As the Thunderbirds prepared for the current campaign it was generally believed that there was one position that was set in stone.
After backstopping the team to its first WHL Championship, Carl Stankowski was going to take over the Seattle crease on a full time basis. Matt Berlin was going to be his back up and the club would build from there on out. Fast forward to the end of January and Liam Hughes is the club’s number one goalie and Dorrin Luding is the back up — two guys who were not on the team’s radar in June.
An injury to Stankowski has kept him off the ice all year and Berlin, who dealt with a couple of injuries himself, was traded to Kootenay at the trade deadline. Seattle acquired Hughes just before the season started and after he got hurt in November the team had to go out and get Luding from the Everett Silvertips.
It’s been quite the carousel and presented a challenge to Seattle’s goalie coach, Ian Gordon.
“You have to be prepared for injuries and be prepared if things don’t go exactly as you planned,” Gordon says. “You deal with it as you can. We made some moves and we’re pretty happy with what we have.”
Gordon didn’t get to work with Hughes or Luding in training camp and has had to teach his two new pupils on the fly.
In his fifth season with the Thunderbirds, and a wealth of goaltending experience as a player, Gordon says it’s all about getting to know the guys and building a connection.
“You have to find that relationship that works between you,” he says. “Because not everybody is going to do things exactly the same. You have to put them in a position that you think they’ll have success. You have to give them that feeling where there is some trust between us.”
Seattle grabbed Hughes in a trade with the Edmonton Oil Kings near the end of the preseason. While not much was known about him, Gordon had seen him play. The goalie coach is based in Edmonton and had a chance to see Hughes play a little with the Oil Kings last year before he was sidelined with an injury. Gordon felt that he was a guy who had some skill.
Hughes alternated with Berlin at the beginning of the season but started to perhaps inch ahead in play. Then the injury happened in November. For the second straight year, Hughes went down. He was originally supposed to be out eight weeks but came back in just three and has been playing his best hockey since.
In the nine games since he returned to the lineup, he’s posted a .919 save-percentage and a 2.98 goals-against average. He’s also 3-1 in shootouts with Seattle, despite not having participated in one before this season.
“I think Liam has been continually getting better throughout the year,” Gordon says of Hughes. “He’s a very skilled goalie. I think as a guy he was so dialed in on the games (at the start of the year). It was unfortunate, the timing of that injury. But he’s come back and has been real strong. I’m glad that we have him back in there.”
Luding has also been a key pick up for the team. When Hughes had to miss a week due to an upper body injury recently, Luding stepped in and won five straight games. The carousel kept revolving.
Hughes returned this past weekend with two strong games and it appears that he will be the number one goalie for the time being.
According to Seattle general manager Russ Farwell, Stankowski has been working to get back but has had some complications in his recovery and the club is still in a wait-and-see phase. That means Gordon will continue to work with Hughes and Luding.
Gordon, like most WHL goalie coaches, is not with the team full time. He will travel to Seattle several times throughout the year to get some work in with his goalies, as he was this week. That doesn’t mean that he’s checked out when not in town however.
“There’s a lot that has to be done,” he says. “You still watch every game so I still sit and watch every video. I see everything they do and I’m communicating with them all the time, whether it’s through messaging, or on the phone…Even if it’s an NHL goalie that’s doing something really well, or really wrong, I send it out to our group and say ‘see this situation?’ Let’s talk about it, what did he do wrong here? As a goalie, what would we do here?”
There’s a great deal of pressure in playing goalie.
It’s the last line of defense and when a goal is scored it’s very easy for everyone in the building to look at the goalie. More times than not it wasn’t the goalie’s fault the goal was scored, but that pressure is there and mental strength is vital.
“I think it’s the biggest part of being a good goalie,” Gordon says. “One, you have to believe you can do it. The other thing is, you have to be able to have some really good thought-stopping skills. Not just puck-stopping skills. You have to be able to stay in the moment and just do your job.”
That job is going to belong to Hughes and Luding for now and they have a coach in Gordon who’s been there before.
He played in the WHL from 1992 through 1995, mostly with the Swift Current Broncos, before spending 18 years in professional hockey in North America and in Europe. He’s seen it all and that experience can be leaned on in helping Seattle’s netminders.
“Part of it is to just ease anxiety,” Gordon says of his role. “I can share a story or if they gave up a goal that they didn’t like, you see that they’re feeling really bad. You can tell them ‘you’re going to get scored on 100 different ways’. I’ll say ‘hey, I got scored on from center ice in a tie game with two seconds left in a sold out rink and I never felt so small in my life’. But you know what, I got a chance to play two days later and we won and it all went away.”
Seattle has survived its rotation in net so far and may have found a couple of gems moving forward. As the season progresses, the games will get bigger and the pressure will mount.
Gordon has felt that pressure and will be there to ease Hughes and Luding through the months ahead.