It’s 2013. I’m working for the New England Sports Network in Boston, hosting the Hockey East final on the network’s college hockey coverage.
My biggest concern prior to the championship game was how to say the last name of the netminder for the UMass-Lowell Riverhawks — a kid named Connor something.
Well, I learned very quickly how to pronounce his last name, as Connor Hellebuyck led the Riverhawks to the school’s first-ever Hockey East title and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Fast forward to Jan. 2, 2016. My assignment for Hockey Night in Canada took me to San Jose for a game between the Sharks and Winnipeg Jets.
There in the dressing room, off to the side, sat that Connor kid — who was now 22 and playing in his first full NHL season. Hellebuyck was playing consistently due to an injury to starter Ondrej Pavelec.
That game, he led the Jets to a 4-1 win, turning aside 27 shots, and was my post-game interview.
Handed an HNIC towel as he walked off the ice to the interview position, he gave a small smile as he flipped the towel over his shoulder and said, “This is my first one.”
As a kid from Michigan, he appreciated the tradition of the crest on the white towel.
I asked him about the game and he handled my questions like a pro — until my final one, when I asked, how does it feel to be a starting goaltender in the NHL?
He paused for a second and a small smile appeared. I’ll never forget that moment, as it felt to me that it was the first time he heard the words out loud: “starting goalie in the NHL.”
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