Most top European prospects are told to stay home and support their local club teams. But when Christopher Gibson
talked to his parents about leaving his Karkkila, Finland home for Canada, they were OK with it.
That's how Gibson, a 6-foot-1, 193-pound goaltender, started a journey across North America that now has him playing for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"It was a weird decision, but it was a good decision for me," Gibson told NHL.com. "I wanted to go play in a higher level of hockey. There's good hockey in Finland, but I always wanted to play in Canada."
It's a decision that's worked well for his hockey future, as NHL Central Scouting has him ranked among the top players to watch in the QMJHL for the 2010-11 season and heading into the 2011 Entry Draft. He's 4-1 in five games this season, fourth in the league with a 1.78 goals-against average and third with a .941 save percentage.
"He's a very confident goalie, has an air of confidence about him. He's got very good net coverage, has good size and is very strong in his crease. He plays determined and aggressive, his movements are controlled, he tracks the puck very well and he challenges properly and holds his ground. He battled hard in all areas. He has a good, solid butterfly, was quick at gathering in any loose pucks and has good overall quickness."
-- Al Jensen
"He's a very confident goalie, has an air of confidence about him," Al Jensen, NHL Central Scouting's goaltender scout, told NHL.com. "He's got very good net coverage, has good size and is very strong in his crease. He plays determined and aggressive, his movements are controlled, he tracks the puck very well and he challenges properly and holds his ground. He battled hard in all areas. He has a good, solid butterfly, was quick at gathering in any loose pucks and has good overall quickness."
Gibson played in the Espoo Blues system until he turned 15, when he decided to cross the Atlantic and play at famed hockey prep school Notre Dame Academy in Wilcox, Sask.
"It was a great experience," he said. "You learn a lot as a person there. It's really amazing."
In his only season at Notre Dame, he backstopped the Hounds to the 2009 Telus Cup, Canada's national midget AAA championship, capped by a 43-save shutout in the championship game.
His next move was to eastern Canada to join the Sagueneens. He didn't have as much success on the ice last season with Chicoutimi -- he went just 8-19-0 with a 3.50 goals-against average and .714 save percentage, but the Sagueneens scored the fewest goals in the league (186) and allowed 257, the third-most of any team to make the league playoffs. But Gibson considered the season a success for what he learned off the ice.
Gibson said the cultural change of moving from Finland to Canada wasn't difficult -- his father was born in England, and at home he spoke English to his father and Finnish to his mother. Adjusting to the speed of the game in the QMJHL was a challenge, as well as learning French, but Chicoutimi goalie coach Marc Denis
was a help on both accounts.
"It's amazing," Gibson said. "He tells us so many things. You can talk to him about anything. He's not just a goalie coach; you can talk to him about anything."
Denis, who played 349 games over 11 NHL seasons with the Avalanche, Blue Jackets, Lightning and Canadiens, had an eager pupil in Gibson.
"He won with Notre Dame, which helped him. That's experience you can't buy anywhere else," Denis told NHL.com. "We helped his game on the ice, helped him with a few technical points here and there. Going to a 70-game schedule, going to the North American style of coaching, or how goalies evolve in the team concept and how that's dealt with on a day-to-day basis to see if the team is going to be competitive at all.
"That was his first year with a sub-.500 record, so he had to learn to deal with that and see the light at the end of the tunnel and not get discouraged by an outing he wasn't pleased with or get too high over an outing he was proud of. That's where we had to spend the most time with him. The way he came into the playoffs showed how much was able to learn the lessons throughout the season."
Gibson went 2-1 in four first-round playoff games against the Rimouski Oceanic -- two starts and two outings in relief of Robin Gusse
. Gibson, however, was the starter in a 4-3 win in Game 6 that kept the Sagueneens' season alive, and he also started Game 7, a 3-2 overtime loss.
Still, Denis has high hopes for Gibson and sees a very bright future. He also believes the competition between Gibson and Gusse -- who played for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka
Memorial Tournament in August and, like Gibson, is eligible for the 2011 Entry Draft -- will help both goalies this season.
"I do believe Christopher has a lot of upside," Denis said. "He has the size that scouts and NHL brass look for. He's a 6-foot kid, he's about 180, 185 and he's going to gain some mass, but he'll be a better-conditioned athlete. I know he's looking to win that competition for ice time."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com