MONTREAL – Dustin Tokarski’s road to the NHL wasn’t without a few struggles, but that didn’t stop him from reaching his goal.
The Canadiens netminder has come a long way since the summer of 2004 when he was attending a host of Midget AAA training camps looking for a team. That’s where Tokarski’s ascent up the pro hockey ranks began.
“That’s where my career started,” explained Tokarski, who was cut from a few camps that summer, before crossing paths with bench boss Tim Leonard. “He gave me my shot. Over the summer, I took my chances with plenty of Midget AAA teams and things weren’t working out. It was him who finally saw something in me that others didn’t see. He gave me my chance.”
Leonard is still the head coach of the Prince Albert Mintos after a stint with the Raiders in the WHL. Ten years later, he still remembers the moment when Tokarski’s mother, Darlene, knocked on his door.
“Dustin’s story is pretty special. He was struggling to find a Midget AAA team in Saskatchewan. We got a call from his mom. There were four or five teams that had cut him,” recalled Leonard. “We called to offer him a tryout. Right from the first practice, I knew he had talent. The rest is history, including the TELUS Cup win. We have an excellent relationship. I’m proud of him. He appreciated and seized his opportunity.”
After spending a season in the Mintos organization, Tokarski was determined to take his game to another level. During the summer of 2005, he upped his training. That paid serious dividends for the talented netminder, so much so that Leonard even had to put a stop to a fitness test because of it.
“As part of the endurance testing we did at the beginning of the year, we did sit-ups to the sound of the beep test. We stopped after 1,000 sit-ups. There were guys who were really in shape who did 500 or 600. At 1,000, Tokarski still had a smile on his face,” recounted Leonard. “He’d really worked on his abs. A former goaltending coach taught him that it was really important, so he worked on it. He worked hard that summer. It was a turning point. He wanted to do more, but we had to stop him.”
In his second season in a Mintos uniform, Tokarski elevated his game a notch, helping the squad capture the most prestigious Midget hockey trophy in Canada, the TELUS Cup.
“He was amazing the year we won the TELUS Cup. We had a great team. It wasn’t the most talented group, but our work ethic was unmatched. If I remember correctly, we played 30 games that ended by a difference of just one goal,” stressed the Mintos bench boss, referencing just how strong Tokarski was between the pipes. “That’s how Dusty works. If they scored one, I knew that we only needed two. If they scored two, three goals would be enough for us to win the game.”
And, Tokarski’s play in the TELUS Cup Final provided a perfect example of just how good the Watson, SK native could be in pressure-packed situations. After registering six straight wins and boasting a perfect record, the Mintos went up against the Calgary Buffaloes in a game that ended 5-4 in triple overtime, the longest game in tournament history.
According to Leonard, the Dustin Tokarski you see today is exactly like the Dustin Tokarski of 10 years ago: shy and soft-spoken.
“He’s still the little shy guy he was back then. He hasn’t changed much. We didn’t talk too much. It was all about head nods, smiles and winks,” recalled Leonard. “When I wanted to know if he was ready to play, I looked at him and nodded my head and he responded with a smile or a wink. That’s how I knew he was ready. It was our way of communicating. He’s not the most vocal guy, but still expresses himself.”
Now that his former protégé is firmly established in the NHL, Leonard admits to following his performances with a great deal of interest.
“The entire community fully supports him. There are a lot of Canadiens fans in Saskatchewan. When he played in the playoffs, he probably made half the people in the province change their allegiances,” offered Leonard, who really gave Tokarski an opportunity to break through. “I include myself in that. I was a Penguins fan, but I watched the games with my wife and we didn’t hide the fact that we were cheering the Canadiens on.”
A Memorial Cup, a Calder Cup and a gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship. Tokarski has them all. That simply wouldn’t have been possible if the Canadiens’ No. 35 hadn’t persevered as a youngster.
“I was 15 years old back then, so I was still a little fragile. But, I had good friends and a family that supported me. It was so important to know that everyone believed in me,” confessed Tokarski, who played Bantam AA hockey before joining the Midget ranks. “They told me to believe in myself and to have fun. I believe that more and more every day. What they said is true. If I was chosen by another one of those teams who knows where I’d be today.”
Vincent Cauchy is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Matt Cudzinowski.
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