Matt Murray, Carter Hutton, Mackenzie Blackwood: What's behind Thunder Bay's success in net?

There's no secret formula behind the talented goaltenders coming out of Thunder Bay, Ont., lately — but the man who trains them says the city's dedication to the hard work of hockey helps breed the perfect player between the pipes.

'They think the game, they read the plays, they have high hockey IQs,' says goalie coach Colin Zulianello

Mackenzie Blackwood, who hails from Thunder Bay, Ont., played for Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship, in Helsinki, Finland, in January. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
We meet goalie coach Colin Zulianello...the man who hometown NHL netminders Carter Hutton and Matt Murray will be spending their summer with. 10:20

There's no secret formula behind the talented goaltenders coming out of Thunder Bay, Ont., lately — but the man who trains them says the city's dedication to the hard work of hockey helps breed the perfect player between the pipes.

Colin Zulianello runs Zulie's Goalie Academy in Thunder Bay, where his list of students and alumni include the Ontario Hockey League's goalie of the year Mackenzie Blackwood, the Nashville Predators' Carter Hutton and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Murray.

Murray, 21, is this playoff season's Cinderella story, as he rocketed from being the back-up to the back-up goalie in Pittsburgh, to calmly and effectively filling in for a concussed Marc-André Fleury.

Thunder Bay's Matt Murray plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Goaltending "has morphed," Zulianello said of his approach to training.

"It's a science, it's cerebral. [Goalies] think the game, they read the plays, they have high hockey IQs."

Netminders raised in Thunder Bay also bring a "blue collar" work ethic to the game which contributes to their success, Zulianello said.

"At an early age you have to travel all the time — say 15 hours — just to play in Omaha, Neb.," he said. "Thunder Bay kids realize that's part of what hockey is."

The Predators and Penguins provide a training regime for Zulianello to work through with Hutton and Murray in the summer, he said.

Thunder Bay goalie coach Colin Zulianello takes a shot on Carter Hutton of the Nashville Predators at Zulie's Goalie Academy. (Colin Zulianello)

Breeding success

Since Thunder Bay is also home to several NHLers who don't play net, there's also the advantage of having "high-quality shooters here to shoot on them in the summer."

Zulianello, who was drafted by the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes in 2001, said he realized he was a "career minor league goalie" and decided to return to his hometown in 2009. He now teaches high school, sits on Hockey Canada's National Goaltending Advisory Board and is the goaltending coach for the Soo Greyhounds and the Lakehead Thunderwolves.

"It's not glamorous to be a goalie coach in Canada," he said. "In Finland and Sweden it is."

That's starting to change with Hockey Canada offering specific training for goalie coaches, he said. 

In Thunder Bay, success is breeding success, Zulianello said. "Right now you've got a lot more people spending a lot more time in the position."

The city's goaltending exports also include female players.

Amanda Makela played for the Thunder Bay Queens, then moved on to Mercyhurst University, a top ranked NCAA women's hockey program, Zulianello said. As well, Makela played with Team Canada U18 and this past season made her professional debut with the Buffalo Beauts in the National Women's Hockey League.

At 6'4', Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Murray towers over some young goalie trainees with Colin Zulianello at Zulie's Goalie Academy in Thunder Bay. (Colin Zulianello)

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