions on what I think is best or how I handle certain situations, what I think about certain teams. It’s awesome because I feel like I have the answers more than I did two years ago. Just through experience I get to share that with them and help them better themselves.”
Larkin has shared the net with Kraws the second half of this season, with Larkin starting on Fridays and Kraws jumping in on Saturdays.
“I think that was a big emphasis for both (coaching) staffs was to get somebody that would really challenge Larks,” Bachman said. “Challenge is kind of a loose term. Larks is our starter and has been our starter for as long as I’ve been here, but sometimes you just need a little bit of a wake-up call, and if he has a tough game, they have somebody to step in and hopefully have a big game for us. It was that way for us last year, and to be honest with you, both Ben and Val have stepped up for us this year, put in some big-time performances.
“He’s got two guys pushing him now, but what’s crazy about the goaltenders is they’re one of the tight-knit groups on our team, not that we have cliques, but the goalies are the goalies. They kind of do their own thing sometimes, but they’re very close, they’re all very supportive, they’re all working together. And you see them at the other end together when we’re doing warm-up drills – they’ll be chatting with each other about technique, playing the angle or playing the puck. So they’re really supportive of each other and I think Larks has been appreciative of that too. They’ve found a nice balance. The combination of a little bit of competition and a little bit of support has been big, for sure.”
Kraws earned his first careeer win at Omaha on Nov. 23, and Valentine – who had seen almost no ice time his first two seasons – held opponents to five total goals in his first two starts of this season and leads the team with a 3.32 GAA.
Coach Chris Bergeron said he prefers a goalie rotation, with one starting on Friday and the other Saturday like when he was an assistant at Miami his last few seasons.
“That’s something that I think, but I never played the position,” Bergeron said. “I’ve got somebody on our staff in (goalie coach) Jimmy Spratt that I talk to a lot about that part of it. When we were really rolling here for (my) 10 years, maybe the last eight for sure – as an assistant – it was one Friday night, one Saturday night, and we went to Frozen Fours doing it that way. Typically you’ve got a couple scholarship goaltenders on your roster and I like them both to play until one proves that he’s played that much better than the other or one is struggling. I do think competition is a good thing. I think internal competition brings out the best in everybody – I’ve always felt that way, and I don’t think the goaltending position is any different.”
Two areas of strength that have made Larkin so successful in net are rebound control and positioning.
Larkin rarely gives up juicy rebounds or even juggles the puck regardless of how hard or close in the shot is.
“I’m not a goalie guy by any means, but I do get to shoot on him every day, and I’d say fundamentally, he’s really sound,” Bachman said. “Rarely do you come down on Larks and see him off his angle or an opening. Not saying we see that from our other two goalies as well, but he’s so sound positionally that he doesn’t give you much net, and if he does, sometimes he’s bating you. He’ll leave a little bit of glove open and as a lefty I have to shoot across my body, so I’ll take it, and then he slides over because he’s anticipating that shot to come. And he rarely lets out a rebound, so if you’re not scoring on your first shot or shooting for a pass off the pad, chances are it’s going to be a whistle or the play’s going to be dead.”
And he plays a textbook game from a technical standpoint, as he is almost never out of position and rarely overcommits to make a save.
Bergeron also said that he is one of the team’s fiercest competitors in practice.
“His everyday approach is really, really good,” Bergeron said. “If you were to watch Ryan Larkin fight for a puck in practice, you might as well be playing in a game. With that being said, when you see a puck bounce off him, whether it’s a puck he should smother, a puck he should catch or whatever it is – even a puck that he blockers away – he normally controls where it’s going, versus just ending up back in the slot where bad things can happen. Yes, he’s good at rebound control and not only not allowing rebounds but when there are rebounds, making sure they go out of dangerous areas, but that’s what he does every day.”
Miami is allowing nearly 33 shots per game, the second-worst clip in the conference, and has struggled mightily on defense at times this season.
So Larkin – and the other RedHawks goalies – have faced far too many high-percentage shots.
“It’s very, very difficult, and when you look at the last four years – I don’t want to speak for the last three years when I wasn’t here – but what has developed in Ryan is this feeling that he has to be superhuman and do more than just his part,” Bergeron said. “There are some nights where that’s been asked of him, and that’s just not fair. That is something that is so hard to understand as a coach, or as a fan, just trying to get what this young person is going through. He’s the pitcher on the mound by himself, right? He’s the last line of defense, and what I’ve learned about Ryan is that he cares so much and he’s trying to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that’s just not fair to him. Unfortunately when you become the save leader at a school over the course of four years, it’s because you’ve seen a bunch of pucks.
“It is a big burden on a young guy. The way I’d like to see it run is: Everybody do their part. And unfortunately, at times Ryan has had to do more than just his part.”
That shots against rate, and the quality of SOG he has faced, is the main reason for Larkin’s 3.33 GAA this season despite a decent save percentage of .904.
“Unfortnately we kind of hang Larks out to dry more than we should and he has to make some of these acrobatic, Sportscenter Top 10 saves, I feel like, on a nightly basis,” Bachman said. “But I think he’s risen to the challenge, risen to the task and when you watch our games, there’s some guys that you notice, and typically Larks is a guy you notice every night because of the chances against him and some of the saves that he does make. But he never complains, never says anything to us, he just does his job, day in and day out.”
Despite the team’s struggles, with seven wins and three shutouts in 2019-20, Larkin has moved into seventh place on Miami’s all-time wins leaderboard with 37 and sixth in shutouts with eight.
He is eighth among RedHawks goalies in save percentage, and in addition to his on-ice achievements, Larkin has posted a 3.2 grade-point average as he is set to graduate this spring with a sports leadership degree with a minor in sport management.
And the way he wrapped up his Cady Arena career was epic. In the final home series this season, he shut out Omaha twice, stopping 48 total shots and picking up an assist.
The only other goalie to post a shutout series in Miami history? Williams.
Larkin was a slam dunk for NCHC goaltender of the week honors and earned the NCAA’s First Star of the Week as his time tending the net in Oxford came to an end.
“It’s been incredible,” Larkin said. “I know the win-loss record hasn’t been exactly what I wanted and probably the coaching turnover, coming into college, I didn’t expect. But the fact I’ve been able to with three different goalie coaches, learn from them, and two different head coaches, learn from them, the amount of life lessons I’ve been able to take from this program, and hockey as a whole, it’s just incredible. I feel like I’m learning something new about myself every single day and learning how I learn best. It’s just been awesome, there’s nothing that I would trade it for, being able to play here, and I’d do it all again if I could.”