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Learning on the Job

In his first full NHL season, Connor Hellebuyck continues to learn what it takes at the highest level

by Mitchell Clinton @MClinton007 /

Two hours before game time, Connor Hellebuyck can usually be found bouncing two blue lacrosse balls off a wall in rapid succession.

"When I bounce the balls off the walls it's to get my hand-eye going," said 23-year-old Hellebuyck. "Get my quick hands and quick twitch going in my muscles, and just my hands feeling catching something."

Shortly after that, the goaltender sits on the bench, his eyes darting in all directions preparing him for what's to come that night.

"When I go on the bench I'm getting my eyes warmed up," he said. "They're a muscle too, so they need to be warmed up."

It's all part of his preparation for another start in the National Hockey League, a job he's been preparing for his whole life, even if he didn't always know how to get there.

Enter Chris Hellebuyck, the older brother by 14 months.

The two grew up in Commerce, Michigan. Chris and Connor would play hockey together, and just like he does every day with the Winnipeg Jets, Connor strapped on the pads.

"For some reason I always just enjoyed getting in the net. He was a forward, and he always shot at me. Then when I started getting into roller hockey I would try it once in a while," said Hellebuyck. "I just really had that knack for stopping pucks, and I enjoyed it. Which was weird, because you're getting hit with pucks, and I didn't have the greatest equipment when I was younger, but I still enjoyed it."

He had that knack, but he didn't have direction. During his time in high school hockey, Connor didn't know how to take his career further, until Chris helped him out.

"He kind of knew that the NAHL was where you wanted to go after high school. He gave it a shot, and if he didn't do that, I probably wouldn't know how to make it," said Hellebuyck. "Not only that, our coaches had this little league called MDHL. It's where all the high school teams get together and make an All-Star League. Without that, I wouldn't have got any exposure, and I wouldn't be here today."

In 2011-2012, his only NAHL season with the Odessa Jackalopes, Hellebuyck posted a 26-21-5 record with three shutouts and a .930 save percentage. After that, it was off to the NCAA's University of Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks.

Two NCAA seasons later, Hellebuyck backstopped his squad to a 38-12-2 record, and mixed in 12 shutouts along the way.

Hellebuyck believes it was in those two years that he figured out the concepts that best work for him between the pipes.

Video: WPG@CHI: Hellebuyck denies Toews on the doorstep

"When I first got there, it takes a little bit to adjust. Everyone always tells me they were worried at first," he laughed. "In practice I was trying new stuff every day, so sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn't.

"Finally I figured out what works for me with the goalie coach Cam Alsworth, who has changed my game quite a bit. There were a lot of new concepts to get. I was pretty stubborn on some things too, so it was a little bit of push and give there. When I finally figured out what works for me, it just clicked."

His final season with the River Hawks, with six shutouts and a .941 save percentage, earned him the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the NCAA's Most Outstanding Goaltender.

"I always kind of idolized him. I wasn't a big Rangers fan when I was growing up because I was a Wings fan, but I still knew Richter. He was a USA goalie. He was one of the big guys I watched," Hellebuyck said. "What I get from that experience is just meeting Mike Richter and Bernie Parent themselves. They're two characters, just the greatest guys. I still keep up to date with Richter. I'd like to keep in touch with them more than I do. He's such a great guy and I just enjoyed the whole experience."

After his first AHL season with the St. John's IceCaps was complete, Hellebuyck represented the USA at the international level, just like his idol Richter had done 11 times between 1984 and 2002.

Hellebuyck played eight games at the 2015 IIHF World Hockey Championship, helping his country to a bronze medal win, making 39 saves in a 3-0 shutout win over Czech Republic.

His 1.37 goals against average and .948 save percentage were the best of any goaltender in the tournament.

Winnipeg Jets goaltending coach Wade Flaherty said events like the Worlds, and this past September's World Cup of Hockey (where Hellebuyck was with Team North America) can be huge for young goaltenders mentally.

"Just the experience of doing something like that. Mentally, having that in the back of your mind that you've played with some of the best players in the world," said Flaherty. "It's a learning experience. Every experience is a learning experience."

But even that experience couldn't prepare Hellebuyck for his first NHL start. It came three years after being drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL Draft.

The big night came on Nov. 27 at the Xcel Energy Center against the Minnesota Wild. Paul Maurice informed Hellebuyck he'd be starting the night before.

"I had butterflies the entire night and the entire day up until the game. I remember not being able to shake it. I was doing all my tricks to try and shake it, and I just couldn't," said Hellebuyck. "I had a big smile on my face the whole time. I was trying to hide it, but it's something you don't really want to hold back. It's an exciting moment."

The butterflies went away long enough for Hellebuyck to make 15 saves on 16 shots in a 3-1 Jets win that night.

He went on to win his first four starts in the NHL, and compiled a record of 13-11-1 in in 2015-2016.

Each season brings new challenges, and 2016-2017 is no different. But Hellebuyck, like a lot of the young players on the Jets roster, is learning how to handle the daily grind. That process is even tougher during a schedule that saw the Jets become the first team in NHL history to play 32 games in 60 days.

"Physically, especially with the amount of games that we went through and are playing, it's the grind of every day. But also being able to be mentally prepared for practices as well, to carry on in your learning and your progression, and your fundamentals," Flaherty said.

"Overcoming mental fatigue, being able to be sharp in practice. It's one thing in the American Hockey League… you've got lots of practice time to fine-tune your game. With our condensed schedule, we've been trying to fine-tune a game through video."

As Hellebuyck continues to improve each day, he says that first start back in Minnesota gave him more than his first win.

"It gave me the confidence. It gave me the tools I need to succeed at this level," he said. "So I'm ready."

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