Picking the rookie

Calvin Pickard: The story behind a young goaltender from Winnipeg who made it to the big leagues

Graphic by Andy Che

First off I would like to dedicate this article to two of my closest friends: Logan Grzenda, whose knowledge of goalies is profoundly impressive (and he’s not a bad goalie himself either!), and Morgan Wyman, the biggest Avs fan I know. You both are the inspirations behind this publication.


Winnipeg, Manitoba. The city home to around 700,000 marks the stomping ground to some of the NHL’s most elite players, past and present. The Manitoba capital is highlighted with a collection of youth hockey clubs harbouring the next generation of Bill Mosienkos, Mike Keanes, and Jonathan Toews.

It’s an especially proud moment when this continually growing municipality sees one of its own succeed. On Oct.16th, the Manitoba AAA Winnipeg Wild witnessed one of their very own mark his entrance into the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche.

 The debut

When the Colorado Avalanche visited the Ottawa Senators on the fifth game of the 2014-15 season, the team had scored just four goals in their previous four games and were shut out in their opening two.

Starting goalie Semyon Varlamov had been placed on injured reserve just hours before puck drop, backup Reto Berra would get the nod against the Senators, who boasted a 3-1 record. Scrambling for an emergency backup, Colorado called up prospect Calvin Pickard, a three-year veteran of the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters.

Three minutes into the game, Colorado’s John Mitchell checked Kyle Turris in the crease, causing the Ottawa forward to collide with Berra. Turris’ shoulder drove into the goaltender’s mask, prompting Berra to collapse into the back of his net, before he was removed as per concussion protocol. With the Avalanche up 1-0 at the time, Pickard entered the game, marking his NHL debut under dire circumstances.

Pickard held Ottawa at bay for the first two periods of his NHL career, making 17 saves on 19 shots. The Avalanche seemed destined to leave their sluggish start to the season behind them, bombarding the Senators, leading 3-1 after the first period. The home side diligently recovered, though, scoring four unanswered goals in the last two periods, including an empty netter. Pickard stopped 23 shots from 27.

Two days later, Pickard made his first NHL start at the Bell Center in Montreal. The occasion came in a stadium where the rafters featured the retired numbers of goaltending legends Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden. Pickard more than held his own during a second NHL appearance, making 33 saves in a 3-2 loss.

Though the 22-year-old debutant could not halt the surging Senators team nor the  triumph of the Montreal side, his timely appearance and persistent performance in his first tastes of NHL action is evidence that the top-ranked goaltender of the 2010 draft is emerging into a reliable figure for a young and budding Colorado franchise.

“It was a very good experience for me. I mean, playing in two Canadian buildings and in packed houses and getting thrown into the game on Thursday,” Pickard said, after his first two games in the NHL.

“I had no time to think about it so I got right in there and it was nice for me, and then to have the start on Saturday in Montreal – every kid dreams of that, and I thought I did pretty well.”

 Brotherly love

Calvin isn’t the first member of the Pickard clan to have taken the goaltending position to a professional level. Chet, three years Calvin’s senior, was the Nashville Predators first-round draft selection in 2008.

Earmarked as one for the future, Chet starred for Tri-City between 2005 and 2009, admirably stepping into the starter’s role for the Americans in place of Carey Price, who departed junior to challenge for a spot in the NHL in 2007.

Drafted 38th overall by the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Seattle Thunderbirds, Calvin had some serious work to do in order to catch up to his big brother. At nine years old, their father asked Calvin to choose between carrying on his hockey as a skater or a goaltender. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Calvin opted for playing between the pipes, and the rest is history.

While Chet represented the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League’s Winnipeg Monarchs in AAA, Calvin played for their league rivals, the Winnipeg Wild, before making the jump to the WHL in 2008.

Despite carrying similar résumés in the WHL, Chet somewhat overshadows Calvin at a quick glance of their junior careers.

Chet won the Del Wilson Trophy as the WHL’s regular season top goaltender and bagged a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championships. Calvin became a finalist for the most valuable WHL goaltender in 2010 and won gold with the U18 Canada side at the 2009 Ivan Hlinka tournament. He was shortlisted for the 2011 Canadian World Junior team, but did not make the cut.

 Minor adjustment

Both goaltenders spent time in the AHL – Chet with the Predators affiliate the Milwaukee Admirals, and Calvin with the Lake Erie Monsters. If the AHL stage is a testament of how a prospect’s short-term future will pan out, then it certainly yielded trusty insight into the fate of the Pickard brothers.

Chet spent a frustrating three seasons with Milwaukee and Cincinnati of the East Coast Hockey League, unable to climb up the Predators’ goaltending pipeline. In 2012, Nashville cut their ties with the18th overall pick of 2008, as Chet signed in the Swedish Elite League at age 22.

On the other hand, the younger Pickard had spent the last two seasons splitting time with Sami Aittokallio in Lake Erie, before a call-up to Colorado marked Calvin as the first Pickard brother to appear in the National Hockey League, also at the age of 22.

The young net-minder who had been on his brother’s tail for so many years had finally overtaken his elder.

 “We are proud to select…”

Amongst North American goaltenders, Calvin, and World Junior Championship standout Jack Campbell, who had won gold with Team USA that draft year, had separated themselves amongst the rest of the competiiton heading into the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

Despite Calvin’s ranking as the top North American goaltender, the eventual second round selection went behind Campbell (11th), and OHL goaltender Mark Visentin (27th), a future Canadian World Junior medallist.

A projected late first-rounder, Calvin was not called until position number 49, a Colorado pick. Despite Colorado’s selection of Aittokallio later in that draft, and the slew of goaltenders in the team’s system, Calvin would eventually rise to top of the Colorado prospects class.

 Beware of future Avalanches

In an organization which featured the likes of Patrick Roy, David Aebischer, and Jose Theodore between the pipes, Calvin has huge pads to fill down the road. Though it’s too early to predict his fate with Colorado, the franchise’s emphasis on youth is an indicator that their young core will play an integral role sooner rather than later.

Avalanche fans may have had a glimpse of Calvin in his first two NHL games. Yet, what’s more significant is they’ve had a glimpse of what’s in store for the future. Calvin Pickard may not be a household hockey name, but the player underneath number 31 on the back of a Colorado Avalanche sweater is only beginning his professional journey after an arduous climb to the NHL.

The ascent, which consisted of three years in the AHL, four years of junior hockey, a near trip to the World Juniors, and good deal of time following his brother, has finally ended in the ultimate destination. The young Winnipegger who chose the goaltending position in his early playing days is now living out his hockey dreams, and hasn’t looked back.

When asked what he’s taken away from his NHL experience thus far, Pickard was very direct.

“Every shot matters. There’s so many good players, obviously, at this level. It’s the best level in the world,” said Calvin.

“If you give a guy an inch, he’s gonna make you pay, and you can’t let your guard down for one split second because that puck’s gonna be behind you.”