Luke Opilka came very close to quitting hockey before realizing his true calling as a goaltender during an open skate at a friend's birthday party.
"I was never too good a player; the only goal I ever scored was on my own net," Opilka said. "I really thought I actually scored a goal so I began celebrating. I was probably a mite [8 years old] then and I probably should have known better, but I didn't."
What he did learn was that playing defense was not a good idea for him.
"I tried goaltender at my friend's birthday party and just loved it, so I stuck with it from there," he said.
Luke Opilka is considered to be one of the top goaltenders eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. (Photo: Tom Sorensen)
Fast-forward 10 years and Opilka has developed into the No. 1 goalie with the United States National Team Development Program under-18 team. He's also considered to be one of the top goaltenders eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.
"At the moment I see Luke in the mix for the top spot among goaltenders at the draft," NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen said.
In 13 games this season the 6-foot-1, 192-pound Opilka is 10-3-0 with a 2.67 goals-against average, two shutouts and a .900 save percentage. That comes after he went 14-9-2 with a 3.59 GAA and .863 save percentage in 30 games with the USNTDP U-17 team in 2013-14.
"He's focused and very driven to be the best he can be," USNTDP U-18 coach Don Granato said. "He challenges himself every day at practice. After practice he grabs goalie gloves and a stick and goes upstairs to shoot pucks."
A native of Effingham, Ill., Opilka began opening some eyes in midget minors with the St. Louis Blues program in 2012-13, going 18-2-1 with a 1.55 GAA and .927 save percentage.
"Effingham is a small farming community, so it's kind of crazy how I got started in hockey," Opilka said. "It was from my uncle who played at the University of Illinois; my mom's side of the family grew up around hockey. My brothers and I would commute to St. Louis for practices [approximately 100 miles each way], and it got to the point where we had to make the move [to St. Louis to ease the travel]."
Opilka has good size and moves well in his crease, two areas that excite NHL scouts.
"I play more of a hybrid and play more to my positioning, quick feet and try to get into the space before the shot comes," Opilka said. "I try and stay away from reactionary saves and try to be in the right position at all times."
Opilka was the highest-rated goalie invited to participate in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo on Sept. 25. In his 29:48 of ice time he allowed one goal on 23 shots to help Team Mike Grier to a 6-3 victory against Team Eddie Olczyk.
"He's aggressive and is a quick-style goalie, challenging shooters very well," Jensen said. "He reads the plays well and is quick to react, has a good glove hand and is an overall strong goalie. He's got great lateral movement and competes very hard."
He said the one area he needs to improve is the mental side of the game.
"I feel I've improved on [the mental side], but there's always areas to get better," he said. "I used to get angry, but not so much anymore."
Opilka said he now directs his focus and energy on the next shot coming in his direction instead of the one that got away.
"When he struggles it's because he's too intense," Granato said. "He'll put pressure on himself and is over-focused in that regard. But he's matured a lot. He studies the position and knows it well. He's learned it, taught himself and learned a lot from our goalie coach."
Opilka's goalie coach for the USNTDP is Kevin Reiter, who is in his first season with the program.
"I've learned how to be more efficient with my movements," Opilka said. "[Reiter] has taught me how to better use my size and cut down angles."
Opilka is committed to the University of Wisconsin in 2015-16.
"I chose Wisconsin because of the coaching staff and atmosphere there," he said. "I thought that would be the best place to be for college hockey. There were plenty of other schools, but Wisconsin was the best fit for me."