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The Catch – Goaltender Jake Allen

Jake Allen has seen highs and lows on his way to hockey stardom, but he’s finally arrived and not about to change a thing.

1314-Breakaway-Issue2-Cover-thumbIf things had gone a little differently for Jake Allen, he might be spending his days challenging the likes of Rory McIlroy for championship titles.

But like many a Canadian teen before him, the St. Louis Blues’ top goalie prospect couldn’t resist the pull of the ice over the tee box.

“I used to be a scratch golfer. I’m not anymore, though,” he said. “I do love to golf. When I was in my prime I was 15 or 16 and it has really dropped off since then. I started golf at the same age as hockey. It was right around when I was 6 or 7 and I started playing in tournaments when I was 11 and carried on with that until I was about 16. That’s when hockey took over.”

Now Allen, 23, is on the verge of taking over hockey. The 2008 second-round draft choice of the Blues is coming off his first extended time in the National Hockey League last season, when he suited up for St. Louis in 15 games and posted a 9-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against average. Many thought the strong showing, coupled with a good training camp in September, meant Allen would remain in St. Louis. But with veterans Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak ahead of him on the depth chart, Allen was assigned to the Wolves.

“I just went into St. Louis’ camp planning to do my best,” he said. “I knew the situation and how they had Brian and Jaro still there and I just wanted to give them a run for their money. I felt I did that but the team made the decision to send me to Chicago and I can’t control that, but my attitude doesn’t change. It’s still hockey. Every game is a new chance to get better. I think so far I’ve done that and hopefully at some point I’ll get another chance at the NHL.”

For now, though, Allen is still taking in his new surroundings. He spent three seasons (2010-13) playing for the now-defunct Peoria Rivermen and relished the chance to spend his downtime outdoors, which, other than an ice rink, is where he’d always rather be. Chicago, by contrast, has a decidedly quicker pace than he’s used to.

“I’m pretty outdoorsy. I love being outside because I can’t really sit still,” he said. “I have never owned a video game in my life. I don’t like that stuff. When I can get outside fishing and be doing something like that, I always take that opportunity. I try to make the most of the days. It’s different for me in Chicago because it’s such a big city. In Peoria I’d go fishing or hunting, but here I hang out with the boys a bit more. Most of us haven’t really had much of a chance to see Chicago and now we’re getting settled into the season a bit, so we’ll see how that goes.”

Allen’s affection for the great wide open was nurtured from an early age. The oldest of three kids, the Fredericton, New Brunswick native speaks fondly of the days when he didn’t have to go far to find his next adventure, even if he’s had to shelve some of his riskier pastimes for the time being.

“Being away from home, I definitely miss being around friends and family,” he said. “It’s pretty laid-back where I’m from. It’s a nice little city, nothing crazy. In the winters I used to be able to snowmobile all the time and do that kind of stuff, but I probably won’t be able to do that again until my career is done. I miss it a lot. But someday I can do it again.”

While a few things about Allen have certainly changed since he left home, one that hasn’t is his propensity to be in perpetual motion. Excelling in baseball as well as golf and hockey growing up, that natural athletic ability ended up paying off in a big way. Dave Alexander, Allen’s earliest goalie coach (and one of his biggest influences), recalls meeting a much different player almost a decade ago, one who claims he got “stuck” being a goalie because no one else wanted to.

“When we started working together I think he was 14. We met just as a part of the coaching process,” Alexander said. “I was coaching midget at the time and he was up-and-coming into midget. He was a very gifted athlete but very tiny for his age, to the point we weren’t sure we were going to take him. But we did and through midget he just sprouted and grew quite quickly. That made him an immediate prospect. Because he was such a good athlete before, he wasn’t cumbersome through the growth spurt. He handled his body well for his young age.” 

At 17, Allen was offered a spot on Canada’s U-18 team as they prepared for the 2008 Championships in Kazan, Russia. Still small for his age, Allen went to the tournament expecting to get little – if any – playing time. Fortune had another plan for him, though, and by the time he had backstopped Canada all the way to a resounding 8-0 victory in the gold medal game against Russia, Allen had earned tournament MVP honors and became a darling of the hockey world.

“I wasn’t much of a prospect going into that U-18 season,” he said. “I was small but I was still growing, so they gave me a chance to go and I didn’t think I’d actually get to play and then I did. I was getting better every game in that tournament and it really opened a lot of scouts’ eyes, I think. I might have gotten drafted if it weren’t for that tournament, but it really changed my career. We won the gold medal, and I really don’t think I’d be sitting here if it weren’t for that tournament, especially in the position I am able to be in now. That changed everything.”

“I think the thing that made the U-18 tournament so good for him was his mental makeup,” Alexander said. “He’s a guy who physically is pretty intense but between the ears he’s pretty calm. Most people have a mind-body connection that’s the same but he has intensity about his body but can mentally keep things calm and slow and that was part of his success. He was thrown in the fire and handled it well.”

Just two months later Allen skipped his high school graduation to sit with friends and family at the NHL’s draft in Ottawa where he was touted to go as high as the first round. It was an amazing – and amazingly quick – turnaround for the young netminder, but like most everything else, he took the pressure
in stride. Even when he slipped out of the first round.

“I had a couple meetings the day of the first round and I thought potentially there was a chance I’d go end of that round,” he said. “I didn’t have any expectations at all, I just hoped I’d get drafted. I was there with my buddies and family. I didn’t go in the first round, so I came back the next morning and I didn’t know if I would go in the second round or the fifth. Luckily I only had to wait four picks into the second round. I wasn’t even paying attention when I got drafted because I hadn’t talked to St. Louis at all and they weren’t really on my radar. I was turned around talking to my dad and then I heard I got picked. It really couldn’t have come at a better spot.”

The major highs Allen encountered early gave way to the first serious adversity he faced in his young career, at the 2010 World Junior Championship. Allen was named starting goaltender for the heavily favored Canadian squad and led them all the way to the gold medal game against the USA. But Martin Jones replaced a struggling Allen in the third period after he allowed a goal to put the U.S. up 5-3. Canada rallied to force overtime but were defeated in the extra frame, missing out on a record-breaking sixth consecutive gold. Even now, his performance haunts Allen. But in the grand scheme of his career, he can see the silver linings.

“It was a good experience. I think it made me a better goalie,” he said. “It sucks that we lost and I still regret it to this day, but I think it made me learn a lot. It took me a lot of time to bounce back from it, but I needed to learn the ups and downs that come with being in this position. In Canada, the World Juniors is the biggest thing in the world at Christmastime and it’s a lot of pressure, but ultimately it helped me down the road. I’ve been watching that tournament since I was 7 years old, so you know what’s at stake. I think what happened with me is I put too much pressure on myself. You got there by playing your game and you just have to try not to change. You just have to try and be you and do what you do. I think if I had done that, it would have been a different outcome.”

Despite the tournament’s disappointments, Allen charged back with his junior team, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Drummondville Voltigeurs, winning 18 of his 21 starts in the remainder of the regular season and going 183 minutes, 47 seconds without allowing a goal, the league’s second-longest streak at the time. That was enough to earn him the Jacques Plante Trophy awarded to the top goalie in the QMJHL. But such accolades are of little interest to Allen. The same went for earning a spot on the NHL’s 2012-13 all-rookie team.

“It’s nice to be recognized after the season, but you’re never looking to win one award. You’re looking to win the championship,” he said. “If those awards fall in your lap along the way, great. In juniors I was lucky enough to win a few awards and last year in the NHL, I never even thought about being on the all-rookie team and then I just got the phone call. It’s great and it’s great to look back on and it’s nice to have, but it’s not what I’m striving for.” 

Working for awards may not appeal to Allen, but he is doggedly pursuing another skill (despite hockey season’s demanding schedule) to add to his already impressive resume.

“I’m actually learning to play guitar in my downtime now,” he said. “I’m a big country music fan. In Peoria last year before I went to St. Louis, I started taking some lessons so I think I’m going to find someone around here and hopefully pick it up. I’ve always wanted to play.”

So while some might be satisfied with where they are, Allen never stops looking for the next new thing, the next way he can make himself better. It’s that attitude and never-ending drive to be the best he can be that has brought Allen so far so quickly, says Wolves general manager Wendell Young. And it’s what will keep him at the next level when he eventually takes hold of a permanent spot.

“He’s really just the ultimate professional. You can tell what he wants in life, and that’s to be an NHL goaltender,” Young said. “And he’s there. He’s literally been our best player. He’s a professional on and off the ice, good teammate, and good guy around the room. Even after his big games, he’s even-keeled and wants to get better. He’s still trying to figure out how he’s going to get better after he plays a great game. He’s never satisfied. He enjoys the game and enjoys being a goalie and playing hockey more than anything else. It’s not about the prestige for him, but just being the very best he can be.”

With that in mind, Allen has lofty goals for his future within the game he loves but, true to form, he plans to take it all in stride and enjoy every opportunity as it comes.

“I’d like to win a Stanley Cup. I’d like to make a solid career for myself and be a legitimate No. 1 goaltender in the NHL,” he said. “I think in my mind I have the potential to do that and I’d like to see it through. In a picture-perfect world I’d like to have a Vezina Trophy one day too.

“But you know, those things are just on the skyline and if you get them, great, but if not, it’s OK. Hopefully down the road I’ll have some type of family going and a solid career going. Ultimately I just want to be a good teammate and a good person.”