Who are these masked men?
John Blue almost doesn’t recognize the goaltender position these days.
The first – and thus far only – goalie from California to reach the NHL is amazed when he looks between the pipes.
“The way the game has evolved, size is necessary; 5-10 isn’t going to cut it anymore,” said Blue, who played 46 games for the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres during a 10-year pro career that spanned the late 1980s into the ’90s. “And now there’s so much information out there, most goalies are playing the percentages.
“When’s the last Dominik Hasek you’ve seen, that instinctive goalie? It’s a different game because the speed through the neutral zone is so fast.”
In hockey’s new world order, an interesting trend has developed in California: The state is becoming a goaltending factory.
According to California Rubber research, eight goalies with ties to California are playing NCAA Division I hockey this season. Eight more are playing in the Western Hockey League (WHL), United States Hockey League (USHL) and North American Hockey League (NAHL).
What’s more, since Blue was drafted in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft (197th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 10th round – which no longer exists), just one other California goalie (former San Diego Jr. Gull Brandon Crawford-West in 2001) was selected until 2013.
Yet in the past two NHL drafts, three goalies from California have been picked, including two in the second round.
The high-water mark came during this past June’s draft when former San Diego Jr. Gull Thatcher Demko was taken in the second round (36th overall) by the Vancouver Canucks. He was the first goalie picked in the draft and the highest ever from California to be selected.
That broke a year-old record held by former LA Select Eric Comrie, who was a second-round pick (59th overall) by Winnipeg in 2013. For good measure, the Philadelphia Flyers took a flyer on former California Heat netminder Merrick Madsen in the sixth round (162nd) in ’13.
Demko, who helped Boston College reach the Frozen Four as the youngest player in NCAA Division I hockey last season, is a leading contender to be Team USA’s goalie in next month’s World Junior Championships. There, he could square off against Comrie, who was born in Edmonton and is in the mix for a job with Team Canada.
What’s also telling about the three recent picks? None are small. Comrie stands 6-2, while Demko and Madsen are 6-4.
In the 52-year history of the draft, only seven California goalies have been picked. The first two were Jim Warden of Pasadena, who was selected in the fifth round (75th overall) in 1974 by the California Seals, and David McNab of San Diego in the ninth round (151st) by the St. Louis Blues the next year.
Both have made their marks in the game. Warden was Team USA’s goaltender in the 1976 Olympic Games, while McNab has worked in NHL front offices for 37 years, including all 22 of the Anaheim Ducks’ existence. He currently serves as the Ducks’ senior vice president of hockey operations.
There are many theories about why the masked men are springing up everywhere, and there’s no better place to start asking how this happened than many of the goalies themselves.
One theory is the influence of having three stable NHL teams in the state. And all three have boasted elite goaltenders with staying power at one point or another. The Ducks have had the steadiest succession of them, going from Guy Hebert to Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Hiller.
“We’ve always had great athletes in California, but they automatically played other sports,” said Blue, who was born in Orange County but grew up near San Jose before settling in Orange County again. “Then (Wayne) Gretzky came, rinks were built and the (San Jose) Sharks and Ducks came into being.”
Penn State senior P.J. Musico, from Anaheim, recalls being captivated watching a Mighty Ducks game at age 5. That led to him trying skating and playing in-house hockey and his interest grew from there.
“Guy Hebert was the first player I looked up to. He was the guy,” said the former Anaheim Jr. Duck, El Segundo Regent and Los Angeles Jr. King. “He was a huge part of me furthering my path. He played Division III hockey, and it’s crazy how he made it to the NHL. That motivated me.
“Any kind of adversity I faced, and I bounced around junior a lot, I’d always tell myself, ‘If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.’ ”
The NHL also influenced Comrie, but that was in larger part because his two older half brothers, Paul and Mike, played in the league. Eric faced NHL players at a young age.
“I first did it when I was 12,” he said. “My brother, Mike, always got me on the ice. That helped me adjust to their shooting skills, pick up all the little things they do.
“Because California is such a nice place to live, so many NHL guys like to come and train here – and they always need goalies.”
Bowling Green sophomore Tomas Sholl found himself in a similar position from time to time over the years because his father, Brad, is the general manager of El Segundo’s Toyota Sports Center, where the Kings practice and numerous NHL players skate leading up to training camp. He also had the advantage of being a third-generation goaltender.
This group of goalies in California didn’t have to face NHL competition to get better, however.
“California has produced a good amount of good players recently, like Beau Bennett (of the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Emerson Etem (of the Ducks),” Tomas Sholl said. “As the players got better, the goalies had to get better eventually.”
When a mass of those players are concentrated on one team, as they were with the LA Selects’ 95s, which Comrie backstopped to two USA Hockey national titles and came within overtime of a third, how can one not improve?
“I practiced against some of the best players in the country,” Comrie said. “Adam Erne was a second-round pick; Chase DeLeo was a fourth-round pick; Brian Williams is big goal-scorer in the WHL; Scotty Savage is at Boston College – the list goes on and on. It helps to face guys like that every day.”
Shane Madolora, an ’87 from Salinas, played Division I hockey at Rochester Institute of Technology, going to the Frozen Four, twice being selected Atlantic Hockey Association’s top goaltender and leading the nation in shutouts and save percentage as a junior. The current youth hockey landscape is far more competitive and conducive to moving on that what he experienced.
“For me to get looks for college and junior hockey teams, I had to get out of California,” said Madolora, who now plays professionally in France. “That’s just how it was when I was a teenager.
“There was only one legitimate AAA program in the Bay Area at the time, and it was still kind of starting up. I’d have to attribute the increased numbers of goalies and players coming out of California in the last few years to the great number of well-organized hockey programs that offer AAA and AA level hockey across the state.”
His journey took him from Dallas to Seattle to play Midget hockey, then from Fairbanks, Alaska to St. Louis in the NAHL and Omaha in the USHL. That’s five cities in five years but he landed at RIT.
How much more competition is there now?
“There were three Bantam AAA teams in California when I played,” Sholl said. “My younger brother plays now and there are 10.”
More players, better players, yes, but the real game-changer, according to Blue and several of the current goalies can be summarized in one word: coaching.
“There are some really legit coaches here now. Guys like (ex-NHLers) Jamie Storr in Los Angeles and Dwayne Roloson in Orange County – these are guys who really know the game,” Blue said. “I didn’t have a goalie coach until I went to the University of Minnesota.”
Reto Schurch is another prominent mentor in the Southern California goaltending circles.
Sholl, a ’94, didn’t have a goalie coach until he reached Bantam.
“Before, I got by on working hard,” he said. “Once I got to Bantam and Midget, I had to refine my game, tighten things up. It’s much more about your technique.
“As you get older, it gets faster. You need someone watching you. It helps calm you down, makes your motions more efficient. Every year it’s been that much more important.”
Comrie and Musico credited their goalie coach, James Jensen, for his help.
“He was this big, scary-looking guy who had played pro hockey,” Musico said. “He came to our practice when I was 10 or 11 and was willing to work with me. At the time he really wasn’t doing private instruction, he just wanted to help our coach.”
Madolora had a goalie coach as well, current Fresno Monsters consultant Jason Rivera, but what stands out to him now is the year-round commitment all players make to the game.
“To go along with the extra ice time, kids are spending more time in the gym building strength and doing off-ice workouts year round,” he said. “When I was a kid after hockey season was over, we’d do things away from hockey. Some would play football or baseball or learn how to play musical instruments. I’d usually spend the summers riding dirt bikes or skateboarding. Now (hockey) is a year-round thing.”
At the ripe old age of 24 and just 12 years removed from getting serious about his craft as a Pee Wee, Musico can’t help but wonder what if.
“Kids now have so many more tools than I had at that age,” he said. “They’re so technically sound, even Mites and Squirts. It’s unreal.
“I can only imagine what the number of (high-level) goalies is going to be in a couple years.”
– Chris Bayee