Anthony Stolarz grew up minutes from Six Flags Great Adventure.
As a kid, it was a convenience to have an amusement park so close to home, and he did frequent it several times a summer with his friends, but the truth is, he’s not really into roller coasters.
“I’m much more of a water park kind of guy myself,” he said. “You know, relax in the sun, swim, cool off, it’s more laid back and low key.”
A lot like Stolarz wants to be perceived – laid back, low key, under the radar a little bit.
Which is fine and dandy, especially when you are a freshman goaltender on a nationally ranked college hockey program and your getting a lighter load as you bide your time behind a more established upper classman.
And while that is technically the case for Stolarz, 18, a second round draft pick of the Flyers last summer, playing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, which is ranked No. 12 in the nation, it’s been a little more than just getting his feet wet in his first collegiate season.
Actually, it’s been more like holding his feet to the fire.
Stolarz has played in just seven of UNO’s 18 games thus far this season, but it’s not like coach Dean Blaise is making him take baby steps against inferior competition.
No, Stolarz has faced five teams that were nationally ranked at the time they played. And one of the other two – Bemidji State – reached the Frozen Four in 2009.
So, yeah, it’s been daunting.
Not that Stolarz will let on that it has been. Nope. When he talks about playing these games, the reaction you get is more Lazy River than Kingda Ka.
“It’s been a great experience,” Stolarz said. “The competition is great in college hockey and you have to bring your ‘A’ game every night. I have to admit that in the beginning I was a little shaky because of nerves, you know, it was my first time playing college hockey, but once I got adjusted and worked hard in practice, I got used to the speed of the game and I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable. It’s been tremendous. I have confidence in my abilities and confidence that I’m going to stop the puck and give my team a chance to win and I think as the season’s progressed I’ve been able to do that.”
Consider his first start in college was against No. 3 Notre Dame – and he only allowed three goals – and to say he’s only gotten better would be tough to accomplish, but he has.
Those three goals against the Irish were the most he allowed in a game this season (he also allowed three against Bemidji State). Otherwise it was two goals allowed against then-No. 17 Northern Michigan, two against No. 16 St. Cloud State and two against No. 18 Minnesota State.
And those are in games his team lost.
It’s safe to say that Stolarz has a record of 2-4-0 so far this season because his team hasn’t done a great job scoring for him either.
But those two wins – they were beauties.
His first collegiate victory came Nov. 24 when he blanked Alabama-Huntsville 8-0, making 20 saves.
Then, last Saturday, he thwarted Minnesota State 5-1, making a career high 27 saves.
At the holiday break, Stolarz has a goals against average of 2.15 and a save percentage of .911.
Not bad for a kid who in 2011 wasn’t sure if hockey was even going to be in his future.
That’s because he had been cut by two different Eastern Junior Hockey League teams. That’s Tier III Junior A. Not to mention, the year before your draft year. It didn’t look good.
So he gave it a go in the North American Hockey League with the Corpus Christi Ice Rays. It’s a league that is so far off the radar, only one player from the entire league was invited to the NHL combine.
That player was Stolarz.
Excited to be invited, Stolarz wasn’t thinking of being drafted, instead he was just hoping to get a college to notice him and maybe earn a scholarship.
But he made an impression on at least one guy, Flyers scout Neil Little.
“First and foremost when you find a guy with that kind of size with great mobility, it really opens your eyes,” said Little. “Not many guys can combine their size with flexibility, agility and overall skill. There are a lot of qualities there that I really liked about him.”
Stolarz is 6-foot-6, so he’s hard to miss. Growing up in New Jersey, he idolized Martin Brodeur (sorry Flyers fans, his parents were both from the Northern part of the state, which is why he roots for the Mets, Nets and Giants too – give him a pass).
However, his game is not modeled after Brodeur at all, but much more in the vein of Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne.
“Anthony is a tremendous athlete and from a technical standpoint, he has a real good foundation,” Little said. “He can only improve from there an we expect big things from him.”
Little went on to add that goalies usually take longer to develop into NHL caliber talent, but the Flyers are very high on Stolarz and can see him blossoming quicker than most – which is why they took him in the second round – with the draft pick acquired from Columbus in the trade for Sergei Bobrovsky.
But Stolarz isn’t getting ahead of himself. Not even a little bit. As a matter of fact, while most draft picks will tell you they wish they can fast forward a few years and get right to their first NHL camp, Stolarz is just the opposite.
“It’s good to go to college and get an education,” Stolarz said. “At first my thought was that it was going to be for a career, but maybe now it’s for a fallback plan in case hockey doesn’t work out – and you can’t play hockey forever – but it’s important to me to get that education first because they way things have gone for me in the last couple years, I look at hockey as being a bonus for me.”
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37