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Photo: Iowa Wild

Hammond’s experience paying dividends in Iowa

by Tom Witosky | AHL On The Beat

Iowa Wild goalie Andrew Hammond’s work on a drill one practice early this season spoke volumes about the AHL team’s new starting goalie.

Hammond, skating backward from in front of the net to behind the goal, took control of each puck shot his way, always looking forward.

Just like that drill, the 30-year-old Surrey, B.C., native has a philosophy that has served him well during a topsy-turvy career that likely would break the resolve of many goalies. Put simply, he never looks back.

“Sure, I can look at how I’ve been thrown into certain situations in my career and some people might look at it as a no-win,” the red-bearded Hammond said quietly. “I chose to look at it as another opportunity. I really believe the tougher the situation, it becomes more fun. It also gives you the opportunity to create a special memory should you succeed.”

Hammond only recently assumed the top goalie spot on the Iowa Wild roster after competing against Iowa alum Alex Stalock for the backup position to Minnesota starting goalie Devan Dubnyk. Minnesota signed Hammond to a one-year contract when he became a free agent after spending time in the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche organizations last season.

The veteran goalie has turned in three masterful performances as the Wild have started the season 3-0-0-0 for the first time in team history. In all three games, Hammond, who compiled a .939 save percentage and 1.62 goals-against average, provided a level of confidence and calm coaches and players found assuring and inspiring.

“It’s like having a good pitcher in baseball,” Wild head coach Tim Army said. “He has a real calm demeanor about him. It is great for your team when you see a goalie calm like that.”

Louie Belpedio, one of the Wild’s top rookie defensemen, picked up two assists during opening and described Hammond as something akin to a security blanket.

“It’s nice because you know he is there to back you up,” Belpedio said. “He definitely takes the pressure off a defenseman like me. It is a big confidence booster for us.”

How and why Hammond wound up in a Wild uniform could become a chapter in one of those storybook tales about an athlete confronting then overcoming adversity at a time when he was getting close to establishing himself as a top NHL goalie.

In 2015, Hammond – then with the AHL’s Binghamton Senators – captured the NHL’s attention when he carried the Ottawa Senators from the NHL’s basement into the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 20-1-2 record. Nicknamed “the Hamburglar” from his college days at Bowling Green State University, Hammond hadn’t been drafted and was largely ignored by NHL teams.

After being eliminated from the playoffs by Montreal that season, Hammond re-signed with Ottawa but then spent the next three seasons dealing with a series of setbacks, including groin strains and ankle sprains, as well as less than spectacular goaltending. As the injuries sidelined him and the Senators looked elsewhere for goalies, the Hamburglar gloss faded quickly.

Last season, Hammond moved west as part of a three-way deal between the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and Ottawa. That deal initially kept Hammond in the AHL – first staying in Belleville, then going to San Antonio, where he played just one game while trekking back and forth from Texas to Colorado as a backup. During that period, Hammond played just one game for San Antonio and one regular-season contest for the Avalanche, losing to Philadelphia 2-1, but stopping 31 of 33 shots.

However, in Game 4 of the Avalanche’s playoff series against top-seeded Nashville, Hammond found himself in net for the third period following an injury to starter Jonathan Bernier. He shut out the Predators in that period.

In Game 5, Hammond showed renewed signs of the Hamburglar’s ability to steal a game by stopping 44 of 45 Predator shots and forcing a Game 6 by helping his team post a 3-1 win.

Ironically, Hammond, who would become a free agent at the end of the season, had an interested audience watching his playoff performance. Paul Fenton, who would become Minnesota’s general manager weeks after the Avs-Predators series, was the Predators assistant general manager at the time.

Tom Kurvers, Iowa’s general manager, said he and Fenton were aware of Hammond’s record of success in Ottawa and knew he was looking for an opportunity to play.

“He certainly didn’t damage his chances,” Kurvers said of Hammond’s two playoff games against Nashville.

Kurvers also said Hammond’s experience was an essential factor in signing him.

“When we brought Andrew in to compete for a spot, we didn’t think the end result would be a winner and a loser,” Kurvers said. “We looked at it as opportunity and depth no matter who went to Iowa.”

Hammond agreed, adding his wife, Marlee, and young son, Cal, already have arrived in Des Moines for the season.

“I’ve already enjoyed it and am feeling at home with a great group of guys,” he said. “It is not necessarily the place I want to be, but it can definitely help me get to where I want to be.”

Frederic Chabot, Iowa’s goalie coach, said Hammond’s experience and leadership skills already are paying dividends.

“He has good skills and at the age of 30, he certainly can be a good leader in this room,” Chabot said. “He is going to help us win games.”

Chabot said Hammond’s major assets are good hands and the experience to know how to be in the right place at the right time.

“When a goalie gets to this point and age, it becomes a lot more of a simple game,” Chabot said. “He will let the puck come to him and make sure he is in a good position. The game is less erratic, less jumpy. He looks very calm and collected and that’s important for us.”

Hammond said he has always been calm, even to the point that his wife wonders if he is too calm sometimes.

“My wife says she’s never sure I am fired up about something because I never show it,” he said with a smile.

But he added that he has spent sleepless nights after losses.

“You learn over the years that having a calm demeanor can help the team,” he said. “When things go sideways you can be a leader by showing everyone that we don’t need to go sideways. You need to be a guy who gets things headed back in the right direction.”

Things didn’t go sideways with Manitoba during opening weekend, but Army said at one point versus the Moose on Oct. 7, Hammond talked quickly with the team during a media timeout late in the second period.

“Five more minutes,” Hammond said simply. “See it through.”

Army said that’s what good goalies do.

“We had a great period but he still came to the bench to remind them they had more work to do,” Army said. “That goes a long way when your goalie with that kind of experience.”

For Hammond, that kind of experience comes from knowing the ups and downs of professional hockey. It also makes him content to be playing in Iowa for now.

“I’ve had the highest of highs and over the last couple of years, the lowest of lows,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t change who you are or how you approach the game.

“I try to enjoy every moment of this,” Hammond added. “For a while, I haven’t been able to play regularly, so just being able to play is great.”