Jeremy Swayman’s hometown of Anchorage is some 4,500 miles from Boston, and overall, the Alaskan pipeline of hockey talent has yielded a mere trickle of players to the NHL over the league’s century-plus history.
But it appears now, with the start of the 2021-22 NHL season approaching, the Bruins may have tapped into a Seward-certified gusher with Swayman, their 22-year-old wunderkind stopper who is as comfortable fishing for loose pucks around his crease as he is for salmon back home in the Kenai River.
Confident, cool, and absent any overt cockiness, the ever-smiling “Sway” most likely will be coach Bruce Cassidy’s pick to start in net for the Oct. 16 season opener vs. Dallas. Despite having but 19 pro games to his name, nearly half of those in the AHL, he convincingly outperformed Linus Ullmark, the club’s pricey UFA hire over the summer, in each of their three preseason appearances.
Swayman, selected No. 111 in the 2017 draft — the 12th goaltender chosen that year — could be the top goalie the Bruins have drafted the last 30-plus years, dating back to Bill Ranford in 1985. He is also positioned to become perhaps the best Alaskan-trained tender to make it to the NHL, a title held by Eagle River’s Ty Conklin, who played at the University of New Hampshire.
There are loads of good prospects back in his home state, figures an Alaska-proud Swayman, though many don’t get a shot at the big time due to its distance from the hockey mainstream, paucity of elite hockey programs, and sometimes spotty scouting.
For some, the odds are too daunting, overwhelming. For others, like Swayman, the challenge simply frames the fight.
“There is always a hunger, sort of a chip in the shoulder, to get to the NHL because you’re from Alaska,” said Swayman, who began his goalie journey as an infant, cradled in his dad’s arms in Row 1 behind the net of every University of Alaska Anchorage home game. “We want to make it because it is harder for us.”
For the most part, other than a near-seismic interruption in his career path as recently as six years ago, Swayman has been on a straight and deliberate route to success, part of which included his three standout seasons (2017-20) at the University of Maine.
He first put on goalie pads as a 5-year-old mite, immediately fell in love with the position, and a year later was working out with the big boys, some in their mid-teens, when his dad signed him up for a week-long goalie camp in Anchorage tutored by Steve McKichan, who later served two years as the Maple Leafs goalie coach.
“Most of the kids were 15 or 16, and Jeremy was just this baby,” recalled his dad, Ken Swayman, a podiatrist who grew up an avid Rangers fan in Brooklyn, then moved to Alaska after completing his medical degree because of his love of the outdoors.
“I got ahold of [McKichan], and he asked a bunch of questions, and finally he said OK. He only insisted that I be there the whole time, because Jeremy was so young, he wanted me there if he bottomed out or freaked out. So, yeah, ‘100 percent,’ I said. I was going to be there even if he didn’t ask.”
The pint-sized goalie with apple-red cheeks turned out to be the hit of the camp. He, too, was in it 100 percent. McKichan, blown away by the tyke’s eagerness and competitiveness, sometimes featured him in drills, the bigger kids (which is to say everyone) standing around and attentively watching.
“He was like a little Yoda,” recalled McKichan, reached the other day as he drove to one of his camps outside Kingston, Ontario, more than 16 years after meeting Swayman. “When you’re such a little kid, it can be nerve-racking to be around bigger kids, bigger shooters. But he wasn’t afraid. He had zero fear. The courage factor in that kid was unbelievable.”
McKichan has held camps now for 30 years, attended by as many as 1,800 kids a year. Only a handful have come through, he said, like Swayman, who separated himself then not by talent but by attitude.
“He wasn’t a bag of hammers,” said McKichan, once Andrew Raycroft’s goalie coach with the Leafs. “Don’t get me wrong, he was good, but maybe just middle of the bell curve for talent. The difference … and I’ve only seen it a few times … was his intrinsic, burning, pathological passion for it. Work ethic, character, attitude — that’s what stood him apart.”
All in all, an exceptional week, said Swayman’s dad, who figured things were trending right when, prior to practice one day, his 6-year-old turned to him in the dressing room and said, “Dad, you can leave now.”
“He’s around the guys, ninth, 10th, and 11th graders,’ ” recalled the senior Swayman, “and all of a sudden they’re his buddies … he wants to talk to his buddies. It was great!”
A decade later, in the summer of 2015, father and son were on a plane home from Minnesota, a devastated Jeremy fighting back tears, his career somewhere between a crossroads and a dead end.
A tryout camp with the Kenai River Brown Bears, a tier 2 junior team not far from Anchorage, turned out all wrong. Essentially guaranteed he would play his 2015-16 season with Kenai, he was told by then-coach Geoff Beauparlant that it would be best if he came aboard the roster the following year.
Swayman was 16, facing a key development year, and Beauparlant wanted to go with a pair of older goalies. All that after Kenai had tendered Swayman, securing his rights ahead of the league’s draft.
“So Kenai’s out and I had nowhere to go, there wasn’t another team in Alaska,” recalled Swayman, who played the previous season with South Anchorage High. “It was one of those moments that my dad and I had to talk about, ‘Hey, is this game going to be a future for you, or are we going to have to come to reality?’ ”
Luckily, a number of other Alaska kids, some of them family friends, found their way in previous years to a junior team, the Pikes Peak Miners, in Colorado Springs. Within hours of the Brown Bears cutting Swayman, recalled Miners coach Greg Vanover, his phone “just blew up” with texts from some of those kids, insisting that he add Swayman to the roster.
“OK, great, but I just committed to my two goalies,” Vanover recalls telling one of the players, Jake Ewbank. “And Jake’s like, ‘Uh, no coach, you are going to want this goalie … you have to have this goalie.’ ”
A number of phone calls later, with other players and both Ken and Jeremy Swayman, Vanover found himself committing to his new goalie in a span of roughly 24 hours. His other two tenders were 20. Swayman was 16. He would make it fit somehow, with Swayman No. 3 in a backup role.
“I will win games for you,” an earnest Swayman promised the coach.
“And the thing is, I believed him,” recalled Vanover. “Kids say that, sure, but I believed him. But I also told him, ‘Look, I believe you, I trust you, but if there is a single day that you are not the hardest working kid here, I’m sending you home.’ All he said was, ‘Done deal.’ And that was it … never let me down, and pretty much played every game for us.”
Swayman won the full time job in the first month with the Miners. Meanwhile, back in Soldotna, Alaska, the Brown Bears would win just four of their 60 games for the season.
“They asked me to come in at Christmas,” recalled Swayman, a trace of the Kenai sting still evident, “but I respectfully declined.”
The year in Colorado Springs was Swayman’s springboard to the USHL Sioux Falls, and ultimately to UMaine, arriving at both places as the goalie slotted to play the backup role. But in both cases, just like the Miners, he quickly filched the No. 1 job.
Scott Owens, his coach at Sioux Falls, knew about Swayman from Vanover, a longtime pal from Owens’s days as bench boss at Colorado College. Just as he had with Vanover, the now 17-year-old Swayman told Owens he would come there and win.
“Yes, I remember that distinctly,” said Owens, these days a senior advisor with USHL Des Moines. “I believed him, too. He has this confidence about him, but balanced, in no way offensive.”
Swayman’s raison d’etre to play in the USHL was to secure a route to Division 1 NCAA hockey. Prior to getting to Sioux Falls, college teams had not shown interest. That ended quickly.
“We were at the league’s preseason showcase in Omaha,” recalled Owens. “At least five college teams were there that night, and they all wanted to talk to him when it wrapped up. Maine was first to reach out. I think that carried weight.”
By Swayman’s count, there were 12 Division 1 teams lined up outside the dressing room to talk to him upon the showcase’s conclusion. It was just slightly more than a year after Kenai didn’t have room for him. Thrilled, he called home to Anchorage to tell his dad.
“Like a scene from a movie,” recalled Jeremy, beaming over the memory. “I was like, ‘Dad, you can’t believe this right now!’ That was a special phone call.”
All along, Ken Swayman tempered expectations. He had watched a lot of college hockey, for years attending every Alaska Anchorage home game as a team doctor. He felt Jeremy could land a college spot, maybe with Anchorage or Fairbanks. But now a dozen teams were after him, including the Black Bears.
“The whole thing was insane,” the proud dad recalled when getting the phone call from Jeremy. “And I’m like, ‘Are you telling me Maine’s talking to you?!’ I only knew that Maine was a goalie hotbed … Jimmy Howard … Ben Bishop. I mean, c’mon. Here I was, thinking Anchorage or Fairbanks. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Weeks later, then-Maine coach Red Gendron, urged by assistant coaches, flew out between Black Bear games to sit down with Jeremy and his dad at a Sioux Falls diner. They talked about a lot of things, little of it remotely related to hockey.
“That was Red,” noted Maine goalie coach Alfie Michaud, who is still on the job in Orono. “He had a great understanding of how to connect with kids. That was Red’s gift, right?”
After a couple of hours of conversation about Alaska, Maine, and everything in between, Gendron — who died this past spring — turned to Swayman and said, “Well, son, what do you think?”
“Coach, I just want to be your goalie,” he said.
All parties shook hands, Gendron was on the next flight out of Sioux Falls, and only months later the 18-year-old Swayman was in Orono to start his freshman year.
The next three seasons, Swayman appeared in 100 games and fronted the Black Bear net for all but 632 minutes (divvied among three other tenders). He signed with the Bruins after his junior year, when he won the Mike Richter Award given to the top Division 1 goalie.
“Only one guy plays,” said Swayman, sizing up his chances as the new season approached. “Obviously, I want to do whatever I can to win that net, because I want to give the team the best chance to win — but at the same time, what’s best for the team, I’m going to be the best teammate and best goalie I can be.”
The little kid, now about 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, is here, maybe as Ullmark’s understudy, but who’s to say? By the looks of things, Swayman right now has the better feel for the net.
He has a history of not letting go.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.