Setbacks, challenges create new opportunities for Halverson

Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Syracuse Crunch goaltender Brandon Halverson has stared down pressure – real pressure, the kind where you wonder whether anything is going to go right again.

You don’t know exactly where your career and your life is heading, but it certainly does not seem to be on an encouraging trajectory.

Halverson speaks quite openly about the multiple career setbacks that eventually had him working on a farm instead of tending net, doing so with one hand while recovering from wrist surgery.

So the pressure of hockey? Even playoff hockey? After everything that he has faced, Halverson has shown that he can manage stress.

“It means everything to me,” Halverson said of his opportunity with the Crunch. “It’s been a long, very hard, very difficult road.”

Go back a decade, and hockey was being good to Halverson. He was 18 when the New York Rangers made him a second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. By age 20, he had twice represented the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championship, winning a bronze medal in 2016.

He began his pro career in the ECHL, but got into 26 AHL games as a rookie with the Hartford Wolf Pack. By year two, he had made his NHL debut. Sure, it was a 12-minute relief appearance in a 6-3 loss at Ottawa, but it came in relief of future Hockey Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist. How many 21-year-olds – or anyone for that matter – can make that claim?

Halverson’s future looked bright. But slowly his path started veering away from those NHL hopes. He struggled to climb the depth chart in the Rangers organization. He spent 2019-20 with ECHL Norfolk. As his career detoured, Halverson acknowledges that he was “going through really hard mental battles within myself, and just the pressure and stress that I would put on myself to live up to that second-round pick [status] was really difficult.”

The 2020-21 campaign was chaotic across hockey, of course, and Halverson’s season was limited to four appearances in the ECHL with Wheeling.

The stress built and built.

“When things would go bad, they would really go bad in my brain,” Halverson said.

A high-ankle sprain ended his season in Wheeling. There was knee surgery. Wrist surgery, too.

In 2021-22, he didn’t play at all as he recovered. He took a job outside of hockey. He did what needed to be done.

“It [stinks],” Halverson said. “You go from playing hockey, and you’re stressed about things, and then you get in the real world. That’s some real stress. Playing a sport, it’s not that bad.”

Halverson found a job on a 100-acre farm doing manual labor, whatever needed to be done. His first time there, he still had a cast on and couldn’t use his left hand. That’s a problem when you’re trying to install 150-pound mats for the horse barn that you are building, or slicing through thick rubber with a razor knife. But he found a way. Slowly life started to change for Halverson. He started to draw more on his religious faith. He began to look at life differently, seeing those obstacles, however unpleasant they may be, as blessings.

“This [challenge] is another opportunity that I’m getting,” Halverson explained of that shift in mindset, “another challenge that God has given me to work through, and when I figure this out and am on the other side, I’m going to become a better man, a better goalie, a better person because of this. I started viewing life a lot differently, and that helped me quite a bit.

“It was weird. I had a breakthrough moment of being thankful for the life I have and how much worse it could be right now. That kind of changed the course for me for how I viewed things. Even when you’re going through the worst part of your life, it’s just not that bad. It could always be so much worse. I took that with me and kept grinding. I felt like my entire career I had just been kicked in the teeth time after time, scenario after scenario, and I just knew that something would happen and I would get rewarded in some sort of way. I had no quit, and I just kept pushing.”

For all of Halverson’s setbacks, he has had a good group around him. He had his father (“He’s the reason I’m here today and doing all these things and remaking a name for myself”) and his billet family as sounding boards. And coming from Traverse City, Mich., there’s a tight bond among players hailing from the area.

Former pro forward Kyle Jean, who played in Hartford before Halverson, provided someone willing to listen. Halverson’s old coach Jeremy Kaleniecki offered an ear when he had a few slumps this season, watching video and giving input. Orlando (ECHL) goaltending coach Nathan Craze helped Halverson to put his game back together. Jon Elkin, now the director of goaltending for the Pittsburgh Penguins, was Halverson’s goaltending coach with Sault Ste. Marie for a season and the relationship continued with them doing offseason work together.

“I truly wouldn’t be where I am at without these guys,” Halverson said. “Really grateful and thankful for everyone to get to this point.”

Before the 2022-23 season, an opportunity with Orlando – Tampa Bay’s ECHL affiliate – fizzled. Halverson managed to land a contract with Bayreuth, a team in Germany’s second division. It was the only offer that had come his way, so he took it. Still, he only played 17 games, hardly enough to make getting another deal somewhere else for this season a sure bet.

But something eventually did come through. Orlando gave him a shot this time. It was a job, but it also brought him into the Lightning organization at a time when Andrei Vasilevskiy was expected to miss the beginning of the season, creating a ripple effect down the organization’s depth chart.

“I knew I had the tools,” Halverson said. “I knew I had the capabilities. I just needed someone to believe in me and to help me out and work with me.”

Working with Craze, there was plenty of video, plenty of goalie drills. Halverson was summoned to Syracuse on Nov. 7, and three days later played his first AHL game in nearly four years. A night later came a start at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and he provided 26 saves in a 6-3 win. His first AHL shutout, another 26-save effort, came Nov. 24 against Utica – the same night that Vasilevskiy returned to action with Tampa Bay.

But Halverson had made an impression, enough to earn a two-year AHL contract with the Crunch. Still, with Vasilevskiy again healthy, Matt Tomkins headed down to Syracuse and Halverson returned to Orlando. He made a couple of trips back to Syracuse, but when Tomkins was recalled again by Tampa Bay in early April, Halverson found himself being turned to more and more by Crunch head coach Joel Bouchard as Syracuse battled for a North Division title down the stretch.

There was a 3-1 win at Laval on April 5. He earned the Crunch a point with 28 stops at home against Toronto on April 12. A scoreless relief appearance the following night, grabbing another point for the Crunch in a shootout loss to the Marlies. On April 19 at Utica, his work in relief (19 saves) helped the Crunch rally for a 4-3 win.

In all, Halverson ended up finishing 7-3-3 with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in his 14 games with the Crunch. And when it was time for the Crunch to start their postseason against Rochester, Bouchard went with Halverson. Through seven playoff games, he has a 2.19 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.

For as much self-belief as Halverson has, he has also earned that faith from his teammates.

“He’s always working,” Crunch forward Cole Koepke said. “He’s watching his video from the games. He’s got recordings in practice he’s watching. He’s just always wanting to get better. He’s always wanting to stay out on the ice and take extra shots.”

Whatever happens next, Halverson will keep pushing. He always has. He still has NHL hopes.

If he returns to the NHL someday, he wants to earn his first start.

“I always knew,” Halverson said, “and the only thing that kept me going was just the dream and knowing that something was going to break through. I’m going to get rewarded in some sort of way. I just have to keep working hard, and that’s just been my mindset this entire time.

“When there’s no light, you’ve just got to make your own.”