By Tim Pigulski
When the Thunderbirds opened the season in September to face the Portland Winterhawks, a familiar face was missing between the pipes. Calvin Pickard, who had played in an astounding 241 out of a possible 288 games over the span of four years, had moved on to the American Hockey League to continue his career with the Lake Erie Monsters, an affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche.
In addition to cementing himself as one of the best goalies to ever don the T-Birds sweater, Pickard also rewrote the WHL record books. From 2008-2012, he set all-time records for most minutes played (14,025) and most saves (7,727), and finished second all-time in most games played (241).
Despite his heroic efforts, the Thunderbirds were unable to qualify for the playoffs in any of Pickard's final three seasons, an opportunity Pickard says he would have swapped any of his personal accomplishments for.
"I would've definitely sacrificed the records for another shot at the playoffs and a few postseason wins," said the former second-round draft choice. "It would've been really nice to see the playoffs again in those last couple years."
In spite of the lack of success seen by the team, Pickard maintains that his time in Seattle was positive, citing his personal development and the relationships he developed while playing at the ShoWare Center.
"I had four great years there and built a lot of great relationships," he said. "The staff was great to me and it truly is a first-class organization. My four years there were great and I wouldn't trade them for the world."
After his praises of the organization, the 20-year-old netminder went on to commend the fans that continued to fill the seats at home games, even when things weren't going very smoothly.
"I love the fans there. They were so great and so loud, regardless of how we were doing," he said. "We had three tough seasons in a row and they just kept coming back. They were resilient and really wanted us to win."
In transitioning to the AHL, Pickard's personal success seems to translating to team success for the Monsters, who currently sit third in the Western Conference's North Division with a 9-6-1-0 record.
Pickard has found himself splitting time with Finnish goalie Sami Aittokallio, presenting a 2.94 goals against average and an impressive .912 save percentage.
One of those victories was a 4-0 shutout over the Texas Stars in October, a game in which Pickard stopped all 25 shots that he faced, including three from former teammate and current AHL counterpart Brenden Dillon.
Brenden Dillon is quickly rising through the Dallas Stars' ranks. (WHL.ca photo)
Dillon, a defenseman, spent four years in Seattle, three of which saw Pickard in net (2008-2011). After going undrafted as an 18-year-old, the Dallas Stars prospect played very well in his final junior season, scoring 59 points in 72 games to go along with 139 penalty minutes, all career highs. The successful farewell campaign led to him earning signing an entry-level contract with the Stars, and he has managed to play his way into one NHL game so far.
As the AHL has an age minimum of 20 years, the differences between it and the WHL, which features younger athletes, are what one might expect.
"The guys are older and more mature, leading to less breakdowns, less mistakes, and more structure to the game," Pickard said. "Guys always seem to be in the right position and you really have to convert your chances because there aren't as many in pro hockey as there are in juniors."
Like with so many other young players, the NHL lockout cost Pickard a valuable opportunity to participate in the Avalanche's training camp prior to the beginning of the season. Although it's unlikely Pickard would have made the team ahead of the established goaltenders on the Colorado roster, playing against elite-level talents such as Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, and Paul Stastny would have been extremely beneficial for the young goalie.
"I got to be in training camp the last couple of years before being sent back to juniors, but it would have been nice to have another chance and maybe play an exhibition game or two," said Pickard, who won 91 regular season games with the T-Birds. "Obviously they were set on their two goalies, so I just wanted to make sure I got off to a good start in the American (Hockey) League and I think I've done that."
If everything goes according to plan, Pickard hopes to see himself tending the crease for the Avalanche within the next couple of years. That same net is the one that was protected for so many years by one of the greatest goalies in NHL history, Patrick Roy.
Roy won 551 games in his NHL career, along with three Vezina Trophies, awarded to the league's top goaltender, and four Stanley Cups.
Pickard knows he will have some big skates to feel when he finally does arrive.
"When I was growing up, Patrick Roy was right in his prime with Colorado," said Pickard, who would have been just 9 years old when Roy won his last Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001.
"I try not to think about it too much, but it would be really cool to be able to put on that uniform and play in the National Hockey League. It would be a dream come true."
During his draft season, Pickard found himself all over the place on draft boards, ranging anywhere from the middle of the first round to the end of the third. He ended up going in the second round, 49th overall, as the third goalie taken behind Jack Campbell (Dallas) and Mark Visentin (Phoenix).
With so much uncertainty surrounding his future, Pickard learned to temper his expectations early.
"Looking back on it, you can't set many expectations. You talk to a lot of different teams, but it's anyone's game once the draft floor hits.
Once Colorado came up, I knew I had a chance, and now that I'm here I'm in a really great situation. The staff and players are great and we're treated really well."
Two years prior to Calvin's selection by the Avalanche, his older brother, Chet, went in the first round to the Nashville Predators with the 18th overall pick.
Even after his extremely successful junior career with the Tri-City Americans, Chet hasn't been able to accomplish the same things at the professional level, bouncing between the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals and the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones.
Calvin attributes the success of both he and his brother to their ability to remain positive while playing the game's most scrutinized position.
"Goalies have a lot of pressure on them at all times, but we've learned not to worry about that," Calvin said about he and his older brother. "We've been able to maintain a positive attitude, stay enthusiastic, and work hard at all times.
"I think those are the keys that have made us the goalies we are today."
Even though both have established themselves as goalies, Calvin maintains that there wasn't any pressure from their parents to stick at the demanding position.
"It was totally up to me and Chet and we both really liked it at an early age. Looking back, there are no regrets and we made the right decision," he said.
Despite his graduation from the WHL, Pickard still follows the Thunderbirds closely and keeps in touch with some of his old buddies, most notably current forwards Justin Hickman and Connor Honey.
"I'm always checking the box scores and it's really weird not being in net for them," said an emotional Pickard.
"I'll definitely be keeping tabs on them for sure."