Winning seems to follow Tokarski

by Lindsay Kramer ||

In the midst of a Norfolk Admirals dressing room that has the demographics of a daycare center, rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski blends right in.

The 20-year-old is just another young face comfortable speaking up when there’s a point to be made, but who also feels just as comfortable letting others have the floor.

"He’s got a real good demeanor. He’s cool as a cat," said Admirals coach Darren Rumble. "If we had a bunch of 30-year-olds it may be more of an adjustment. He doesn’t carry himself as a rookie."

Tokarski doesn’t have the typical resume of one, either, which is where the distinguishing characteristics start to come in. Boiled down, Tokarski joins the Admirals as a winner with few matches among his peers.

Or, as Rumble notes when asked about Tokarski’s gravitas: "It doesn’t hurt that the guys know he’s won pretty much everywhere he’s been."

Let’s see, which gold medal should Tokarski shine first? The one he won with Team Canada at the 2009 World Juniors? How about the one draped around his neck after Spokane took the 2008 Memorial Cup? If he really wanted to reminisce, he could blow the dust off the bauble earned by leading the Prince Albert Mintos to the Canadian Midget National Championship in 2006.

It really doesn’t matter. Tokarski, a 2008 fifth-round pick by Tampa Bay, and Norfolk are a perfect match. The Admirals have missed the Calder Cup playoffs each of the last two seasons. His predominant view of life comes from atop a medal stand.

Unbeatable object, meet reclamation project.

"I don’t know if you can explain it. It’s just something that happens," Tokarski said of the winning habit. "Every time playoffs come around your game steps up. You want to be the difference-maker. I want to be that guy."

There are many advantages to growing up in a place like Tokarski’s hometown of Watson, Sask. (population: 719). Take all the open space and safe roads, for starters. They give Tokarski plenty of room to test out the muscle cars that have become a second passion for him.

Tokarski wasn’t trying to be showy, it’s just that he and his dad used to love picking up the odd Duster, Charger or Road Runner and fixing them into working condition. He said his favorite was a 1973 Duster.

"When I was looking at cars, at 15, 16, I really liked them," he said. "It stuck with me."

Cars gave way to hockey, which is where Tokarski’s career blossomed from another hometown perk. When you play youth hockey in a small town, you get to try out all the different positions. Tokarski was the same in that regard, yet a little different.

He recalls when it was his turn to play forward, he kept sliding back into his own end.

"I was a pretty decent forward," he said, "but I always seemed to be the guy staying back, blocking shots, protecting the defensive zone. I seemed to be extra cautious. It was fun. Back then, shots didn’t hurt. There wasn’t much worry."

From those low-key roots, a big-time goalie was born. It almost seemed predetermined — his father, two of his uncles, a cousin and a grandfather were netminders at various levels.

None, however, could match Dustin, who became one of the most accomplished netminders in recent WHL history. Last season he broke his own franchise records with a 1.97 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and seven shutouts for the Chiefs. He also paced the WHL in GAA, save percentage and shootout save percentage (.860) while tying for first in shutouts and ranking fifth in wins.

At 5-foot-11, he doesn’t always look textbook pretty in getting it done. But his body and pads are where hard shots seemingly go to die.

"He’s a blocker. He’s good at finding ways to let the puck hit him," Rumble said.

"My game is simple," Tokarski said. "I don’t have to make those crazy saves because I’m always in position. I’m not the biggest guy in the world. Being on angle or having the right depth in the net can make all the difference."

Tokarski has his moments of concern, just like everyone else who sweats out pressure situations. It’s just that he’s not keen on letting anyone in on that secret.

"You get nervous before (games), but you say to yourself, there are no excuses now," he said. "When you get in the game, you focus on you, the sheet of ice, the players. It’s all focus, but at the same time you are doing what you love. That’s what sport is. You want to improve. And you want to help your team win. I’m a big-game player."

Rumble noted that the self-assuredness of players like Tokarski feeds upon itself, thereby creating a continual cycle of success.

"Obviously, he’s confident," Rumble said. "When you are good, you need to know that. Sometimes players who are inconsistent lose their confidence quickly."

Tokarski is tackling a completely different kind of beast now, one that will test that feel-good mentality over the grind of an 80-game schedule, and, if Norfolk finds some Cinderella slippers, maybe into the playoffs.

While that would be a lofty end-game aspiration for the Admirals, it also would mark where the fun really starts in the hungry eyes of Tokarski.

"It’s pretty overwhelming to be on three championship teams. I want to keep doing that," he said. "I’d like to help out the team. I’d love to be the guy who starts playing a lot. It’s just a process right now."