During his long tenure as president of the Bruins, Harry Sinden often said that the only people who understand goaltenders are other goaltenders.
Never was that more true than last Saturday night at TD Garden. UMass-Lowell freshman Connor Hellebuyck, 19, was playing in the most important game of his life.
There were fewer than three minutes to go, and the River Hawks were clinging to a 1-0 lead over Boston University in the Hockey East championship game. The desperate Terriers were throwing everything they had in an effort to tie the contest.
The River Hawks went to the bench during a TV timeout, and Hellebuyck made a beeline to confer with the person to whom he could most relate: fellow netminder Doug Carr. After that, Hellebuyck staved off a furious flurry, which included an extra BU attacker, and UMass-Lowell won its first Hockey East crown.
Carr, a junior, recalled, “Our conversation was along the lines of, ‘We’ve been there before, we’ve been in one-goal games before, and we’ve had success in almost all of them, and this one is not much different. It’s a one-goal game, so lock it down and go have some fun because we’ve had success before and we’re going to have it again.’
“I think that helps calm him down. You talk about playing your best game at the right time — BU gave us all we could handle and, obviously, we did the same. That’s what you expect out of a Hockey East championship.’’
Hellebuyck’s numbers certainly speak for themselves. Going into Friday night’s Northeast Regional semifinal against Wisconsin in Manchester, N.H., he has a .949 save percentage, tops in the nation, and a 1.39 goals-against average, second in the country.
But his journey began about 18 months ago, some 2,100 miles away in Odessa, Texas.
The Odessa Jackalopes, who had moved from Minnesota as the Owatonna Express, lost a host of players who elected not to make the move to the new franchise in the North American Hockey League. That opened up jobs, and Hellebuyck was invited to tryout camp.
There were no guarantees, but Jackalopes director of scouting Craig Sarner, a former Bruin (seven games in 1974-75), saw something special in Hellebuyck when the goalie was playing at Walled Lake Northern High School in his native Commerce, Mich.
Sarner, who scouts for Odessa as well as Sioux Falls in the USHL, said there were no jobs available in Sioux Falls, but with the major changes taking place with the move to Odessa, it seemed a natural place.
Sarner told the coaches in advance that Hellebuyck was going to be their No. 1 goalie.
After the first day, they agreed with him.
“They had maybe 12 or 13 players potentially coming back, but only about six reported because they didn’t want to move down to Texas, so we had to scrape,’’ said Sarner. “It was really brand new. We had to go out to get as many people as we could to fill the roster. He kept us in all the games until we were able to make some trades and get some people in.’’
‘You can’t outwork him’
Sarner said they didn’t bother to select him in the NAHL draft because he was flying so far under the radar.
“Prior to the draft, I called Bucky and said we weren’t going to draft him, but told him he would be the No. 1 goalie if he did what was expected,’’ said Sarner. “He ended up coming to camp and just took off from there.
“He came in and won Rookie of the Year and [Co-] Goaltender of the Year. By mid-February, every pro team had been down to Odessa to watch him.’’
Winnipeg wound up taking him in the fifth round (No. 130 overall) in last summer’s NHL draft.
Anyone you talk to about Hellebuyck says the same thing: He is as hard a worker as you’ll ever see.
“He has a fantastic work ethic and he just competes and competes,’’ said Sarner. “And he has the passion. It’s nice to see a kid like that come out of nowhere and realize a dream and virtually lift a program on his shoulders.”
At 6 feet 4 inches and 200 pounds, Hellebuyck impressed Sarner with how well he filled up the net.
“I’m not a goaltending guru by any stretch of the imagination,’’ said Sarner. “But it’s just the way he competed, and he was prepared for every shot and he squared up for every shot and he was ready for the rebound.
“This kid, you can’t outwork him. He’s just a class act. He’s incredibly focused and he can maintain that focus throughout the game.’’
At Odessa, Hellebuyck finished with a record of 26-21-5, a .930 save percentage, and a 2.49 GAA, but those numbers don’t reflect the yeoman duty he was called on to do.
“He pretty much lifted our team in Odessa into the playoffs,’’ said Sarner. “He probably saw 40 to 45 shots a night because this was an expansion team and he kept them in every game.
“Goalies love to get a rhythm, and he got a rhythm and then some. It’s just gratifying because he’s a hell of a kid.’’
Odessa coach Paul Gillis, who played 11 seasons in the NHL, said Hellebuyck is not only talented, he’s a workhorse.
“I tried to give him days off last year and I’d be at the rink and he’d show up,’’ said Gillis. “I’d say, ‘I don’t want you here.’ But he can handle it. He’s a big, strong kid, and he was so strong, he had to play every night. We thought he was a special player and a special goaltender last year and what he is doing this year does not surprise me in the least. We’re all proud of him.’’
A chance in Lowell
Sarner knew UMass-Lowell goaltender coach Cam Ellsworth when Ellsworth was an assistant coach at Sioux City, and he was convinced Hellebuyck would be a good fit with the River Hawks.
“I talked to Cam and I said, ‘You’ve got to come down and see this kid,’ ” said Sarner. “Cam was convinced pretty quickly.
“Cam said, ‘He probably won’t play much the first year, but that’s all right.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, I think he’s mature enough to accept it.’ But obviously, when he got the chance, he ran with it.’’
In addition to all the Lowell fans, Hellebuyck has a loyal following in Texas rooting for him Friday.
Sarner said Hellebuyck will always be a difference-maker because that’s how he is wired.
“That’s all his doing, that’s his internal machinery and his desire,’’ said Sarner. “We just put him on a stage where he could show it.’’
Despite losing the No. 1 job to Hellebuyck, Carr said there is nothing but support and friendship between the two.
“It was a transformation process,’’ said Carr. “I think there was a lot of hard work on his part that started to pay off.
“From the beginning, we’ve had a good relationship. When I played the first half of the year or whatever it was, we would always talk about different goals and how to do things better, just little tips with each other.
“Now that he’s been playing down the end-of-the-season stretch and the playoffs, nothing has really changed with us. Even though the roles have flip-flopped from the first half, our relationship really hasn’t changed. It’s something special, obviously.
“I’m just happy to see him have success because he has worked really hard this year. He’s been great to work alongside.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at email@example.com.