The Norfolk Admirals’ most impressive resume perhaps belongs to Dustin Tokarksi.
A fifth-round draft pick of the Lightning at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, the 22-year-old net minder has posted a winning record in every season of major hockey he's played since the beginning of his junior career with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League in 2006-07.
But for the native of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, it’s all part of a much larger trend, in which he has made winning at every level just as much a habit as routinely stopping pucks in his own end.
Or, as Norfolk Admirals head coach Jon Cooper put it bluntly:
“He’s won everywhere he’s gone.”
To his name is a 2008 Memorial Cup title and a gold medal from the 2009 World Junior Championships, which he won under the assistantship of Lightning head coach Guy Boucher as a representative of Team Canada. He even led the Prince Albert Mintos to the Canadian Midget National Championship in 2006.
“Honestly, I can’t really explain it,” Tokarski said of his decorated history. “I’ve been fortunate to play on a lot of great teams, and I think just by nature of being in the playoffs, everyone has a tendency to take their game to another level and step up.”
Tokarski certainly has, which is no surprise really, for a kid who has become accustomed to literally stepping up onto a medal stand to attain a predominant view of life from atop an elevated podium.
As a result, Tokarski and the heartbeat of the Hampton Roads are now two victories shy of winning the AHL’s Calder Cup, the culmination of a season-long quest to deliver the goaltender his first-ever championship in professional hockey.
“It certainly would be really special for him to get that one,” Lightning goaltending consultant Frantz Jean said. “For a goaltender his age to do what he’s accomplished is truly remarkable.”
According to Jean, the average age for a goaltender to hit his peak in the NHL is around 29 years old, so while Tokarski, 22, has already proven himself far more seasoned beyond his years at other levels, “he still has a long road ahead of him.”
Tokarski took his first step along that same road, however, this past season when he was recalled to the big club in Tampa Bay in the midst of a late-season playoff push immediately following a season-ending injury to Mathieu Garon. Although he returned to Norfolk with a 1-3-1 record following his brief stint with the Lightning, the experience of carrying the team and its postseason hopes on his shoulders proved to be invaluable for the young goaltender and his development, as evidenced by his play that has helped Norfolk make a deep run into the playoffs.
“To get that NHL experience was awesome and a dream come true,” Tokarski added. “Any time you get to perform in those pressure situations, you know how to handle them a little better and they definitely help improve your game.”
Tokarski held a 1-3-1 record following his brief stint with the Lightning this season. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
According to Boucher, there’s no brighter spotlight than being thrust into Team Canada’s starting role between the pipes on the international stage while donning the Maple Leaf. However, when named to the position four years ago, Tokarski didn’t flinch, and instead led his native country to its fifth straight title by earning consecutive victories in elimination matches versus the United States, Russia and Sweden. Tokarski's performance included stopping 39 of 40 shots in the gold medal contest against the Swedes to finish the tournament with an undefeated record.
“Pat Quinn, the head coach back then, who had lived pretty much everything in hockey, told me, ‘There's no less pressure in this tournament than in the Olympics,’” Boucher said. “That puts it in perspective. I remember kids in the room got up to go vomit they were so nervous.
“In Canada, you're not allowed to lose. You're just not. It's gold medal and everything else in hockey is worthless. So it's tremendous pressure, and he's lived the most pressure he's ever going to live in hockey already, and he went through it and won the gold medal.”
Surrounded by teammates who are made ill by the pressure of a moment doesn't sound like a set of ideal circumstances under which to go out and win a championship. Yet, the scenario to lay claim to a title presents itself this week heading into Game 3 on Thursday, with a chance to sweep two days later and cap a fitting end to what has been a memorable season, both individually for Tokarski, and collectively for the Admirals.
“Having guys in the room who have won has much as Tokarski has is a major positive,” Cooper added. “The guys, his teammates, even the coaches, everybody feeds off that energy and enthusiasm he brings because they all want to be surrounded by guys on their team who are winners.”
For Tokarski, it’s just a matter of time until he defines himself as such yet again.