HELSINKI — Mackenzie Blackwood was 12 years old, a forward playing A hockey in Thunder Bay, Ont., when the team’s goalie got hurt.
So, he volunteered to play net for the Volunteer Pool Bearcats.
“It was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll throw them on, I’ll try them out,’” said Blackwood. “I liked it. So the next year I told my parents I wanted to be a goalie.”
Mom and Dad didn’t like that idea.
“They said I was crazy, don’t do that,” Blackwood said. “But I wanted to do it. Stuck with it. And a few years later, here we are.”
Now, Blackwood is the top goalie for Team Canada’s entry at the world junior hockey championship, continuing a trend in goaltending: height.
It is no surprise that all three goalies on the Team Canada roster — Mason McDonald and Samuel Montembeault are the others — are six-foot-four.
They are the tallest players on Team Canada, equalled in height only by forwards Julien Gauthier and Lawson Crouse and defenceman Travis Sanheim.
“Goaltenders are bigger, they’re better, they’re more athletic than ever before,” said Hockey Canada’s chief scout Ryan Jankowski.
No position has come such a long way in such a short time, says Jankowski.
“It’s so specialized,” said Jankowski. “They have goaltending coaches and trainers throughout the summer. The equipment is better. The skates are better.
“They have come such a long way in a short time, whether it’s good or bad for the game, a lot of people are having a debate on it, it’s kind of what we have.”
Only two of the starting goalies at the world juniors are under six-feet tall with four — Belarus’s Vladislav Verbitski, Sweden’s Linus Soderstrom, Slovakia’s Adam Hluska and Switzerland’s Joren van Pottelberghe six-foot-three or taller.
The irony is not lost on Team Canada goalie consultant Freddie Braithwaite, who played nearly 20 years as a pro including eight in the NHL while standing at a mere five-foot-seven.
“Obviously, a lot of guys are liking the bigger-sized goalies,” said Braithwaite. “It just happens this year this is the best crop.
“A lot of people are going with the bigger size, but myself, I’m thinking if anyone can stop the puck, that’s what we want.”
Stopping the puck is what it’s all about.
Canada is under-performing here at the world juniors. The Canadians have already lost to the Americans and needed a shootout to beat Switzerland. Blackwood — who signed Wednesday with the New Jersey Devils and plays for the Barrie Colts — shook off the rust of an OHL suspension to play his first game against Switzerland.
After giving up an early lead and two goals in that game, Blackwood is likely to start Thursday night in the preliminary round finale against Sweden.
“It was good to get a close game, still had a bit more meaning, a little bit of intensity to it,” said Blackwood.
Blackwood has been the best goalie in the OHL with a remarkable .932 save percentage, and probably would have played all the games for Canada if not for the suspension for a vicious slash on Sudbury’s Danny Desrochers on Dec. 4.
“He’s had a great year,” said Braithwaite. “He’s been very consistent. He’s played well in Barrie. He’s given their team a chance to win every night. He’s a big body out there. From watching him from the beginning of this year until now, there’s a big upside. He seems to be getting better, more confident in his game.”
He’ll basically be given two games to get his act together before Canada faces its biggest test: the quarter-final against a to-be-determined opponent on Saturday.
If Team Canada officials don’t like what they see in Blackwood’s game, they could well revert to McDonald, who started the first two games.
“Our expectations are that everybody that plays plays to the best of their ability,” said coach Dave Lowry.
It’s a no-love-lost existence for goalies, who are expected to stand tall no matter what their height, and Blackwood seems to thrive on it.
“I shouldn’t have been a goalie,” said Blackwood, joking. “It’s cool. You can be the hero. You have the ability to change the game. It’s exciting. Pressure makes the job fun.”