Blossoming brotherhood: goalies gel at Jets development camp
It's arguably the most difficult position to play in sports. Every team relies on them. Few teams have success without a good one. And no one faces more public scrutiny.
And that's all after you make the team. Never mind the struggle it takes to earn the title of "goalie."
So surely, given all the stress accumulated from what's at stake in this week's Winnipeg Jets rookie development camp — now two days old, with only three more days remaining — a rivalry amped by inflated egos and proud reputations must be getting the better of the five goaltenders invited to camp.
"It's such a good group of guys that we definitely just support each other and try and have fun, and it's great to see smiles from everyone. It's just a week and you really try to utilize every little moment you have on the ice."
It's a week, made up of daily skates that last close to 90 minutes, mixed in with off-ice training and social events like team dinners, aimed at creating a bonding experience between players and coaches.
But through all the fun and smiles, reality remains. And it isn't so cheerful.
Hoping to make an impression
Connor Hellebuyck, Eric Comrie, Jason Kasdorf, and Jamie Phillips round out the group of five looking to fulfill a lifetime dream of playing professional hockey. But between the big club in Winnipeg and their AHL affiliate in St. John's, only a couple vacancies remain between the pipes.
Between the Pipes
Name, Team, Age, Height/Weight (in pounds)
- Jussi Olkinuora, U. of Denver (WCHA), 23, 6'2, 200
- Connor Hellebuyck, U. Mass-Lowell (H-East), 6'4, 200
- Jason Kasdorf, R.P.I. (ECAC), 6'4, 195
- Eric Comrie, Tri-City (WHL), 6'1, 170
- Jamie Phillips, Michigan Tech (WCHA), 6'3, 184
The current picture looks something like this: Ondrej Pavelec remains the No. 1 guy in Winnipeg; that much was confirmed by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff during in his season wrap-up.
Al Montoya's departure to Florida now opens the door for Michael Hutchinson, who signed a two-year deal with the Jets after a dream-like season that saw the former Boston Bruin product jump from the East Coast Hockey League, to St. John's, to the NHL, then back to St. John's where he led the IceCaps to the Calder Cup final.
That leaves, at best, just two spots open in St. John's, and five hopefuls fighting to make an impression.
Mix in high aspirations, the addition of future competition with each year's draft, and you can't help but wonder how a fistfight hasn't broken out yet.
"I think it says a lot about the character in that room," opined Hellebuyck, who is mostly likely to start with the IceCaps this year following a stellar season for UMass-Lowell that earned the 21-year-old the Inaugural Mike Richter Award, given to the top goalie in college.
"There's a lot of nice guys in there and guys that don't only care about themselves; they care about the team. They care about the guys around them, and when you have guys like that, they're going to treat each other so much better."
'Family' in locker room
It's a kind of treatment that suggests a brotherhood among the Jets goaltending stock isn't just smoke.
Evident by the constant words of encouragement, pad-slapping and jokes seen and heard on the ice, it's clear there's a growing bond, or what Hellebuyck and Olkinuora refer to as "a family," being formed in the locker room this week.
For the Jets' goaltending coach, Wade Flaherty, it's the kind of atmosphere he had hoped for from this group.
"I think what you want to see with goaltenders at any level is a healthy competition," said Flaherty, who added that the landscape has changed from when he used to play, a career that spanned more than 15 years with stops in the IHL, AHL and NHL.
"I think you see more so now that healthy competition where when one guy's on the bench he's really pulling for the goalie that's playing, really wants them to do well," he said. "But also, on the healthy competition side of things, when he gets opportunity to go in there, you want them to push each other through the games."
Unlike the past, today's elite players are shown the royal treatment from an early age. Every thing from meal plans to transportation is merely an afterthought. Equipment managers even hang and carry equipment.
It's a culture that makes it easy for a player to demand more from a league that can, especially for upcoming goalies, can result in very little.
When all is considered, the kind of sportsmanship displayed by this group is nothing short of impressive. And credit belongs to not just the players themselves, but the organization that drafted them.
"We're all a little family as it is here," said Hellebuyck. "You hear that a lot in the hockey world but those five guys, we really have each other's back. So there's no real rivalry going on because we're all just here to develop."