MONTREAL – Mike Condon’s road to the NHL was long and winding, but key pit stops helped to pave his way to hockey’s highest ranks.
|Condon during his recent visit to his former school Belmont Hill High |
As someone who’s had to prove himself time and again throughout his career, the 26-year-old knows how close he came to seeing his NHL dreams disappear with every unexpected twist and turn. Perhaps that’s why the soon-to-be sophomore netminder is so quick to make certain that he doesn’t take people like John McNamara – one of his former coaches in Belmont, MA – for granted.
“John was an enormous part of my road to the NHL. He’s the one who coached me on my first travel team. Without him, I’d probably be flipping cheeseburgers somewhere. I owe him a lot,” joked the Princeton graduate, who surely had options outside of hockey thanks to an Ivy League degree in political science. “My minor hockey career wouldn’t have taken off unless I made that first travel team with John as my coach. My situation was far less than ideal at the time. I definitely couldn’t picture myself playing in the NHL one day, especially since I wasn’t even playing in the top league where all the best kids my age played.”
As Condon himself noted, if it wasn’t for McNamara taking a chance on him as an unproven adolescent, who knows where his road would have taken him?
“When I first met Mike, he came to try out for one of my teams when he was nine or 10 years old. He was just one of the many high caliber netminders that came to try out, but I didn’t know a thing about him. At the time, we only took one goalie, so it was really tough to narrow down the competition,” explained McNamara, who could easily have let Condon go unnoticed amongst the crop of hopefuls on site. “It might sound odd, but what set Mike apart was the fact that he already looked like a professional. He probably wasn’t that much better than the other goalies skill-wise, but his positivity and maturity really did set him apart from the rest of the competition.”
Having to prove yourself over and over again isn’t an easy task, but the son of a Massachusetts State Police trooper has always possessed the mental toughness to stand tall when faced with adversity.
“His father chases bad guys in the Violent Fugitive division, so even as a kid Mike always conducted himself the way a Massachusetts State Police trooper would. It was always very important for Mike to be a good teammate and a good person,” said McNamara, referencing the young goaltender’s strong sense of character and moral fiber. “I probably coached him for 10 years and maybe 500 games, and I never once saw him place the blame on anyone else or criticize a teammate.”
|Condon with Katie and John McNamara following the Habs vs. Sabres game on October 23, 2015 |
When none of the 30 NHL teams called Condon’s name after his junior season with Belmont Hill High School in 2008, Condon could have given up. He didn’t, though, electing to persevere instead. Upon learning that his former protégé had been rewarded with the chance to continue his hockey career with Princeton University - one of the world’s most prestigious institutions - McNamara was filled with pride.
“To play college hockey, you already have to be in the top 2% of all kids that play youth hockey in the United States. So, it honestly wasn’t something that we really talked about. We were really just focusing on getting better each day and Mike epitomized that,” recalled McNamara, who stressed that making it to the NCAA ranks was just the start of another important test. “It was no cakewalk for him at Princeton. He had to battle it out against other highly recruited goaltenders for four straight years.”
Condon remained steadfast in the pursuit of his goal, even when no NHL team showed interest after his time at Princeton came to an end. After his final collegiate game in 2013, Condon’s unshakable determination was on full display as he read through the ECHL and AHL transaction logs daily to see if there were any recent injuries that would give him a chance to take advantage of a last-minute job opening.
“Logic would say that the odds weren’t in his favor. Some teams might be willing to give a college amateur a one or two-game tryout. I remember Mike’s agent saying that he sent his name to every team in the two leagues and only two teams responded,” said McNamara.
When his only chance at continuing his hockey career appeared to be all the way across the country in California with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign, Condon’s commitment never wavered. He posted a 3-1-0 record along with a 1.48 GAA and a .943 save percentage which caught the attention of several AHL teams.
That’s when the Houston Aeros – the former AHL affiliate of the Minnesota Wild – decided to take a chance on the undrafted goaltender when injuries left a vacancy between the pipes come playoff time. Houston might not have hoisted the Calder Cup that year, but the short tryout was enough to catch the attention of Rick Dudley – the Canadiens’ senior VP of hockey operations who first spotted Condon in 2012-13. Based on the joint recommendation of Dudley and Canadiens goalie consultant Vincent Riendeau, the Habs opted to sign Condon to his first entry-level NHL contract on May 8, 2013, just four days after his season in Houston had wrapped up.
The part of Condon’s story that fans are most familiar with begins with his strong performance at training camp in Brossard. That was enough to compel the Canadiens to take a chance on giving him the No. 2 role behind Carey Price. Evidently, the combination of ambition, composure and mental fortitude that Condon embodied ultimately convinced Marc Bergevin & Co. to take a chance on the Holliston, MA native straight out of training camp.
By the end of his first NHL season, Condon – who was most recently called upon to represent the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Hockey Championships - had played in 55 games. He became the third-most utilized rookie netminder in Canadiens history, trailing only Ken Dryden (64 in 1971-72) and Gerry McNeil (70 in 1950-51). He also posted a 5-1 win over the Boston Bruins in the Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium on New Year’s Day in front of family and friends aplenty.
What the future holds for Condon may be uncertain, but it’s safe to say that he’ll always have McNamara in his corner.
“It’s surreal to turn on Canadiens games on TV and see Mike in net. But, when I look at Mike, I can tell that he’s still that same exact kid that he was back in Belmont Hill. I see the exact same mentality and personality. He’s very respectful and kind to everyone he meets. You want to see guys like him succeed. I know he’s in the big leagues, but I think of him more as a human being than a hockey player,” concluded McNamara.
“I grew up in Boston my whole life, but if Mike Condon is playing, then the Canadiens are my team.”
Jared Ostroff is a writer for canadiens.com
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