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Another Brick in the Rangers' Wall

UMass Lowell's Tyler Wall is an Elite Goaltender, Student and Prospect in Blueshirts' Pipeline

by Michael Obernauer

Any hockey fan is familiar with the standard procedure of NHL Draft day: Young player hears his name called, hugs his family and emerges from the crowd, puts on the sweater of his new team, poses for photos. Repeat.

These are special memories for each player and each family, but Tyler Wall's experience was very different and no less special. On the morning of June 25, 2016, like any other morning around that time, he got up and went to his job at an auto parts store in his hometown of Leamington, Ontario. That's where Wall had grown up, where he had played his youth hockey, and where he had just finished his first full season in Junior, and the only expectations he had in June of 2016 were that it would be his last month at home before moving on to enroll at UMass Lowell and start playing in the NCAA.

Except that sometime during his shift on June 25, a call came into the shop asking for Wall. On the other end was Rich Brown, the Rangers' Ontario-based amateur scout, with some news.

"He said, 'You've been drafted,'" Wall recalled. "'You've been drafted by the New York Rangers.'"

There were no photographers present in the auto parts shop, but Wall deserved to celebrate his moment all the same. "I asked for the rest of the day off, and luckily they gave it to me," Wall said in an interview with NYRangers.com. "I just went home and told my parents. I was getting messages from a lot of people saying congratulations. It was a great day."

Wall was 18 years old on the day the Rangers scooped him up in the sixth round, No. 174 overall; now 22, Wall isn't sneaking up on anybody anymore. In the midst of his senior year at UMass Lowell, Wall has established himself as a top goaltender in Hockey East, and as the backbone of a River Hawks team ranked No. 14 in the country.

Each Monday, Hockey East names a Defensive Player of the Week; in five of this season's first nine weeks, it was Wall. He was the conference's Goaltender of the Month for November, and through January has vaulted himself into the running for the Mike Richter Award, given annually to college hockey's top goaltender. On Jan. 10, he earned his 52nd victory for UMass Lowell, passing Dwayne Roloson for the school's Division I record. Six days later, Wall was among the first wave of nominees for consideration for this year's Hobey Baker Award.

Wall and his River Hawks teammates have NCAA Tourney aspirations; however far they go, the 6-3, 215-pound netminder hopes the next step will be to sign his first pro contract with the Rangers, and to set his sights on winning a spot in Hartford and adding to the organization's talent in the nets.

It is a long way from Leamington, where Wall tended goal for the Leamington Flyers of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, a Junior B league that is two steps down from Major Junior. In his final season in Leamington, Wall put up a 27-2-1 record, with a 1.49 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage. He became the first player ever to be drafted to the NHL straight from the Flyers -- one big reason Wall, at the time, thought he had "zero shot" at being picked.

"I just didn't think anybody would want to take a chance," Wall said. "It wasn't a question of wondering if I had the ability, but just playing in that league -- you see guys get drafted out of all the CHL teams and everything -- I just didn't know how much my situation would be on anybody's radar.

"I think it just goes to show how hard those guys in New York will work to find players, how deep they will dig."

You don't have to dig deep to find Wall's name among the NCAA leaders at his position. His .934 save percentage leads Hockey East and ranks sixth in the nation; his 2.06 goals-against average is the NCAA's 11th-best -- and this playing on a team that ranks 45th out of the 60 Division I hockey programs in shots on goal against, allowing 31.4 per game.

"He is everything you ask for in a goalie," UMass Lowell Head Coach Norm Bazin said earlier this season. "He gives you a chance to be in every game."

Bazin's River Hawks began their season with three straight wins, including a tone-setting 3-2 victory in their first road game, at two-time defending champion Minnesota-Duluth behind Wall's 32 saves. "It was their banner-raising ceremony that night," Wall said of UMD. "That was a really cool road trip for us, and a huge confidence builder for me, but more importantly for our team. Winning there on the night they were celebrating a championship and everything showed us what we are capable of, that if we put our minds together, this is where we can go."

Wall's most recent work came this past weekend at Boston University, when he held his team in a scoreless game through two periods of Friday's loss, then made 30 saves in Saturday's 2-2 draw with the Terriers. "It wasn't easy," said Albie O'Connell -- David Quinn's successor as Head Coach of BU -- after his team's win on Friday, "because he's one of the best goalies in the league."

Not everything has come easy for Wall, who in addition to coming up through the Junior B ranks wound up struggling mightily through his sophomore season in Lowell, after which "I had to reinvent myself" as a goaltender, Wall said, calling it "more mental than anything."

It is Wall's mental makeup that was such a large part of what drew UMass Lowell to him, and vice versa. Wall was eager to play at a program with a history of developing goaltenders, including Roloson, Connor Hellebuyck and Carter Hutton. But Wall also wanted a school attuned to his academic pursuits: He will graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, and Bazin last month called him "one of the elite students in college hockey."

Wall's on-ice education received a major boost starting a mere two days after he learned he'd been drafted, when he attended his first Rangers Development Camp, experience that through his college years has been both eye-opening and motivational for him -- including, Wall made a point to say, the opportunity to work with Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire, and to share the nets one summer with Alexandar Georgiev.

"When I first got there and guys were shooting on me, it was almost like, 'Okay, wow. There is so much talent here,'" Wall said. "And every year since, just to see what guys are doing, what they have to do to get themselves to the next level, to that highest level, that's been a really good education for me." 

Wall's own talents are evident the moment he steps onto the ice -- literally so, because the goalmask he wears in games not only is one of the most distinctive in college hockey, it was designed and sketched by Wall himself. "I'm kind of an artsy guy," he said, "it's something that I really like to do in my spare time." The mask's front borrows from the album cover for "The Wall" -- Tyler's dad, Henry, a guitar player, has helped turn him into a Pink Floyd fan -- with the bricks fading into wings. On the back, inside a maple leaf are homages to both his adopted city and his hometown -- a depiction of the Lowell skyline on top of four tomato vines, which honor Leamington.

"Tomato Capital of Canada," Wall said proudly.

Perhaps one of Wall's designs will be seen in the pro ranks beginning next season, and one day in the NHL. His late-round Draft status, far from being discouraging, puts him in good company -- after all, Hellebuyck was a fifth-rounder; Roloson and Hutton each went undrafted. And then there is the case of a certain former Rangers Draft pick.

"That's such a special story -- knowing that the same scouting staff that drafted Henrik Lundqvist in the seventh round drafted me in the sixth round, that is honestly an honor," Wall said. "It's an amazing feeling to be drafted in the NHL, but then also to be drafted by a team like the Rangers? It's the perfect place to be."

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