by Chris Ballard || AHL On The Beat Archive
Rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck arrived in Gander, Newfoundland, at 2 a.m. on October 2 after being sent to the American Hockey League’s St. John’s IceCaps from Winnipeg Jets training camp.
But you could never tell, as he arrived fresh as a daisy at practice early the next morning.
“I had to get out there and get the legs moving,” he said with a smile.
The Commerce, Mich., product is a pure student of the game and in an effort to continue his education, he made sure he was among the first skaters on the ice when IceCaps camp kicked off that next day.
As if he didn’t already learn enough in his two uber-successful years at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in NCAA’s Division I, he took advantage of every opportunity at the Jets’ main camp in an effort to make a smooth transition ahead of his first professional season.
“Just having everyone there to help you every day helps you so much more than you realize,” he said of his time in Winnipeg. “You only realize it when you’re away from it how much they really care and how much it’s actually helping your development.”
Hellebuyck entered IceCaps camp with a considerable amount of fanfare, and rightfully so.
In 2012-13 as a freshman at UMass-Lowell, he helped his club become the first squad outside of Boston College or Boston University to win the Hockey East conference tournament since 2004. The team made it all the way to the Frozen Four before being ousted in the national semifinals.
One year later, UMass-Lowell repeated as Hockey East champs, with Hellebuyck between the pipes recording mind-blowing numbers.
Over the course of his two NCAA seasons, Hellebuyck allowed just 84 goals in 53 games (1.58 GAA) and registered an overall save percentage north of .940.
His strong play did not go unrewarded as in 2014 he was named the first recipient of the Mike Richter Award, given to the top goaltender in all of college hockey — a prestigious distinction that was not lost on Hellebuyck.
“It’s always a surprise when you win a nice award like that,” he said. “I’m very thankful for them selecting me to receive it. It’s a huge honor. Getting to meet Mike Richter himself was a thrill for me.”
So how did a young 21-year-old from a town of approximately 40,000 turn himself into a prized blue-chip goaltender?
It’s simple, really.
“I tell everyone that I’m big and boring,” Hellebuyck said with a laugh. “I like to stay in position and I don’t make flashy saves.”
Growing up in Michigan, Hellebuyck was obviously inspired by the goaltenders of the Detroit Red Wings but his biggest goalie inspiration came from a somewhat unlikely source.
“I was always a Detroit Red Wings fan growing up,” he admitted, “so I was always a fan of their goaltenders. But my main guy was Olaf Kolzig. They called him Godzilla and I liked that. I don’t know really why. He was just big and he was really good.”
Hellebuyck’s style is similar to that of the hulking Kolzig and rightfully so, given Hellebuyck’s 6-foot-4 frame. While Kolzig was an All-Star goaltender who won the Vezina Trophy in 1999-2000, that’s not to say Hellebuyck will stop trying to improve.
IceCaps developmental goaltending coach Dusty Imoo has been working with Hellebuyck since his first days as a Jets prospect following the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, in which he was selected in the fifth round, 130th overall.
Imoo has already seen growth in his game, most of which stems from his strong commitment to improving.
“I think his work ethic is really good,” Imoo said emphatically. “His practice habits are really good. He plays quite a big-goalie game. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge to see how well he adjusts [in the AHL] because guys can shoot better and they’re a lot quicker. I’m sure he’ll do well.”
And he’s done well to date. So much so that he earned a place on Team USA’s roster for the 2014 IIHF World Hockey Championships, a tournament normally reserved for seasoned professionals and NHL stars, not up-and-coming college kids.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Hellebuyck said. “When I finally sat down and realized what was happening, I was really excited. That’s a huge experience, something I will look forward to again hopefully in the future. That was a big milestone in my life. My family loved that I got the chance to go. Playing for your home country was such a memorable experience I’ll never forget.”
Hellebuyck didn’t see any game action but it was by no fault of his own. It was going to be a challenge to wrestle the starting gig from the hands of two-time Vezina Trophy winner and 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy recipient Tim Thomas.
But that didn’t stop Hellebuyck from reliving one of the most memorable moments of his career to date.
“I was walking around campus when I got the call,” he said. “I had to second-guess it and ask, ‘What’s this?’ Then my agent explained it to me and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, really?’ I was a little in shock.”
Hellebuyck had never been to Newfoundland and Labrador until now, but he’s excited to soak in the local culture and way of life and learn more about it.
“Every time I talk to someone who knows about the town and the province, I always try to pick their brain a little bit,” he said. “They always tell me that it’s a great city and that the fan base is awesome and they’re always behind the team, which is huge for home-ice advantage.”
With Calder Cup sensation Michael Hutchinson primed to earn a full-time spot with the Jets in Winnipeg for the 2014-15 season, it’s not unrealistic to assume that Hellebuyck could be the team’s starting goaltender as a rookie, but he knows that role won’t just be handed over.
“You never know, anything could happen,” he said with a coy smile. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the coaches. You just have to go out and earn it. I think you just have to go out there and play to your strengths and play your style and keep getting better every day. Coaches will see how hard you’re working and it will pay off. For sure, there will be some nerves but if you’re not nervous, you’re not human.”