Throughout his hockey career, Bakersfield Condor rookie goalie Timo Pielmeier
has run into the same question.
"Every coach asks me why I'm smiling," Pielmeier said. "I say, I don't know. I just like my life. Why would I not laugh? If I keep working that hard, I'll have a great future ahead of me."
This season, Pielmeier is putting the whole Condors team in a good mood. The perky Pielmeier, 20, has shrugged off first-year jitters and what looked like a lengthy stay on the bench to ignite Bakersfield to a runaway lead in the Pacific Division. He is tied for the ECHL lead in victories (18), is third in minutes (1,776) and carries a 2.80 goals-against average.
Now that's leaving 'em both laughing and winning.
"He's a phenomenal kid. He's a fun guy to be around," Condors coach Marty Raymond said. "He doesn't take himself too seriously. That's one of his charms."
There was a day not too long ago when Pielmeier was inspiring chuckles for all the wrong reasons. Growing up in Germany, he wasn't shy about telling anyone who would listen that he'd be an NHL goalie. The problem was that Pielmeier's early youth hockey performance gave nary a hint of that type of talent.
"They thought I was crazy. I never told them what kind of job I would like," Pielmeier said. "I told them I'm going to play hockey all my life. They just laughed. I never really thought I was that good. But from year to year, it's unbelievable how things worked out for me. All my friends back in Germany, they play fourth line (in pro leagues) and they are not happy. They quit."
That can never be said about Pielmeier, at least when it comes to hockey. He fought his way onto national teams, representing Germany at both the World Under-18 competition and the World Juniors. Impressed opponents, many on their way to the NHL themselves, told Pielmeier he had the game to make a push for that league himself.
"I'd be like, 'Really? Why?'" Pielmeier said. "I was at the point where (he thought), I can stop the puck. Why would I not be one of those (prospects)? I've started realizing how many steps I've made forward."
The biggest one brought him over to a test in North America. After dominating in Germany, Pielmeier jumped to the QMJHL to play the last two seasons there. He was named the league's rookie of the year with St. John's in 2007-08, going 23-22-4, .911, 2.93. Last season, he helped Shawinigan advance to the league finals, finishing second in wins (29) and minutes played (2,407).
The move also gave Pielmeier a glimpse of what he was getting into if he wanted to pursue the sport at this much different level.
"It was kind of different to come over and see how people love hockey here," he said. "I was 17-years-old. People treated me like a star. It was so different in Germany. If you play hockey in Germany, nobody cares. I think soccer is so big over there. People are just not that into hockey."
At the start of this season, Pielmeier looked like he'd be taking on more of an observer's role for his first year of pro hockey. Anaheim shipped Justin Pogge
, its No. 3 goalie, to the Condors, and it was obvious that Pogge was going there to play as much as possible. But here's a shocker. Pielmeier remained chipper that somehow, someway, there'd be some minutes for him.
"I think I had a pretty good camp in Anaheim, which gave me a lot of confidence. I knew Anaheim would never sit me on the bench," he said.
The script ran exactly that way. Anaheim sent Pogge to San Antonio of the AHL early in the season, and Pielmeier got first crack at grabbing starter's minutes. He's barely loosened his grip since, earning a league all-star invitation for his play the first half of the year.
"I have to have confidence in him. I really didn't have too many worries," Raymond said. "'What I like about him is he's accountable. He's not the type of guy who says it's not my fault. He's pretty strong mentally. He doesn't let small things affect him. He's very calm. The only thing he's working on is keeping the focus."
It's no surprise that Pielmeier's biggest challenge might be working his way into a stylistic groove. He said he had four goalie coaches growing up, a mish-mash of instruction that produced a netminder who doesn't worry about how he looks as he's getting in the way of a puck.
"Every goalie coach, I told them I'm not changing my style," he said. "I don't care if I stop it with my head or my skate."
Pielmeier is just as aggressive when he sees a chance to add his name to the record book. He became the 10th goalie in ECHL history (and also the youngest) to score a goal when he fired in an empty-netter Dec. 19 at Utah. The prolonged celebration on the Condors' bench was a tribute to the goalie's popularity among his teammates.
"I was at the point where (he thought), I can stop the puck. Why would I not be one of those (prospects)? I've started realizing how many steps I've made forward." -- Timo Pielmeier
"I was so excited. I was going for it," Pielmeier said. "I just thought, I'm going to shoot it down. I was just out of my mind. Everything stopped for a second."
That's the sort of time-space continuum thing Pielmeier can work with his play. He turned in the stop of the game at the all-star contest Jan. 20, diving to his right to glove a blast by Elmira's Justin Donati
that was heading for an open net. The crowd in Ontario went nuts in appreciation for the showman in the crease. He also stood out in both the breakaway relay (stopping 5 of 7) and the rapid fire (stopping 8 of 10).
It's an act that ECHL fans better appreciate while they can. Pielmeier's personality is genuine, but that shouldn't mask his seriousness when it comes to the task at hand.
"I was working my (tail) off the last five or six years to get where I am right now. To be honest, I had no idea what's coming toward me (in the pros)," he said. "I don't believe it yet because I'm not (in the NHL) yet. Keep working hard, and hopefully I'll be there someday."