It’s the old adage “what a difference a year makes.”
This time last year, Connor Hellebuyck had just graduated from Walled Lake Northern High School and was gearing up for his first time away from home to play Junior A hockey for the North American Hockey League’s Odessa (Tex.) Jackalopes.
Yes, the Jackalopes.
After a dominant season that saw him win both the NAHL’s rookie and goaltender of the year awards, the Winnipeg Jets took a chance on the 19-year-old Commerce native and drafted him in the fifth round (130th overall) during the second day of the NHL draft last Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Hellebuyck wasn’t at the Consol Energy Center, but his phone soon starting to blow up when it became known that the local kid was now NHL property.
“It’s slowly starting to sink in now that it’s been a few days,” Hellebuyck said Monday. “I still just can’t believe that I’m getting my chance to hopefully one day be an NHL goaltender. There is still a lot of hard work to do, but getting drafted is one step closer to my dream.”
And being drafted by the Jets has a bit of irony, too. In May 2011, the Metro Jets of the North American 3 Hockey League, one rung below the NAHL, signed Hellebuyck to their first-ever player tender. Had it not been for a stellar tryout camp in Odessa, Hellebuyck would have backstopped the Jets last season. Instead, he was the backbone of the first-year Jackalopes.
As the year wore on, Hellebuyck started to emerge as one of the NAHL’s top goalies and midway through the season, he committed to play college hockey next season out east for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. It was then that Hellebuyck realized that playing beyond college might be an option after all.
“When I first went down to Odessa, my goal was to play college hockey in two or three years; I never expected things to happen so fast,” said Hellebuyck. “Then after the season, I met with a couple NHL teams and I think I interviewed well. This past year has been a blur, but I think going to Odessa was the best decision I ever made. I felt like it was a perfect fit and they helped me realize one of my dreams of getting drafted. It’s just a great organization to play for.
“Winnipeg never told me that they would be drafting me, but I think our meetings went well and they really seemed to want to get to know me as a person, as well as a goaltender. I think everything happened how I wanted it to.”
This past year with the Jackalopes, Hellebuyck led the NAHL in appearances (53), minutes played (3,084) and total saves (1695), while compiling a 26-21-5 record (tied for fifth in wins), a 2.49 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage (second).
“I think being away from home and not having so many distractions helped me focus just on hockey,” explained Hellebuyck, who had his older brother, Chris, play a handful of games in Odessa towards the end of last season after a trade with the Metro Jets. “I was out of school and the only worry I had was hockey. Some of my flaws got fixed and I think I improved a lot in my mental game and in my speed. If anything ever went wrong, I’d just get on the ice and fix it.
“The staff in Odessa really believed in me and gave me a chance to prove myself. Without that, I don’t think I’m where I am today.”
With a summer full of skating three times a week and being in the gym seven days a week, Hellebuyck will head to Winnipeg’s summer camp the second week in July before jaunting off to Lowell in August.
“I’m going into college with the mindset that I am going to work hard and battle for playing time,” said Hellebuyck. “I’m looking to take my game to a whole new level. Like I said, it’s all starting to sink in and I’m realizing that some of these dreams are becoming reality.
“Everything is happening the way I hoped it would, but now it’s up to me to make more dreams come true.”
Yes, the NHL.