What a long, strange trip it's been for Reading Royals rookie goaltender Michael Ouzas
It all started when the 23-year-old signed a two-way deal with the ECHL's Reading Royals and the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League. After training camp, Ouzas went to Reading but shortly thereafter was reassigned to the Fresno Falcons.
Right from the get-go, the Hamilton, Ont., native was putting up solid numbers in Fresno. But right before Christmas, the Falcons became the second ECHL franchise this season to suspend operations.
Time to go back to Reading.
"It was definitely unexpected," said Ouzas, who went 10-6-1 with a 2.68 goals-against average in 18 games with Fresno. "Nobody was expecting it when it happened. It was just kind of a surprise to everyone. Everybody on the team was fortunate enough to get picked up. It helped that we were very successful in Fresno. Our team was very good. In that respect, it was a lot easier for a lot of guys to get picked up. I'm glad everyone was able to find a place to play."
Ouzas returned to the Royals, who also were battling difficult times. Jason Nobili, who was hired last summer as Karl Taylor's replacement as coach, was fired after 34 games. He was replaced by Larry Courville
, who played in the league last season.
So the goaltender took it upon himself to shake things up a bit in the Reading locker room. Not only did Ouzas bring his pads upon his arrival, he also brought a winning attitude -- one that is beginning to catch on. In eight appearances with the Royals, Ouzas has three victories and a .914 save percentage.
"He gives us a chance to win every game and we haven't had that feeling yet," Courville told NHL.com. "I think he brings that composure. He's got the right attitude to change things and he's a good guy in the locker room. He holds the players accountable and he holds himself accountable. It makes a change in the locker room.
"He's awesome; the guys love him. He works hard on the ice and he's a good teammate off the ice. He's done a really good job for us."
Ouzas admitted one of his goals upon returning to Reading was to help change the atmosphere. So far, it appears he's been able to do just that.
"Coming in here, I knew guys were a little bit down, having lost quite a bit of games," Ouzas said of the Royals, who went into the All-Star break with a 13-26-2 record. "I was just trying to be positive and bring some fun to the room, and ultimately some leadership and help the team get back on track."
It certainly was a long road for Ouzas to get to this point. He played three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League (two with the Mississauga Ice Dogs, one with the Owen Sound Attack) before opting to get his degree at the University of New Brunswick. While he could have joined the ECHL after the 2005-06 season with Owen Sound, Ouzas said it was important to him to finish school.
"I was never drafted, and I didn't really have any great options coming out of my over-age year in juniors," Ouzas said. "I only had two years of school left because I fast-tracked in the OHL. I was able to go to UNB (University of New Brunswick), which is a great program, and have two successful years there."
After his college time, the Marlies called. That's when Ouzas realized he had made the right decision. Even if things don't work out in hockey, he has something to fall back on.
"I had a couple of opportunities to go to the ECHL right from junior, but I thought for me personally, school was very important," Ouzas said. "I wanted to get it done before taking the next step. I was fortunate enough to get a chance with the Marlies, which is great."
"I've just got to keep working hard. I try to take pride in my technique and how I play. If I can keep working at that and improve every day, that'll hopefully bring me to where I want to be." -- Michael Ouzas
The feeling appears to be mutual. While Ouzas has yet to receive a promotion to the AHL, Courville believes Toronto has the goalie in its plans. There's even the possibility Ouzas will get a look at the Triple-A level before the regular season concludes.
"I'd like to say he would," Courville said. "I'm sure Toronto is definitely interested. They wouldn't have signed him to a two-way contract if they didn't have any plans for him."
"That's not really something I can control," Ouzas said of a promotion to the AHL. "All I can control is how I play here every chance I get to play. I know that they're watching, and hopefully it work out for me in the end.
"I've just got to keep working hard. I try to take pride in my technique and how I play. If I can keep working at that and improve every day, that'll hopefully bring me to where I want to be."
Contact Brian Compton at email@example.com.