Like most Junior A goalies, Joe Rogers has terrific reflexes, tremendous focus, incredible agility and plays his angles well.
What isn’t so easy to see is that Rogers, who plays for the North American Hockey League’s Motor City (Mich.) Machine, was born without a full right hand that keeps him from closing his glove after catching the puck.
“I didn’t even notice it, and most people who watch him are surprised,” said Notre Dame assistant coach Andy Slaggert, who coached Rogers at the USA Hockey Select 15 Festival in St. Cloud, Minn., in 2005.
“He’s not self conscious about it. The first time people notice it is when they shake hands with him.”
In two operations – the first when he was 2-years-old, the second when he was 5 – surgeons took a bone from his foot and used it to reshape the thumb on his right hand.
“It’s all I have ever known, and it’s part of who I am,” said Rogers. “All my friends and family know about it, and it never really comes up because it doesn’t hinder me from doing anything.”
Rogers wrestled and played football, soccer, baseball and golf growing up. But hockey has been his passion since he started playing at age 4.
“I love the physical aspect and the speed of the game,” he said. “There are so many different things going on at once, and it really takes concentration, focus and dedication to be able to handle all the things happening.”
Armed with a custom glove and very quick feet, Rogers’ only nod to his right hand is that he usually pulls his glove close to his chest after catching a shot.
“So it’s not just sitting out there where it could get hit,” he said. “If you just saw me do it, most people wouldn’t know [about his hand] because it’s not uncommon for goalies to bring the puck close to them to protect it.”
Growing up in Marysville (Mich.), near the Canadian border, Rogers made frequent trips to Canada to watch the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting and went to the CCHA playoffs at Joe Louis Arena. Seeing players on their way to the pros fueled his single-minded pursuit of playing at a higher level.
“As a kid I dreamed of playing Junior, college and professional hockey,” said Rogers. “I didn’t listen to any naysayers, and it didn’t matter what anyone said. I just blocked it out and gave it my all. I was taught growing up that you can do anything you put your mind to, and that’s what I did.”
Rogers also followed the career of Jim Abbott, a Michigan native born without a right hand who pitched 10 seasons in the major leagues.
“My dad got me some of his baseball cards when I was younger,” said Rogers, who met Abbott last year at an awards banquet in Detroit and still stays in contact with him. “He has always been kind of my idol. He has a similar thing, and he didn’t let it stop him.”
Rogers also credits his parents, Scott and Lynne Rogers, for instilling in him the direct connection between hard work and success.
“They’ve been hard workers their whole lives and just seeing their dedication has shown me that if you work hard, good things come of it,” he said.
And that focus to improve hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Right from training camp I was super impressed with Joe’s work ethic on and off the ice and the way he prepared,” said Motor City coach and general manager Matt Romaniski. “He does an off-ice workout for flexibility and hand-eye coordination before every practice, and he’s the first one on the ice every day.”
Rogers graduated from Marysville High School with a 3.99 GPA and has been accepted at Notre Dame (he deferred admission to play a year of Junior hockey) – but he’s no bookworm.
“He’s a first-class kid, and he gets along with everyone on the team,” said Romaniski. “He gives 100 percent every day, and he’s a student of the game. He’s got a bright future.”
In 2007, Rogers played on a Belle Tire team that won the USA Hockey Tier I 16 & Under National Championship, and the experience taught him the importance of chemistry and a winning attitude.
“What I learned that season was how far teamwork and camaraderie can take you,” he said. “We were fairly skilled, but there were teams more skilled than us. We really bonded and became like brothers. It is amazing how that bond can make such a difference than just skill by itself.”
Rogers is concentrating on helping the Machine and improving his stamina and quickness in the net – but he can’t help looking forward to playing for the Fighting Irish next season.
“I can’t wait,” he said.
Phillip Colvin is the editor of Michigan Hockey.