Unmasking the Lyon

Photo: Chicago Wolves

📝 by Lindsey Willhite | AHL On The Beat

Chicago Wolves goaltender Alex Lyon owns an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side six blocks from Central Park. He bought it during the pandemic partly because his longtime girlfriend lives in Manhattan, but also because he loves the way New York City makes him feel.

Lyon stands one semester from a political science degree from Yale University ― the school his father, grandfather and great-grandfather graduated from. He doesn’t have his diploma yet because he left college early to turn pro, but he’ll return to campus after his hockey career ends to write his senior thesis. His likely topic? Nuclear war, nuclear deterrents and things of that nature because, well, they’re interesting to him.

We start the 29-year-old Lyon’s story with these facts because he’s well-aware of the connotations and suspicions that come with them. In fact, he’s happy to own these East Coast elitist stereotypes and feed into them.

During a sprawling conversation that lasts more than 90 minutes, he happens to mention his recent obsession with Epictetus. Of course, we’re all familiar with Epictetus, right? So no one needs to be reminded he’s a Greek Stoic philosopher from the first century.

And when Lyon describes himself, he uses such words as “arrogant,” “contrarian,” “obsessive-compulsive,” “sarcastic” and several other phrases along these lines.

So we pretty much have Alex Lyon pegged, right? Now try to fit this into the narrative:

Lyon was born and raised in Baudette, Minnesota — a town on the Canadian border so remote that it’s one of the few counties in America that doesn’t have or need stoplights.

Alex Lyon believes most, if not all, goaltenders have an obsessive-compulsive component to their personality because it helps them do their job. For example, he admits he obsesses about hockey all day because he believes the secret to his craft is preparation.

“And the more preparation I have for a game, the better I play,” Lyon said. “Always. If I put three or four days of excellent mental and physical preparation ― if I spend 24 hours of my day getting ready for this game ― once I step on the ice I can let it rip with zero remorse.”

But Lyon’s mind cannot obsess about hockey alone. One of his many diversions is his guitars, which he tries to play 2-3 hours per day. He even has written some songs.

“I have, but they’re not good,” Lyon said with a laugh. “Music is a huge outlet. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is one of my all-time favorites (to play). I love that. (I love) John Mayer. I have kind of an obsession with anybody who’s at the best of their craft.”

Others on Lyon’s list of current or recent obsessions? Coldplay leader Chris Martin. First-century Greek philosopher Epictetus. Prolific author Stephen King. Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has backstopped the Lightning to the last two Stanley Cup championships.

“That’s my life. That’s what I enjoy doing,” he said. “I don’t do this intentionally, but it does tend to go in month-long obsessions. I’m obsessed with Chris Martin because the guy makes more money than anybody else in the world, can play guitar and sing and play piano better than just about anybody in the world, yet the guy gives away all his money. He’s one of the most philanthropic people ever.

“I’ve been obsessed with Coldplay for a long time. But it’s not specific to music. It can be anything. Like I said, I was in on Epictetus for a long time. I found him to be a really interesting guy.

“Stephen King, I was obsessed with for a long time. I find him to be one of the most fascinating people on the planet. I feel like this fascinates everybody on some level. Why wouldn’t you strive to be (the best)? Obviously there’s something that they’ve found that unlocked the rest of their talent base.

“I look at Andrei Vasilevskiy, I find him to be a master in goaltending. I’ll read and watch any possible thing with Andrei Vasilevskiy. Just love him. He’s a master.”

“Baudette has about 1,000 people,” said Ian Sugden, who grew up with Lyon. “Extremely rural. For example, I think the nearest Target or Walmart is about three hours away. It’s relatively lower-income. Just a small northern town.”

“The only thing there is to do up there is hunt, fish and play hockey,” said Stephen Slick, another one of Lyon’s classmates. “It’s cold more often than not. Just kind of a desolate town. Everybody knows everybody. Pretty stereotypical-type town.”

Sugden, Slick and Lyon lived in a school district where everyone from kindergarten to 12th grade went to the same school building (Lake of the Woods) and people rarely moved in or out, so they were together with the same classmates all the way through graduation ― all 42 of them in their Class of 2011.

Some might shudder about being stuck in a largely conservative area without many of the frills of modern life. But not only did the Lake of the Woods Class of 2011 survive, they thrived.

“I think the really odd thing that happened was we grew up with a group of 23 boys ― and we had a group of probably 15 of us that were so incredibly competitive and talented that we drove each other,” Lyon said. “We were excellent in all sports. We all played three sports. Football, hockey, and either baseball or golf. We were all taking all of the Advanced Placement classes we could take. We all drove each other intellectually. We’re not sure how or why it happened, but it’s pretty impressive.

“In Baudette, you might get a few who go to college or who grow up to do something really cool or different or outside of the scope of what you might do in Baudette. But in our class, we had a guy go to the Naval Academy who’s now a nuclear efficiency expert. He’s a really quality math guy. We had five or six engineers. We had four or five go to grad school. But the class above us and below us weren’t like this. Now that we can look back retrospectively, we’re like, ‘Whoa. What just happened?’”

Slick attended the University of North Dakota and became a civil engineer. Sugden got a degree in manufacturing engineering from North Dakota State and a master’s degree from Wisconsin-Stout and serves as a supply chain planning engineer for Caterpillar in Minneapolis. Bill Brown works as a project engineer in Eden Prairie. Chris Novak is a quality engineer in Watertown, South Dakota. Lyon, of course, attended Yale and aspires to graduate school after that. The list goes on and on, perhaps because their friendships kept going on.

“We were always together,” Sugden said. “We’d spend all day in school together, we’d go to practice together, we’d go grab food after that. We’d hang out and do homework later. Weekends, we’d be hanging out. In a lot of ways, we kind of raised each other because we spent so much time together.”

The group of 15 has stayed tight even as their paths have fanned out across the country. If anybody can confirm Lyon’s arrogance, contrarianism or everything else, it’s these guys who’ve known him since kindergarten. Alas, they don’t come through.

“Alex has always been a very smart, very athletic, very charismatic and funny person,” Sugden said. “Growing up with all of us being so competitive, Alex was a frustrating person to be around sometimes because he was so good at everything. Every sport he played, every subject in school he was one of the best. Super-outgoing. Very nice to everybody.”

Lyon played offensive line, tight end, linebacker and defensive end on a football team where everyone played both ways. Of course, he was the goalie for Lake of the Woods’ hockey team. In baseball, he put his hand-eye coordination to good use at shortstop while Slick served as the second baseman who hoped the ball would be hit to Lyon.

“Alex is a super-good guy,” Slick said, who had Lyon as a groomsman in his wedding. “He’ll do anything for you. Arrogant? He has the self-awareness to know that people might think that (because of his Yale and Manhattan connections), but that’s not the truth at all. He’s one of the most humble guys you’ll ever meet.”

So is Lyon a humble Midwesterner or an East Coast elitist? Actually, he might be the perfect blend of the two. He recently discovered the term “middlehead” and believes it fits him perfectly.

“It’s the idea that you’re a person who has the ability to see all sides of everything ― and can see it from the middle,” Lyon said. “I was raised to be a middlehead. My dad (Tim) plays devil’s advocate constantly. He was raised in Wallingford, Connecticut. My mom (Deb) grew up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota with fewer people in her hometown than Baudette. She’s a high-level human being who stayed in Minnesota and did her thing. As a family collectively, we have a good way of encompassing all sides.

“I grew up in a very conservative place and had that perspective from my friends for 18-20 years. Then you go to one of the most liberal places on earth in Yale University. And I don’t know whether this is true… I just feel I’ve had both perspectives and good teaching in both. Politically, I just think there’s a common-sensical aspect that both sides are missing.”

But ultimately, Lyon isn’t a politician ― he’s a goaltender. He thinks about the sport all day long and believes all of his influences help his game. For example, here’s one of Epictetus’ most quoted writings: “Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.”

Lyon has worked to the point where he ranks No. 2 among all AHL goaltenders in goals-against average. Through the end of March, Lyon owned a 16-6-3 record with a 2.16 goals-against average as well as a 1-1-0 record with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes. They’re, by far, his best statistical numbers since he made the Hobey Baker Award Top 10 finalist list (of the nation’s top college players) for Yale in 2015-16.

Credit his Baudette upbringing and his Yale experiences for that. All hail the middlehead.

“I got way better at goalie when I told myself, ‘Just remain calm. Deal with the situation as it comes,’” Lyon said. “Outwardly, I’m a very expressive person and I can get very angry and moody ― you can ask anybody in the locker room. But I would say inwardly, I have the ability at this age to maintain a balance and a healthy emotional and mental state. Which has made my goaltending a lot better.

“I’m obsessed with trying to be the best goalie I can be. I care about winning more than anything else.”

Actually, it’s fair to say he cares about his Baudette friends as much as he does winning. And they feel the same way.

“I get so excited thinking about what the next 10-20 years looks like for the core group of guys,” Sugden said. “They (especially Alex) are all so talented, driven and interesting people. They’re gonna do cool stuff, and I can’t wait to see it.”