VANCOUVER -- Goaltender Andrew Hammond has fans cheering as he leads the Ottawa Senators into an unlikely Stanley Cup Playoff race, but back in his hometown that same 6-0-1 run to start his NHL career has been especially emotional for his former goalie coach.
"It's brought me to tears just because I know how close he was to quitting," said Sean Murray, who has worked with Hammond for 17 years as an owner and coach of Pro-Formance Goalie School and Development Center in Vancouver and its suburbs. "Now seeing him have this success and just knowing how good of a kid he is, it's gotten me twice."
Maybe that's because Hammond came close to quitting on two separate occasions.
Ottawa Senators goalie Andrew Hammond nearly quit the sport twice in his junior days; now his 6-0-1 start in the NHL has his old coaches brimming with pride. (Photo: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI)
The first came when he was cut from the Alberni Valley Bulldogs in the British Columbia Hockey League after one junior-A game in 2006-07. Hammond was ready to hang up his goalie gear, but after a call from his junior-B coach Aldo Bruno, decided to return to the Grandview Steelers.
"Aldo said, 'Forget all of that stuff, is it the game of hockey you are falling out of love with or is it a bad experience standing in your way?'" said Pasco Valana, the president and a coach at Elite Goalies Canada. "Aldo turned his mind around and gave him an opportunity to play and he played well."
Hammond earned another shot in the BCHL the following season with his hometown Surrey Eagles, but was traded midseason to the Vernon Vipers, a six-hour drive away. He was ready to quit again.
"He said, 'You know what, I'm just going to go to school. I don't really need this,'" Murray said. "I remember that conversation when he was going to quit, and Pasco and I both told him, 'Don't, you have time, just give it one more year.' Thankfully he did."
The next season was Hammond's last of junior eligibility and he went into it without any next-step options. But he led the Vipers to the RBC Cup, Canada's junior-A championship, with a .949 save percentage in the playoffs and a 2-0 shutout in the final game, after which Hammond's commitment to Bowling Green University became a full-ride scholarship. After completing four years of NCAA hockey, Hammond signed with the Senators as a free agent in 2013.
So what is allowing him to have such immediate success in the NHL? How does a 27-year-old goaltender with a .905 save percentage over parts of two American Hockey League seasons, and 35 minutes of previous NHL relief experience last season, post a .957 save percentage in his first seven starts in the NHL this season?
There are several factors, but Murray and Valana, who each still work with Hammond in the summer and have been in touch with him during this remarkable run, believe mental strength plays a big role. Hammond has always thought and read the game well and wouldn't be the first goaltender to find the NHL easier in some ways because plays develop more predictably than in the minor leagues.
"It's more structured; you can read the game," Murray said. "Yes, the shooters are better if they get a 1-on-1 shot, but the defensive structure is that much better. It is not as scrambled and you are not jumping around as much. If you have good crease management you are within inches of every save, and Andrew has that ability."
Of course, as Valana points out, NHL shooters are better at exploiting any mistake that leaves them an extra inch, but Hammond has long been a goalie who recognizes how to take away that space.
"His work ethic is incredible from the neck up," said Valana, who worked with Hammond as a preteen and reconnected in the summer before that final season of junior eligibility. "He understands the goalie sense part of it and he recognizes situations, not just where a threat is, but what hand that guy who might receive the pass shoots with. He really understands the most dangerous players and what options they have. That's where his strength really lies."
Hammond manages his crease well and economizes his movements, rarely getting caught so far out on one side of a play that he can't recover back to the other. He is not a big goalie (6-foot-1), but he understands vertical angles and the differences between what a shooter sees and how much space they really have, and when the time comes he isn't afraid to go outside the box.
"The way he reads and anticipates plays is phenomenal, but his battle after the save, he just doesn't give up on pucks," Murray said. "Even when there is no chance, he's not so over-structured that he won't just throw out something, even go old-school. He's got save selections that are unique, and when he needs to he'll throw athletic saves out that maybe aren't technically perfect, but they get the job done."
Hammond will even use his glove to trap pads against his left pad, a save that very few outside of Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne make on purpose, but one that keeps their team from chasing extra rebounds off the pads.
"He's deceivingly quick too," Valana said, pointing to a relaxed upper body that doesn't get locked up tight in blocking mode.
Valana said mental conditioning is a reason Hammond won't get too caught up in his early success. Like a golfer who refers to the next shot as his most important, Hammond is good at filtering noise and focusing on his next shot.
"He was exposed to a mental training coach at Bowling Green who said something very powerful that stuck in his head, and it was just, 'NS, NS, NS: Next shot, next save, next stop,'" Valana said.
It's easy to say but harder to do, especially with the entire NHL focusing in on such a remarkable start to your career and a previously unthinkable playoff run suddenly possible. Neither Valana nor Murray think that will be a problem for Hammond, in part because he was once so close to none of this happening in the first place.
"Everything now is gravy; he was going to quit," Murray said. "This is all a bonus, so the extra pressure that some goalies feel because maybe they have a better pedigree is gone. He's already won."