|Spokane Chiefs' goalie, Dustin Tokarski, is the latest in a long line of Tokarskis to tend goal.
For some people, goaltending is a family affair. Skills and techniques are passed down from generation to generation, as is the pride taken in being a card-carrying member in likely the world's most eccentric club.
Such a family is the Tokarski family, located throughout Saskatchewan. It is the family of Spokane Chiefs starting goaltender Dustin Tokarski
, who is following in the goalie pads of his father, two uncles, and grandfather before him.
"We even have a picture on our wall with each of us wearing our different gear," Tokarski said.
One thing that isn't passed on, however, is the equipment. But that's just fine by him.
"It's definitely brown," he said of the old equipment. "And it doesn't cover as much."
Tokarski was born in Watson, Saskatchewan, a town much like other Canadian towns where hockey is just something kids do. And even though his father, uncles and grandfather were all "tenders," young Dustin began playing as a forward, choosing only to dabble in the family trade later
"I started skating when I was about 3" he said. "I was a player and a goalie until I was 12 or so, and then I started playing goal full-time," he said.
Once he began, it seemed, somehow, as if the position was just right for him. Perhaps here was something in his blood that allowed him to rocket up the goaltending ranks, something different in his game and reflexes that set him apart from his peers. Whatever the reason, those following Tokarski's career basically watched him go to sleep a part-time goaltender, and wake up a bona fide elite-level WHL prospect.
Like, just maybe, he was born to play net.
"I played AA Bantam my first year, and my second year I went to Humboltd to play Bantam AAA," Tokarski said. "The following year, I went to Prince Albert where I was going to be a backup, but by the end of the year I was the starter. And then the next year we won the Telus Cup and I got listed by the Chiefs after the Mac's (Hockey Tournament)."
Today, Tokarski finds himself an elite-level prospect once again, this time for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He is at No. 11 on the list of NHL Central Scouting's North American goalies. He is one of six WHL goalies ranked in the top 15 in a draft class that is seen by many as one of the strongest in many years.
It seems the scouts are beginning to see what his teammates have seen all along.
"He's an outstanding goalie," said teammate Mitchell Wahl, himself a prospect for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, ranked at No. 37 on CSS' list of North American skaters. "He's real big in net, and he plays wide, even though he's not the tallest guy. He just finds a way to keep the puck out of the net. I think he's one of the best draft-eligible guys out there."
This season, Tokarski helped lead his Chiefs to a 50-15-1-6 record for 107 points in 72 games, good for the second-best record the WHL behind divisional-rival Tri-Cities, who led the league with 108 points.
For his own part, the second-year veteran finished tied for fifth in the WHL in wins (30), third in goals-against average (2.05), second in shutouts (six) and tied for first in save percentage (.922).
After only three playoff games, he has fared even better, playing to a 3-0 record with a 1.33 GAA and a .949 save percentage. He has allowed only four goals on 78 shots, and leads the WHL playoffs in both GAA and save percentage.
Once again, his teammates are anything but shocked.
He's there for us and we want to step in for him. Having him in net gives us a lot of confidence. - Mitchell Wahl
"The confidence is there with our goaltender, Wahl said. "He's there for us and we want to step in for him. Having him in net gives us a lot of confidence."
Tokarski has had more than enough motivation this season. First, there is the opportunity to be selected in the NHL Entry Draft. Then, there is the Chiefs' first-round matchup against the Everett Silvertips and a chance at redemption against the team that knocked him and his teammates out of the playoffs last season. Finally, perhaps the biggest motivation, is the desire not to give his family any more ammunition at family gatherings.
Because the "advice" he gets when all the Tokarski goaltenders are together isn't always the kind of advice he needs or wants.
|Tokarski tied for first in the WHL this season with a .922 save percentage in 45 games played.
"A lot of them are pretty smart remarks, but some is helpful," he said. "They like to give me gas about the equipment, of course, about how it's easier now and how you're much bigger and cover more of the net. But I still try to get them back."
He is able to do that because of his success at the position, despite his youth. In fact, his motivation to succeed is due, in part, to a little family rivalry
"Of course you want to make it farther than they did," Tokarski said.
And when asked which of his family members was the best, the youngest Tokarski exhibited the same veteran presence that one would expect from a goalie descending from a line of goaltenders. He answered without getting rattled, holding his cards tight to his chest.
"I gotta be careful with this one," he said while laughing, and then paused. "They were all pretty decent back in the day. My dad won league titles growing up, my uncle was at Notre Dame, so I guess they were all pretty good."
But, Tokarski has a legitimate chance to be the best of the bunch – just like he was born for it.