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Choosing stick over scalpel, for now

by Kyle Kujawa || AHL On The Beat Archive

Most seniors in college have a pretty good idea as to what field they’re looking to work in once they graduate.

That was the case for Grand Rapids Griffins goaltender Jordan Pearce, but his path led to a decision that not too many students have ever had to worry about.

Professional hockey, or medical school?

Pearce graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2009, double-majoring in anthropology and pre-med. Entering his senior season as an undrafted player, he wasn’t sure where his hockey career was going to take him, so he began looking for opportunities to further his education.

“I went into the year saying, ‘Let’s prepare for your medical career and play hockey, and then at the end of the year we’ll hash it out,’” said Pearce. “I went through the whole application and admissions process and got accepted into a few medical schools.”

While applying for med schools in his spare time, Pearce went on to have a stellar year with Notre Dame. He led the nation with 30 wins and eight shutouts, and finished second in goals-against average (1.68) and save percentage (.931) to help the Fighting Irish finish first in the CCHA during the regular season and advance to the NCAA regional semifinal.

After that season, it was obvious Pearce would have an opportunity to continue playing hockey.

“I looked at it thinking I could always go back to med school, but I only had one chance to play professional hockey and try to make the NHL,” said Pearce, who earned a contract with the Detroit Red Wings the summer after graduation. “I decided to go that route, but school’s still on the back burner for me.”

Pearce said his choice to enter the medical field came pretty easy for him once he took a few classes and got some hands-on experience.

“I have a really science-orientated mind,” explained the 24-year-old netminder. “The more I started looking at a medical career, with the classes I took and doing some volunteering in hospitals, the more I thought I could see myself becoming a doctor or a surgeon. I really fell in love with the profession.”

Not only did Pearce love what he was studying in school, he was also exceptional at it. Upon graduating he was recognized as the CCHA Scholar-Athlete of the Year after with a 3.816 grade-point average, a task difficult for anyone with a double major, let alone a double major in anthropology and pre-med.

For right now though, the consensus between Pearce and Griffins head coach Curt Fraser is that hockey is the priority. And just like his studies, the young goaltender is earning his gold stars in net.

Pearce started this season with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye before injuries in Detroit forced Joey MacDonald up to the NHL, leaving a spot open for Pearce to battle for ice time with Thomas McCollum. He’s helped lead the Griffins on their late-season playoff charge, earning points in 14 of his last 17 decisions with a 2.58 GAA, a .917 save percentage and a 10-3-4 record from Jan. 16 to Mar. 5.

“We needed really good goaltending to get us going where we want to go,” said Fraser. “We gave each one of them a chance to do it, and Jordan has risen up and taken charge. He’s not only done a good job for a short time, but his play has gotten better since he started playing.”

“I knew I just had to keep working hard down in Toledo, and my opportunity would come to play up here in the AHL,” said Pearce.

After appearing in just five games with Grand Rapids last season, Pearce has seized the opportunity to become the team’s go-to goaltender in an effort to climb the standings. He currently shows 27 contests, a 13-6-5 record alongside a 2.77 GAA and .911 save percentage. Additionally, the bulk of that action came following the New Year after appearing in just five outings with the Griffins prior to Jan. 6.

Pearce said he learned to become more patient in the offseason, but he’s already familiar with having to wait around for an opportunity. He appeared in just 12 games during his first two years with Notre Dame, playing behind All-American goaltender David Brown.

“I went through the same thing at Notre Dame, not playing as much as I would like to,” Pearce said. “When the time came for my chance to play, I played really well. It’s tough, but it’s part of hockey. It’s a game of opportunities, things happen, injuries happen.”

His experience at Notre Dame has helped in his adjustment to professional hockey. Despite several trips to and from Toledo, he’s been able to adjust to a full workload in the AHL. He says that adjusting from the ECHL to the AHL has not been too difficult.

“The ECHL is usually a higher scoring game,” said the native of Anchorage, Alaska. “Guys down there are just as skilled, but there’s a little bit of a lack of defensive systems. There’s a little more focus up here.”

Pearce is certainly getting his opportunity now, having started 16 of the team’s past 17 games. He also became the first Griffins goalie since Jimmy Howard to start both three games in three nights (April 3-5, 2009) and four games in five nights (April 11-15, 2007), while becoming the first rookie to ever accomplish the latter after starting in each game for Grand Rapids between Feb. 16-20.

“We need our goaltending to be exceptional,” explained Fraser. “We need someone who can manufacture points every night, and Jordan has been able to do that. Why we’ve run with him is because we need to climb back up in the standings, and the only way we’re going to do that is by gaining points.

“Jordan has delivered that, and he’ll continue playing while he’s finding a way to gain points with us.”

Neither Fraser nor Pearce himself have found his strong play of late particularly surprising.

“It’s been great that Jordan has earned this opportunity, he just wasn’t given it,” said Fraser. “He earned his spot. He’s taken it and now rolled with it, and he keeps producing points for us. Is it a surprise? No, it was expected of him – he’s a good young goaltender.”

“I just know that I have to approach every game, practice, and season the same, thinking about what I’m going to do to get better,” Pearce said. “The goal is to be up here playing now, but you always want to be your best and make it to the NHL. No matter where you are, it’s just a matter of going out there and working hard every day.”

Pearce did manage to get one day of NHL experience in, serving as the backup to Jimmy Howard for Detroit’s 4-1 loss against Chicago on Jan. 22. While the intention with that move was more salary cap related, the idea that he could have ended up in that game speaks to the confidence the organization has in him.

“He’s a smart kid, a good goaltender, and now he’s turned himself into a good prospect,” said Fraser. “Right now, he’s doing a very good job for us in net, so maybe the medical side of things can wait a bit longer.”