At the end of the hockey season last year, Nic, my 12-year-old son, decided he wanted to be a goalie.
“Really? A GOALIE?” I asked. “Are you sure? That’s a lot of responsibility.”
The goalie is the last defender of the puck. And, as that last defender, it means your teammates haven’t been able to thwart your opponent’s attack. It becomes slow motion, in supersonic speed, as the puck shoots off of the blade of their stick, looking to find a way past you, your pads, your stick, your blocker, your glove. To be a goalie, you have be a leader. You can’t hold that last goal over your head, you need to shrug it off and get ready to stop the next one. Probably more than any other player on the team, it is the job that takes the most self-confidence and self-belief, because even though it’s a team sport, the responsibility for a loss is more often than not squarely placed on the shoulders of the player between the pipes.
Taking full responsibility is exactly what Dawn and Jason MacAuley’s son, Dawson, did after a crushing opening playoff loss suffered by his major junior hockey team on home ice last year. After the game, outside his team’s dressing room, the goalie went and talked to the media, discussing the loss, the goals he’d let in — and the reaction of the home crowd fans. In fact, it’s the character and integrity it took for him to do exactly that, that makes his hockey mom so proud.
Dawson MacAuley had let in four goals in the first period before he was pulled for the first time. Pulling a goalie is common in all levels of hockey, including the National Hockey League. Fresh legs in the net can prevent any further bleeding of goals, it can act as a wake-up call, and it can inspire your team to play better. And they played better, but not good enough.
Then, in the third period, in a move that many view as being bizarre, despite having a timeout available to them, MacAuley was swapped back in again.
And that’s when it happened.
As he made his way from the bench and across the ice to take his place once again in the net, most of the 6,200 hometown fans in attendance got on their feet, shouting and booing to get him off the ice.
“I gasped,” recalls Dawn, who was watching the game from the team-designated section on the second level of the complex. “That’s my son out there.”
And then she began to cry.
Of the estimated 1,500 players in the 60 major junior teams that make up the Canadian Hockey League each year, most have been dreaming of a career in the NHL for as long as they’ve been able to lace up their skates on their own. They are the cream of the crop, having been hand-picked and placed on elite teams throughout their growing minor hockey lives, getting up way before dawn for early-morning practices 4 or 5 times a week, spending endless hours in buses traveling from game to game, summer holidays filled with hockey camps to fine tune their skills. Hockey may have been their non-stop focus since they were seven or eight years old.
MacAuley was one of those.
The CHL has an impressive roster of alumni who have made it to the NHL, but they are quick to point out their players finish high school at a rate that beats the Canadian average. They also boast a large number of players that land in Canadian universities, some who play hockey while they’re studying. Because major junior players are considered “professional” by the American colleges because of the small playing allowance they receive, players who follow this path are ineligible to play NCAA hockey, the route that most American-born players take to the NHL. The grim reality is that one-tenth of 1% of all hockey players will ever have their blades touch the ice surface on behalf of an NHL team, but that doesn’t make these players’ dreams any less vivid. In his book, Selling the Dream, author Ken Campbell says Canadian parents have a better chance of winning the lottery.
The fans pay around $20 bucks a pop for the privilege of watching these teams play a regular season game. Like all sports consumers, they expect value for money and many of them treat the players like the pros, with the adulation and contempt they see fit, especially in small markets where major junior is the only game in town. Hockey is an emotional sport. When things don’t go the way the fans want, they can get nasty.
A 15-Year-Old Tiger
Four years before, the 15-year old bantam from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, was drafted into the Western Hockey League — one of the 3 leagues that make up the CHL — by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the neighbouring province of Alberta. MacAuley was drafted 36th, in the second round, well up the list of the 251 players drafted in 2009. The WHL teams conduct a draft of bantam players in April each year, similar to how the NHL conducts its draft. The selected players are put on a Protected Players List, giving the WHL team the right to play them or trade them in the future, keeping them out of the grasp of other teams.
Dawn was excited her son had been chosen by the Tigers: it was a strong team with a great coach and great goalie coach. In fact, in each of the nine years that Willie Desjardins had been coaching in the WHL, his teams had made the playoffs and twice, both times with the Tigers, he delivered championship wins. Shortly after MacAuley had been put on their protected players list, Desjardins met with the youngster and his parents, explaining his development vision for the 6’6″ boy.
All Mapped Out
“He had it all mapped out,” explains Dawn. “He wanted to nurture Dawson, turn him into the goalie he knew he could be.”
Initially, the Tigers wanted MacAuley to move to Medicine Hat to play midget AAA hockey and be closer to the team, giving him an opportunity for supervised training under Desjardin’s direction. Each province has different rules governing the transfer of players; the request to the Saskatchewan Hockey Association would be agreed to only if his parents were willing to move with him. They weren’t, so MacAuley stayed put.
Although Prince Albert wasn’t Medicine Hat, it was home, and home still fit into Desjardin’s development plan. In the eyes of the coach from Climax, Saskatchewan, MacAuley would spend one year playing midget AAA hockey with the Prince Albert Mintos. Then the 18-year-old would take his place in Medicine Hat as the backup goalie, shadowing their starter for two years, before becoming their starting goalie at 18. Then, if he did all the work expected of him, he’d be drafted by an NHL team and would be playing professional hockey by the time he was 20.
But a few weeks later, something happened that would change MacAuley’s future. The maverick coach from Medicine Hat got a job offer as an assistant coach with the Dallas Star’s farm team, the Texas Stars. He took it, and with him went the Tiger’s vision for MacAuley.
MacAuley played out his two years of midget AAA hockey in Prince Albert. Then, at the start of the following season, the boy who was now 17 went to the Hat’s training camp and into the regular season. He played 19 minutes of a Tigers game where he made two saves. As the team bus was loading to leave on their West Coast swing he was told to unpack his bags: he’d been sent down to their affiliated Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team, the Yorkton Terriers, where he played for the rest of that season.
At the start of the next season, MacAuley made it through the Hat’s training camp once again and it looked like he’d made the team. The 18 year old got 6 games on the ice before he was told again that he did not make the cut. This time he had an outright release. He was on waivers.
“The coach wants to see you,” Dawn recalls. “That was it. He was called into the office and told that they were moving him back down to Yorkton once again, and putting him on waivers. We were shocked.”
Being on waivers meant the Tigers no longer had room for him, but he was free to be claimed by another WHL team. The Calgary Hitmen claimed him a couple of weeks later, taking him off waivers, and kept him in Yorkton for the season. And what a season it was! MacAuley lead his team to the SJHL championship with an impressive save percentage of 0.932, and won the league’s co-MVP award.
At the end of that season, he was traded once again, this time from the Hitmen to the Regina Pats. MacAuley went to the Pats’ Training Camp and played well. He was confident he’d make the team, after all, he now had a championship under his belt. He did.
The Regina Pats
At the start of the 2013-14 season, the Regina Pats seemed like a long shot for making it to the playoffs. So much so that even the Brandt Center, the stadium where the Pats play, had booked American Idol winner, singer Phillip Phillips, into the coveted Saturday night slot on the weekend after the regular WHL season ended. The Pats’ stable of attackers hadn’t shined quite as they’d hoped — by season’s end, none of them had made it on the league’s Top-10 Scoring list.
The Pats listed seven goalies on their roster by year end but the job in between the pipes came mostly down to MacAuley. And because of a late-season ankle injury to another goalie, the bulk of the goaltending would be on him if they made the playoffs. Which they did.
Unfortunately for the Pats, they had other injuries as the season was ending. The club’s scoring leader broke his hand trying to stop a puck during one of the last regular season games; and two of the team’s top-4 defencemen were out with upper body injuries.
Beat-up as they may be, the Regina Pats filled the 6,200 seat stadium to the brim for the first time that season to see their team take on the Brandon Wheat Kings in the first game of the Eastern Division playoffs. MacAuley was in between the pipes.
As soon as the puck dropped, the Pats came out on fire. One of their centers had a terrific scoring opportunity at the start of the game, but the puck pinged off the post. The Wheat Kings responded to that scare with a fury: a bad-angled shot-on-goal turned into the first goal of the game, followed three minutes later by a rebound off a pad. A power play goal gave them another, and an intercepted pass netted the 4th goal in the first period, all for the advantage of the visitors.
MacAuley was pulled. At first, the goalie switch seemed to help. The Pats kicked it up a notch, punching in a couple by the end of the second. The Wheat Kings slipped another one by. Regina responded with a third. But the Pats needed more.
Dawn and Jason, as they often did, made the 4-hour trip down to Regina from Prince Albert for the game to watch their only son play. They were seated up on the 2nd level in a section the Pats reserved for the parents and friends that gathered together to cheer.
The four goals that prompted the goalie switch had hurt, but the crowd still hoped for a turnaround. Their offensive players were making shots, but the Wheat Kings’ goalie was a rock.
With time running down with 4 minutes and change off the clock in the 3rd period, the Pats’ coach, Malcolm Cameron, decided to switch the goalies once again. This was something he’d done earlier in the season, in a game against the Calgary Hitmen: MacAuley had been in, swapped out for another goalie, and then swapped in once again.
But the crowd didn’t like what they saw. They didn’t see it as an attempt to force a momentum change, or waste some time so their players could catch their breath, they just saw MacAuley back on the ice, and that made them angry.
When the crowd began to boo, it pierced through her heart.
“You could feel the animosity from the crowd. It was horrible.”
Dawn says the parents from a boy from Saskatoon were sitting in the row behind them. When the crowd began to boo, the woman put her hand on her shoulder, giving her a sign of support.
MacAuley spent 13 seconds on the ice, until the next stoppage of play gave the coach the opportunity to swap him out once again. The team’s timeout was never used.
After the Game
Rob Vanstone, sports columnist for the Regina Leader Post, lashed out at the fans for their conduct, saying they deserved “a resounding ‘boo’! in return.” He also praised MacAuley for facing the heat of the media after the game, and putting the blame for the loss squarely on his own shoulders.
True, he was awarded the loss: the losing goal was scored while he was on the ice. But 35 shots on goal only netted three red lights for the Pats. It takes goals to win a game. The Pats spent 14 minutes of the game short-handed, with 7 minor penalties: they nearly played a quarter of the entire game short handed. And the goalie reswitch? It’s doubtful the reaction of the crowd did anything to help the team.
The Pats lost the series in 4 games straight. Two months later, the Pats fired coach Cameron and began a hunt for their fourth head coach in as many years.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, MacAuley showed up for the Pats’ training camp. The veteran goalie, now facing his last year as a junior player, was hopeful the team he’d lead to the playoffs, starting in over 50 games on their behalf, would keep him. But no, there was no room. The 20-year-old was sent down to Yorkton once again, where he will end his junior career.
Dawn MacAuley says her son will go to University next year somewhere in Canada and will follow in the footsteps of his father to study business. His five years as a goalie in WHL-affiliated teams means his tuition and books will be paid for.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned, I think it’s not so much about talent. It’s being lucky. All the stars have to line up. All these kids are talented. They just need to be at the right place at the right time,” she says.
As to her son, she see’s a great future.
“He’s positive and well-rounded. He’ll be a success of whatever he does because of what he went through with hockey,” she tells me, over a FaceTime chat.
“It’s the character and integrity he has that make me so proud of the man he’s becoming. I would take that 1,000 times over success in hockey.”
Back to Nic
“A goalie? Really? That’s a big responsibility.”
Looking back, I wish those words had never left my mouth. I know how catty hockey parents — and players — can be. Nic has been in the dressing room when other kids have come at the goalie, blaming him for the loss of the game. Or the tournament. Or the championship. That’s before the responsible parent, or coach, steps in, reminding everyone that hockey is a team sport, that, “You win as a team, you lose as a team.”
I am not afraid. I want my kid to play, to have fun playing, and to stand up to bullies. I want him to encourage others, to help make them shine, as he shines even brighter when he does. I have confidence in him: I know he will try hard to be the best he can. I can’t be afraid of any responsibility that may be placed on his shoulders. That’s ridiculous. That’s where character and integrity are born.
Just like it was for Dawson MacAuley.