Dustin Tokarski tried other positions when he first started playing hockey.
The Lightning rookie always thought like a goalie though.
“Whenever I played forward, I was always the first one back on defense,” Tokarski said. “I hated to give up goals. So I figured I might as well play in goal.”
It was a very good choice.
Since that time, many obstacles have been put in front of him, he’s been told he couldn’t do things, and Tokarski has just kept preventing goals and winning games.
Tokarski will come to Tampa for his first professional training camp in a few weeks with Canadian Midget, Memorial Cup and World Junior Championships on his resume. Now he faces the biggest challenge.
“I just know I have to prove myself again,” said Tokarski, the Lightning’s fifth-round pick in 2008. “I had a good junior career. But that’s in the past now. I have to work just as hard. I’m not taking anything for granted.”
Tokarski, who turns 20 on September 16, has built a reputation as a calm, cool player and a winner – perhaps the best two characteristics for a goalie.
Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton and Lightning goalie coach Cap Raeder both said Tokarski has a strong mental make-up for the position.
“I’m impressed by his maturity,” Lawton said. “Some young players come in and want to have success right away, but he is not going to be in a hurry. That [attitude] comes from never having anything given to him. He’s always had to earn it.”
That all started early for Tokarski, who grew up in Watson, Saskatchewan. He wasn’t selected in the Western Hockey League’s bantam draft and he was cut from several midget teams before the Prince Albert Mintos AAA team gave him a chance.
In 2006, Tokarski rewarded them. He backstopped the Mintos to the Canadian Midget Championship (Telus Cup). Tokarski made 61 saves in the triple-overtime final.
Still, he was thought of as somewhat under-sized (now at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds). WHL teams weren’t quickly lining up to add him to their roster before Spokane awarded him the opportunity.
“Every setback, I’ve tried to take something from it,” Tokarski said. “I believe things happen for a reason. There are always going to be negative things. I try to find the positives in situations.”
Tokarski said working through the pressure to win the midget title helped him during the Memorial Cup title run with Spokane in 2008. He learned that when things were on the line, he played his best. Each championship has helped that confidence grow.
During the 21 playoff games in 2008, Tokarski gave up just 31 goals. Tokarski allowed a goal 5:01 in, but was spotless after that to beat host Kitchener, 4-1, in the final. He was 16-5 with an 1.38 goals-against average and .944 save percentage and was named MVP of the Memorial Cup tournament. He had a 2.05 goals-against average and .922 save percentage during the regular season.
In 2008-09, Tokarski had a career-high 34 wins in the regular season and improved his numbers to a 1.97 goal-against average and a .937 save percentage. In three years with S pokane, Tokarski was a combined 77-39-7.
“He just carries himself so well,” Lightning Assistant General Manager Tom Kurvers said. “When something bad happens, it’s on to the next shift. That gives his team a sense of calm, too.”
Tokarski said his parents Mark and Darlene taught him well. He was always told if something goes wrong on the ice, think of something funny to get the bad thoughts out of your head and move on. He said worrying about the last goal is not going to help you stop the next shot.
His biggest test came in the World Juniors right after last Christmas. Tokarski beat out first-round pick Chet Pickard (Nashville) for the start in the first game against the Czech Republic and earned an 8-1 victory.
After Pickard played the next two games, which Canada won against lesser opponents, Tokarski got the start in the last, critical first-round game against the United States. But the U.S. team jumped out in front 3-0 in just more than 12 minutes.
“[Coach] Pat Quinn showed a lot of guts to leave me in,” Tokarski said. “That gave me confidence. I knew if I gave up any more it was going to be an insurmountable lead.”
Canada scored three goals near the end of the first period to tie the game. Tokarski gave up one more goal 3:40 into the second period on the power play, but shut the Americans out the rest of the way as Canada won, 7-4.
Tokarski had to battle through another tough game against Russia in the semifinals, giving up five. But Jordan Eberle scored with five seconds remaining in regulation to tie it for Canada and Tokarski was solid in OT before Eberle got the winner 10 minutes in.
“I started the tournament good against the Czech Republic,” Tokarski said. “But I think I got a little too confident. I wasn’t as focused as I usually am the next two games. I let in a couple soft goals and was looking into the crowd too much.
“I knew [in the final] there were no more excuses. I just stared at the sheet of ice in front of me and focused on stopping pucks.”
Tokarski stopped 39 of 40 shots against Sweden in the final as Canada rolled to a 5-1 victory.
Now, it’s on to the next level.
Tokarski said the Lightning’s Young Guns prospect camp was awesome. He learned some things that he took home with him to practice. He also worked with young goalies at a camp back home. His main message for the tiny netminders? Have fun.
His goal is to open eyes at training camp next month and get off to a good start. He will likely begin his pro career in Norfolk, teaming with second-year pro Riku Helenius
to try and bring the Admirals back to the AHL playoffs.
“I’ll take it as a challenge,” Tokarski said.
Lawton said, with the difficult AHL schedule, there should be enough playing time for both of them to grow.
“It’s going to be tougher in the AHL,” Lawton said. “[Tokarski] has to conquer that league now. He has to change his game, but he has been able to do that at every step. He has the natural ability, he’s strong mentally and he’s a good athlete.”
Tokarski is patient.
“You can’t think too far ahead,” Tokarski said. “I just want to have a good season and prove what I can do. The ultimate goal is to the play for the Tampa Bay Lightning. I’m prepared to wait and work as hard as I can.”
Author: Mark Pukalo | TBL.com