Mike Ulmer has worked for seven news organizations including the National Post and, most recently, the Toronto Sun. Mike has written about the Leafs for 10 years and wrote Captains, a book about the club's greatest leaders.
August 25, 2006
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(TORONTO) -- Her son was 10. He had wanted to play hockey for years.
Annet Pogge was a single mom raising her only child in a Calgary public housing project. She didn't need to glance at her bank book to know she couldn't afford hockey.
|Pogge led Canada to the Gold Medal in December. |
But sports offered Justin Pogge a relief from his circumstances. In sports, everyone wore the same clothes. In sports, you were judged on what you did, not on whether you had one parent or two or zero, not on how much money you had.
He had learned that playing minor baseball, which Annet could afford, if narrowly.
"Baseball showed him that no one could put him down anymore," she said. "He ruled his own roost. And if you didn't take the steps you needed to get better, then maybe you didn't deserve to go on."
Justin and Annet Pogge talk that way, in short sentences laden with an unvarnished view. Ask Justin Pogge to describe his style and he says "I'm a big guy (six-foot-three). I try to take up a lot of net."
Justin and Annet. It had always been the two of them, still is even though Annet is living in Penticton, B.C. lifting elderly people in and out of their beds at a seniors home. Justin, meanwhile, is in Strathroy, Ontario, working out with Leafs goaltending coach Steve McKichan for two hours every night. At 20, he is readying himself for a golden future.
"My mom is the reason I've made it as far as I have," said Pogge, the Leafs top goaltending prospect since they drafted Felix Potvin in 1990. "We didn't have much money for me to play. She made lots of sacrifices for me. She taught me to be strong."
Annet got pregnant when she was 22 but the relationship with Justin's Dad didn't work out. She routinely worked two jobs and sometimes piled school on top of that. It wasn't glamorous. She pumped gas and manned the counter of a rental car place.
"We just never took anything for granted," she said. "If Justin didn't have something, he didn't know any differently. If you don't have steak every night, you don't come home expecting a big meal."
One act of kindness changed both of their lives. The Calgary Flames offered free minor hockey registration and a complete set of equipment through the Calgary Boys and Girls Clubs. Justin filled out an application form. A few weeks later, he was in.
There was, however, the problem of his exercised-induced asthma. "The rinks in Calgary weren't that well ventilated," Anet said. "Because of his asthma, if Justin skated hard, he couldn't make it from one end of the rink to the other. So he played goal."
A decade later, Justin Pogge, is refining his game for his second big league training camp where he faces the possibility, however remote, of playing himself into the NHL.
He is no longer the kid from the poor part of town or even the walk-on with the WHL's Prince George Cougars. He is instead the kid who won all six games and averaged a goal a game as Canada ran the table at the World Juniors. He, is, instead, the Western League's MVP and goalie of the year.
For comparisons, McKichan points to Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh's first overall pick in 2003.
"The best way to describe him is he has Marc-Andre Fleury type speed," he said, "only bigger and a little quicker."
All of which isn't worth a roll of tape come Leafs rookie camp next month. As McKichan puts it, "it's about taking the next step. The world is full of guys who had great world junior tournaments."
Pogge is non-plussed.
"I'm just going to show up and do the best I can," he said. "Where I end up is where I end up."
Those who know Justin Pogge speak first of a steady, unimpeachable, competiveness.
"He's outgoing and he doesn't let stuff bother him," said former NHLer Kelly Kisio who coached Pogge in Calgary. "If he lets in a bad goal, he just goes on."
Science has yet to devise a formula to explain why some people make hardship their armour. Nor is there a ready explanation for whether character can be inherited.
But you think about Justin Pogge's story, about where he came from and who he is, and you wonder.
"I think that even if he had been born with a silver spoon in mouth, he would still be a hungry kid," said McKichan.
"It's just his nature."