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Jets prospect Comrie thriving after hip surgery

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Eric Comrie doesn't plan on just stopping pucks in the NHL.

Comrie, who was picked 59th by the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL Draft this summer, has made it his goal to play an entire 82-game season, a feat that would best the record of 79 games held by Grant Fuhr for the St. Louis Blues in 1995-96.

So what makes the 18-year-old confident it is even possible to play them all, a task only future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur, who played 78 games in 2006-07, has approached since Fuhr?

"I treat practice like every single puck is a game puck. I go 100 percent every practice, and I see way more shots and better chances in practice than I do in games," Comrie explained in a matter-of-fact fashion. "So I feel if I can go through that in practice every single day, I can do that every single game. It doesn't wear me down."

It's a bold ambition to say the least, but after watching Comrie start both ends of back-to-back games for the Western Hockey League's Tri-City Americans despite a 350-mile overnight bus ride and 5 a.m. arrival in Vancouver in between, maybe it's not so far-fetched. Neither are Comrie's chances of being an impact NHL goalie.

After having surgery on each hip to prematurely end his 2012-13 season in early January, Winnipeg Jets prospect Eric Comrie is right back near the top of the WHL this season with a .925 save percentage and 2.47 goals-against average. (Photo: Clint Trahan)

After having surgery on each hip to prematurely end his 2012-13 season in early January, Comrie is right back near the top of the WHL this season with a .925 save percentage and 2.47 goals-against average. If there were any outside concerns about having both hips operated on, they weren't shared by Comrie or Americans coach Jim Hiller.

"That was a non-issue for me, knowing the care he got," Hiller said. "Maybe some people or some teams had concerns about the surgeries, and maybe that's why Winnipeg ended up with maybe one of the best picks in the draft."

If that's true, other teams need to do more homework on goalie hips.

Comrie was never worried. In addition to having the procedure done by Dr. Marc Philippon, who has performed hip surgery on many NHL goalies, as well as golfing great Greg Norman, Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, Comrie had his hips fixed before the impingement caused any tearing in his labrum.

Comrie went into it confident, and he says he actually came out even more flexible.

"Right now, I feel way better than I did before," said Comrie, who had the hips operated on six days apart and was back to being himself on the ice by early June. "I feel more flexible, quicker side to side, stronger and more stable in my movements. I feel like I have more mobility in the butterfly and probably a little bit wider butterfly too. I have always been a flexible guy, but right now, I can get in and out of the splits way quicker than I have been able to before. Not only that, but I feel like I am more stable in the butterfly and more stable in the splits and when I have to get athletic in my movements. I feel like I have more body control and body awareness when I make those movements."

Comrie's ability to make those kinds of saves without relying on them is a big part of his success, and something a lot of goaltenders don't figure out until they are much older, if at all. At his best, he makes it look easy, understanding that positioning stops most pucks. But when more is required to make a save, Comrie has that ability.

"That's what separates him is the ability to play well at both ends of the spectrum," said Lyle Mast, Comrie's goaltending coach in Tri-City. "That ability to economize movements based on the way the game is playing, to be very quiet and match the pace of game, and then to elevate when required, and show full-on athleticism when we are under siege and the other team is overwhelming us."

If having hip surgery helped some of those "full-on" movements, it also made it easier for Comrie to move past a summer that could have overwhelmed others. In addition to being drafted, Comrie was invited to Hockey Canada's Program of Excellence goaltending camp and the World Junior Summer Development camp.

"With surgery and missing half of last year, it really helped me to just be excited to get back to the rink and get going again," he said.

Comrie, who was left off the roster for Canada's Dec. 12-15 World Junior training camp in favor of Zachary Fucale and Jake Paterson, also returned to the rink with a couple requests from the Jets.

"The Jets want me to play a little bit more of an aggressive game, get out of my crease a little, stay at the top of the crease, and stay aggressive when traffic comes," Comrie said, adding that Winnipeg also asked him to work on his puck-handling, which he does every day now. "They felt my movement is good enough to start above the crease at all times."

It's a delicate balance for any goalie to find his optimal position, one often dictated by the way his team defends in front of him and what types of chances he tends to give up. Comrie is also focused this season on making sure he is set for every shot, and never moving as it comes. But playing farther out means more distance from one save position to the next, making it harder to ensure he arrives in time to get set.

"So I have to choose the right depth where I am always set as well," Comrie said. "When I set my feet, I track the puck so much better, and it makes my rebound control so much better and all of my movements so much easier."

For Comrie, who also spends a little time each summer with Swedish goalie coach Eric Granqvist, it starts with how he tracks the puck. It's a skill he credits to his work with Mast, who founded a company called Optimum Reaction Sports and turned extensive studies on vision and biomechanics into a system for goalies.

"That's what I am saying all game long: 'Track down, track down, track down,'" said Comrie, referencing what he and Mast call "head trajectory."

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