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Prospect Q&A: Josh Unice

by Adam Kempenaar / Chicago Blackhawks

In his rookie season with Kitchener, 2007 3rd round pick Josh Unice has established himself as one of the top goalies in the Ontario Hockey League. Unice is 26-3-1-1 with 4 shutouts and a 2.41 goals against average. He recently talked to about his stellar season, his World Junior Championship snub and more.

You've obviously had tremendous success so far this season in the OHL. Has your performance even surprised you a bit?

Kind of. I thought that when I got to the OHL it was going to be a different game than it was, but the difference wasn't as big as I thought it would be. I also have the best team in all of Canada in front of me, so they make it easy on me most nights.

You were originally slated to play college hockey for Bowling Green this season. Why did you decide to play in the OHL instead?

Obviously I want to play hockey at as high a level as I can. Everybody I talked to said that you can't buy game experience. The fact that I have already played more games this year than I would have in almost two years of college -- and I'm only halfway through the season -- is a big draw. I thought it would be best for my development, and I really didn't see Bowling Green going in the right direction I wanted it to go. I felt that Kitchener was one of the best organizations in all of Canada so it was by far the best choice I could make.

How did you end up with Kitchener and not another OHL team?

I was never planning to go to the OHL and wasn't drafted or anything. They pretty much just recruited me. I was brought up on a visit and really liked it, and the rest is history.

You mentioned the team playing in front of you. What's it like playing for a team as dominant as Kitchener is right now?

It could be nine, ten minutes and I won't see a shot, and then I see a shot and I have to stay on my toes. But the team is unbelievable. I have never played on a team that is so good defensively. I try to control my rebounds as best I can, but even when I give up a bad rebound it seems there's always somebody there to clear it for me. Everybody has each other's back here. If one guy makes a mistake the other four, five guys will step up. I can't even begin to describe how good of a defensive-minded team we are.

As of January 29, Kitchener has the best record in the OHL at 39-6-1-2 and is the only team to have already clinched a playoff spot.

With the Memorial Cup in Kitchener this year, I'm guessing anything but winning that will be a disappointment for you guys.

Yeah, we've been rated No. 1 in Canada for a while now and that was our goal at the beginning of the year. It would be kind of a waste for us to have such a good season and not play so well at the Memorial Cup. Everybody here is waiting, just counting down the days until we really get to shoot for that. I'm positive we have the team to do it.

Off the ice has there been much of an adjustment for you? How have people taken you in as an American kid?

Everybody has been really nice. It was a little weird when I first got here. Some of the food is a little different, and the language is a little different. But Kitchener's pretty much just like Toledo. Same number of people, same kind of setup. It really wasn't that big of a change and everybody was really welcoming when I got here.

You attended Blackhawks training camp this past summer. Was there anything that opened your eyes about the NHL game that you were able to take away from that experience?

I had to be more patient. I've always just been able to react and usually not have a problem with it. But when you get to the NHL shooters, if you're just waiting and trying to guess, they'll pick you apart. The speed of the play is so much faster than anything I've ever played before. Everybody says it's just timing, and once I got my timing down it was still a challenge, but it was a challenge I liked and grasped.

How disappointing was it for you to not be selected the U.S. World Junior Championship team?

It was obviously a disappointment. I felt that I had dropped everything out there and proved to everybody I was good enough to make the team. Coach [John] Hynes had a tough call with the goalies he had to pick. There were three of us that were leading candidates. [Jeremy] Smith also had an unbelievable year. [Joe] Palmer's team isn't real good in front of him, but he's having an unbelievable year as well. It was a hard choice, but I respected his decision. I'm a little frustrated that they didn't do as well as they thought they were going to, but there's always next year. It's not like it was my last year.

Joe Palmer was a 4th round choice of the Blackhawks in 2006 and currently plays for Ohio State.

Is that a big motivating factor for you then?

Definitely. I saw the games and I realized that I could definitely help the team out and I hope next year I get a shot at it. I'm going to finish this year first. The World Juniors isn't for another year. I have a lot of games and playoffs and a Memorial Cup to worry about until then.

Steve Mason had a great tournament for Team Canada and is now a teammate of your's after being traded from London. I understand Kitchener wanted to make sure they were stocked in net going into the Memorial Cup. How do you see his arrival affecting you?

It's obvious that it's going to take away. I've been the starter here. But from what I've been told, we're going to split the rest of the year and the best guy's going to go to the playoffs. Obviously he's a world class goalie. He's drafted, he's played NHL games. I'm just going to try to learn from him and maybe take a couple of his little tips and help improve my game. It's going to be a battle. I was the starter here; I'm not just going to give up that easy.

Mason, the MVP of the 2008 World Junior Championships, was assigned to Kitchener by Columbus on Jan. 11 and has appeared in four games going 3-1 with a shutout and a 3.00 goals against average. Unice is 6-1 in January with a 3.14 GAA and has won his last four starts.

This has been an amazing year for you going back to the U-18 World Junior Championship and the Draft. What has stood out as the highlight of your young career so far?

Getting drafted would probably be the highlight. You can't really pick one though. Obviously the World Championship with Team USA last year was a big moment in my life. Then I came to the draft and got selected by the Blackhawks and had this run with Kitchener. Probably the last year would be the best moment I've ever had.

Unice won a silver medal playing for the U.S. National Under-18 Team at the 2007 World Under-18 Championship in Finland.

You've had a chance to play against fellow 2007 Hawks draft pick Akim Aliu with London. Talk about what makes him a dangerous opponent?

He's their quarterback on the power play. He's always at the point taking his hard one-timer. As a goalie you can kind of see what they're going to do and they always feed him the puck, so you just always have to be ready when he has the puck because he's their go-to guy on the power play.

What are the things you need to work on to be an NHL goalie? Do you have any kind of personal timetable in place for getting to the league?

I don't have a timetable. I feel that I have developed a lot over the past couple of months and the past couple of years. But I need to challenge opponents more. I'm not a huge guy so I need to be able to play out of my net a little more. And puckhandling is becoming a huge part of goalie's games now, so I need to work on that and just keep playing and practicing hard and working and hopefully one day I'll make it to the NHL. I don't have a timetable though; that's not my call. Hopefully I'll impress the Blackhawks and the timetable ends up being shorter rather than longer.

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