By Adam Brady
To really know Jonas Hiller
, you have to look back a bit.
You go back just a year ago, when he was a timid rookie living in the United States for the first time, spending his nights in a hotel room across the street from Honda Center with little idea of how to get around town.
|Along being named one of the NHL's "Three Stars" of the Week in the final week of November, Jonas Hiller tied a Ducks record with 51 saves in a 3-2 shootout victory at Edmonton on Dec. 19. |
Or you flash back even further, when Hiller was a teenager in his native Switzerland, a three-year backup goalie who saw little ice time and even his own parents were loudly wondering if he was wasting his time.
It’s all a far cry from the Jonas Hiller
of today, the guy who in just his second NHL season has grown into an imposing presence in net for the Anaheim Ducks and has pushed longtime No. 1 goalie J.S. Giguere for the starting spot. Thanks to a blazing first two months of the season, Hiller’s goals-against average and save percentage both ranked in the top five in the league. And during the final week of November, when he went 2-0-0 with an eye-popping 0.50 goals against and .984 save percentage, he was named one of the NHL’s “Three Stars” of the week.
The Swiss 26-year-old (whose first name is pronounced “YO-nas”) pretty much picked up where he left off in the last few months of his rookie season, when he won six of his final nine appearances and saved just under 95 percent of the shots fired at him. But he got to that level after overcoming a shaky start while becoming accustomed to both the NHL game and living on his own in the United States for the first time.
“Last year was tough because living here is quite a bit different,” says the shaggy-haired Hiller. “I came here and didn’t know anybody. I had no clue on how to get around and I was living in a hotel almost until Christmas. Everything is so much bigger here and if you don’t have a car you can’t get anywhere, so I was pretty much stuck. I could walk across the street to the rink and that was about it.”
And it was in that rink that Hiller struggled with the adjustment to the faster and more furious NHL game. “There's a lot more traffic in front of the net and the shots come a lot harder than in Switzerland,” Hiller says. “It’s obviously more of an adjustment for a skater than a goalie, but it still took some getting used to.”
|“My parents asked, ‘Do you really want to do that your whole life?’” Hiller remembers. “For sure, I was thinking about that, but I also felt like I was getting closer to being a No. 1 goalie and I just needed a chance to play. I finally got that.” |
Even though he won his first start, giving up just one goal in a 4-1 victory over the Kings on Sept. 30 in London, Hiller was shipped to the Ducks’ AHL affiliate in Portland when Giguere returned from an early-season injury. He was brought back to Anaheim after the Ducks saw enough potential in him to let previous backup Ilya Bryzgalov go to Phoenix via waivers.
Hiller was patchy in his first few NHL games, but his comfort level grew the more he was able to get on the ice and get used to his living situation. He eventually moved from the hotel to an apartment in Newport Beach, got himself a car and figured out a few things, like where to buy groceries.
“It makes a big difference and makes it easier to come here every day,” Hiller says. “You don’t have to think about those other things. I’m much more comfortable here and I’m much more comfortable during the games. Goaltending is a lot about experience, and I feel like I’ve made good progress.”
The Ducks rewarded that progress with a contract extension last summer that pays Hiller more than $1 million this season and next. And one of the first people he called when he signed his name on the dotted line were his parents back in Switzlerland, who about six years ago suggested maybe he should quit the game and try something else.
And who could blame them? For three straight years starting when he was 18, Hiller was nothing more than a backup for his private school team in the ski resort town of Davos. He saw little time on the ice, and says his parents “rarely saw me play at that level. So they asked, “Do you really want to do that your whole life?’”
Hiller’s mother was a longtime basketball standout who played for the Swiss national team, so she was well aware of the pitfalls of dedicating your life to a game. “She knew sports were not an easy business,” Hiller says. “She would say things like, ‘Don’t you want to play in a lower league and get into more games?’ For sure, I was thinking about that, but I also felt like I was getting closer to being a No. 1 goalie and I just needed a chance to play. I finally got that.”
As a 21-year-old, Hiller was moved for the 2003-04 season to a team called Lausanne HC, where he appeared in 21 games. When he went back to his HC Davos team a year later, he became the starter and was in net for at least 43 games in each of the next three seasons. Not only that, but he carried Davos to the Spengler Cup title in 2005 and was named the league’s top goalie.
|“I learned that you have to have patience in this game, especially as a goalie,” Hiller says. “You have to wait for that chance.” |
Anaheim scouts were among those who took notice, and the Ducks snatched him up last spring, a payoff to Hiller for all those years of knowing he was good enough, but just needed the opportunity to show it.
“I learned that you have to have patience in this game, especially as a goalie,”
Hiller now says. “You have to wait for that chance.”
Mom flew out to London to see Hiller play for the first time in an NHL game, and she’s coming out to California for a couple of weeks later this season. His father came to see him play during a stretch in Orange County last season.
“My parents have always been supportive, but they did worry about me,” Hiller says. “And their opinion always mattered to me. They’re very proud now.”
Not that Hiller didn’t have a backup plan if life as a goalie didn’t work out. He considers himself a bit of a fix-it guy and still spends each of his summers back home working on cars in a friend’s body shop. For as long as he can remember, he’s tended to his teammates’ computer problems, and earlier this season he even helped the Ducks trainers put together some new massage tables.
“I have a lot of different interests,” Hiller says. “I just like to do things with my hands and I think I’ve gotten pretty good with it. As a goalie, you’re usually just reacting and you never get to put in your own thoughts or any creativity. These kinds of things give me a chance to be creative on my own, do something different and also build something.
“I think about doing those kinds of things after hockey. I’d be real happy to do something else if I don’t stay in hockey.”
That doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. Hiller’s even looked good in the rare times he’s lost this year, notably in a shootout defeat on Halloween night at home against Vancouver. Hiller, who entered that game in the second period, fought through a marathon 13 shootout rounds before finally giving up the clinching goal. Still, you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face in the locker room as he talked to reporters about it. And that self-assured smile hasn’t really gone away since.
“Goaltending is very mental and having confidence is a big part of the mental game,” Hiller says. “I’m happy with the way it’s going right now, but I’m working on my game every day and hoping to get better. I’m just trying to keep going, keep going, keep going.”