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Football or hockey? For Minnesota's Mark Alt, it's hockey

Minnesota defenseman Mark Alt and goalie Kent Patterson take a hit from North Dakota’s Danny Kristo, right, during the Midwest Region final last month in St. Paul, Minn. Alt’s father, John, played 13 seasons in the NFL as a lineman for the Chiefs.

Associated Press

Minnesota defenseman Mark Alt and goalie Kent Patterson take a hit from North Dakota’s Danny Kristo, right, during the Midwest Region final last month in St. Paul, Minn. Alt’s father, John, played 13 seasons in the NFL as a lineman for the Chiefs.

John Alt spent 13 seasons as a left tackle with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, protecting the likes of Joe Montana, but he knew his son Mark's future might not be in football whenever he mowed the lawn of their Minnesota home.

"He was always outside on the rollerblades, always shooting around," Alt said Tuesday. "We had pucks all over the yard. The lawnmower chewed up a thousand pucks over the course of his upbringing. Other kids, they play video games or whatever. He had no interest in that. He was always outside."

Mark Alt arrived in Tampa on Tuesday as a 20-year-old sophomore defenseman for the University of Minnesota, vying for college hockey's ultimate prize in the NCAA Frozen Four this week. Choosing hockey over his father's sport wasn't easy, but the Gophers' success this season has only validated his choice to follow the game that was his greatest love.

"Hockey was just my deal, and when it came down to making a decision, I just knew where my passion was," said the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Alt, who was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round two years ago.

Even after he had committed to take the ice for the Gophers, football made a tempting push, as he quarterbacked St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall to a state championship his senior year. He earned a scholarship offer from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, his father's offensive line coach with the Hawkeyes in the early 1980s.

Hockey won out, and he's not the first famous Cretin-Derham quarterback to choose another sport — Joe Mauer spurned an FSU scholarship to play baseball and is now a hometown star with the Minnesota Twins; Chris Weinke spent six years in minor-league baseball before returning to football and winning a Heisman Trophy in Tallahassee.

Alt has shown considerable progress this season, establishing himself as a physical defender and a capable scorer, totaling five goals and 17 assists in Minnesota's 42 games. The Gophers, picked to finish fourth in their conference before the season, made the NCAAs for the first time in four years, then beat powerhouse Boston University and top seed North Dakota last week to advance to Tampa.

"When there's something on the line, when our backs are against the wall, that's usually when we play our best hockey," Alt said. "Last week, we were playing the best hockey we've played all year. We're a fast, physical, smart team when we're on."

Alt's hockey experience was limited in high school by a collarbone injury, so he said it took him a year to get comfortable with the college game, and that familiarity has led to the success he has had this season.

"Coming to college, the game was really fast for me, so last year was a big transition year for me, just trying to keep up," he said. "This year, I feel like every game, things slow down a little more and more, so I can make plays and be more productive."

The Hurricanes still have Alt's draft rights, and he expects to return for another season with Minnesota, with a timetable to consider turning pro after his junior year in 2013. His father — who at 6-8 gave up hockey in sixth grade because he "just got too tall" — enjoys seeing parallels on the ice between his son's role as a defenseman and his old job as an NFL left tackle.

"He's protecting the net. You're backpedaling while someone else is going forward — it's very similar to playing offensive line," his father said. "That's how I watch it. I can put myself in position for what he's trying to accomplish. And much like an offensive lineman, if your name isn't mentioned, you did your job."

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3346.

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Frozen Four

Where: Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa

When: Thursday — Union (N.Y.) vs. Ferris State, 4:30 p.m. (ESPNU); Boston College vs. Minnesota, 8 p.m. (ESPN2). Saturday — Final, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

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Practices: Today, free to the public:

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Football or hockey? For Minnesota's Mark Alt, it's hockey 04/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 10:31pm]

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