Connor Hellebuyck took college by storm. It’s not every day a freshman takes over as starting goalie within his first year with the team, never mind leading that same team to a Final Four showdown against Yale. Hellebuyck’s remarkable progress in the last year did not go unnoticed. Winnipeg Jets Coordinator of Player Development, Jimmy Roy, attributed the marked improvement to great coaching and hard work.
“Where he came from before he got to UMass-Lowell was just an average team in an average league. But when he got to UMass-Lowell, he got some great goaltending coaching from Cam Ellsworth. He worked his butt off to get better,” remarked Roy. “As a freshman he went in and earned the starting spot after five games from a goalie who was there the year before and was supposed to lead them to the National Championship. Connor’s very calm, collected, and smart, and has good athleticism for his size.”
But the 6’4” keeper from Commerce, Mich., doesn’t consider his success with the UMass-Lowell River Hawks an individual achievement.
“I think it was a great season,” said Hellebuyck. “We had a great team that came together. It was hard work paying off. We all bought into the system and had great chemistry.”
After taking over as starter in December, Hellebuyck never looked back. He finished the season with a 20-3 record, and led the nation with a 1.37 goals against average, a .952 save percentage, and six shutouts. Though some might expect some hard feelings from the player who lost his starting job to Hellebuyck, teammate Doug Carr has been a key piece to the freshman’s success.
“We (Carr and Hellebuyck) have a great relationship. We’re constantly talking on and off the ice. He brings so much experience from last year and the year before so I can talk to him about anything and he really helps,” asserted Hellebuyck. “He’s always there to talk about a game or a goal that went in, and that kind of help with my mental game was extremely helpful.”
The relationship between the two goaltenders is a testament to their character, said Roy. “That says a lot about their communication level with each other. The starting goalie that he took the job from, for him to be able to respect Connor enough to have a relationship with him, it says a lot about Connor not being arrogant, cocky or a know-it-all, and it says a lot about Carr’s maturity. Connor is very humble because he’s able to do that and still talk about how much the coaching and Carr helped him.”
Hellebuyck’s incredible performance helped bolster UMass-Lowell to its first ever Frozen Four presence with an overall record of 28-11-2. But he isn’t satisfied with a semi-final; next year, he has a National Championship in his sights.
“Now that we’ve done this, we all believe that we can do it again. The goal is to repeat it and do better next year,” affirms the keeper. “We’re going to take all that in, and next year we’re going to go in there knowing what to expect and not have that shock and awe that we had this year.”
For Roy, that Final Four experience was invaluable to Hellebuyck’s development and maturity as a player. “You can’t pay enough to put a kid in that situation. He was able to learn about pressure, about the level of the game when you get that far deep into the final. When you get down to the NCAA Final Four, that’s the best of the best. You can’t replace that,” asserts Roy.
Despite the overwhelming Final Four trip in Pittsburgh, on the ice, Hellebuyck is unshakable. The goalie exuded a calming, steadying force on his team all season. He rarely gets emotionally shaken, a trademark of his game.
“When you work so hard, you know you can handle it. So there’s no worry of ‘am I going to get 50 shots or 20 shots this game?’ So you just go out and do your job and you’re ready for everything, you’re just calm and relaxed,” stated Hellebuyck. “I know I have 20 great guys in front of me playing their hearts out and doing their jobs so I trust them and they trust me.”