Many say that being a goaltender in the game of hockey is the most demanding vocation in all of sports. If such is the case, being the person designated to spell that position, sometimes at a moment’s notice, lends an entirely different element of unpredictability to the position.
Much like the pinch hitter in baseball or the seventh man in basketball, the ability of a backup to come off the bench and perform one of the most singularly challenging duties in sport takes a special level of psyche and preparation.
Fortunately for the two QMJHL representatives at the 2019 Memorial Cup presented by Kia, the President Cup Champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and the host Halifax Mooseheads, their rosters possess two of the best at this specific position.
Huskies backup Zachary Emond is a rarity among his peers. A veteran backup whose long period of learning the game at this level has rewarded him with not only with a league title, but some of the best statistics in the QMJHL this year.
It’s what those numbers mean to the success of the team however, that he takes the most pride in.
“The priority for me is team success and winning games,” the 18-year old from St-Cyprien, Quebec proclaimed. “My role is to be positive all the time and be ready when it’s my turn to play. When the team needs me, I’m always there.”
To say Emond has been ready to play the lead role this year would be a gross understatement.
In 27 appearances during the regular season, he sported a record of 24-0-1 to go with a 1.73 GAA and .932% save percentage. He also sported a league-best seven shutouts. All this on the heels of being selected by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
Emond accepts the gravity of his and his team’s situation with the same measured approach most exceptional young athletes do.
“It was an important season,” the second-year Huskies puckstopper says. “I was taking it one game at a time and controlling what I could control. I just want to make sure I’m 100% in the game when I get my chance.”
One of the keys to success exists in the very crease he’s protected for one-third of the Huskies historically successful season. His relationship with number one netminder Samuel Harvey is one that is not only healthy, but vital to the success of the collective group from the Abitibi region.
“Sammy’s one of my best friends so that helps a lot,” Emond remarks. “It’s a very positive relationship. There’s competition, but it’s positive. We’re pushing each other in practices but we’re also proud of each other. That’s the most important thing.”
Look at Emond’s numbers and talk to him for even a brief moment and it becomes obvious; he knows exactly what’s important to both himself and his teammates.
For Cole McLaren, his debut as the backup netminder for the Halifax Mooseheads was an event three years in the making. That timeline lent to a large degree of preparation. However, that’s not to discount the labour the player himself put in as his full-time debut with the Moose approached.
“Coming into this year, I new (Gravel) was going to be the number one. And as we all saw in the playoffs, he’s been an absolute stud,” McLaren explained. “For me (entering this season), it was just playing the games that I get and being ready when the coach needs me.”
And play he has. McLaren finished the 2018-19 campaign with a 16-2-1 record in 21 games to go with a 1.81 GAA, a .930% save percentage and four shutouts.
There once was a time where the position of backup goaltender was something of an afterthought at all levels of the game. We live in an era just 23 years removed from Grant Fuhr suiting up for 79 regular season games for the NHL St. Louis Blues. It was just a couple of generations ago where teams carried just one netminder on their roster. In an era where the backup goaltender has become an increasingly vital part of every team’s makeup, the approach these athletes take to the craft has also evolved.
Cole McLaren is no exception.
“I just make sure, every time I’m on the ice and every time I’m in the gym, that I’m going 100% and working to get better,” he remarked. “You never know when you’re going to get called upon, so I’ve got to treat every skate as a pre-game (situation) to make sure I’m mentally ready to go. You always have to be ready because you never know what’s going to be happen.”
Regardless of position, entering any dressing room as a regular for the first time is a daunting challenge. Even before he assumed the position, McLaren found refuge in the player he shares netminding duties with, Moosehead’s starter and Chicago Blackhawks draftee Alexis Gravel.
“Graves has been just an awesome goaltending partner,” the Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia native proclaimed. “Ever since I arrived at (my first training camp) at 16, he’s just been super welcoming and very kind. It’s really helped me a lot, especially going into this year, to know that you have a friend in your goaltending partner. That’s been a great boost for my confidence leading into this year.”
The stepping stone from midget and Jr.A hockey with the Valley Wildcats to where he is today has been made easier by the atmosphere McLaren surrounds himself in. However, his perspective on the game at this level has no doubt lent a hand to what has proven to be a successful first year in the “Q”.
“There’s so much more that goes into major junior. So much more is invested by the organization in you and you have to invest it back into the organization,” McLaren said.
This reciprocal relationship has been a big part of the recipe for success established by the player with perhaps the most uniquely daunting position on the team. Truly, Cole McLaren, a kid from the heart of Nova Scotia farming country, has reaped what he has sewn.