Xavier St. Pierre wasn’t supposed to be special. The 20-year-old goaltender was completely ignored by the NHL, and was selected with the third-to-last pick in this year’s SHL draft. After an undistinguished career in junior hockey, St. Pierre hardly seemed like a promising prospect. The goalie-needy Dakota Jackalopes took a low-risk flyer and assigned him to the Idaho Spuds, their new CHL affiliate. Even there, he had to win a training-camp battle for the backup spot. The Jackalopes crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.
“The best” turned out to be better than anyone imagined. Through the first half of the season, St. Pierre looks like a potential breakout star. So far this year, he has recorded a 10-3-1 record with a 2.81 GAA and a .916 save percentage. And thanks in no small part to his strong play, Idaho sits in playoff position in the West.
“For me, everything is a dream right now,” said St. Pierre. “I am blessed.”
Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne says he saw something in St. Pierre, in spite of his mediocre track record. “He had a hunger; you could tell he’d fought for every opportunity he’d ever had,” said McCoyne. “He always stayed late in practice. Anyone who would work with him, he jumped on it. Some guys on the bubble, you can tell their hustle is a show for the coaches. But with X, you could tell it’s the only way he knew.”
When McCoyne chose St. Pierre over incumbent backup Guy “Blinky” Laroche, the young netminder stopped by the coach’s office to thank him, adding: “I will be sure you are never sorry for this decision.”
“And he’s definitely made sure of that!” McCoyne added.
Once St. Pierre made the team, his hard-working habits continued. Most backups relax on the bench during their days off; St. Pierre watched starter Kelvin White and the opposing skaters intently, absorbing whatever he could. He studied as much film as he could get his hands on. And he continued to be the last one off the ice at practice.
McCoyne and the coaching staff noticed. They also noticed that whenever they gave St. Pierre a start, he played extremely well. McCoyne started giving St. Pierre additional opportunities when he could, and the netminder always performed.
Then, about a month into the season, White went down with an injury, one that would ultimately sideline him for almost three weeks. It was a golden opportunity for St. Pierre… but the Spuds quickly signed Laroche, their former backup, to a short-term contract. Was it training camp all over again?
“Coach told me quickly, ‘You are the starter, Guy will be your backup,’” St. Pierre said. “I was very glad for his faith in me. I told him I would show he was correct again.”
Facing a starter’s workload, St. Pierre struggled a bit, but continued to play solidly. “We’ve got a high-powered offensive team, but we’re not much for shot suppression,” said McCoyne. “That means that none of our goalies have an easy time of it. But X doesn’t get rattled back there.”
St. Pierre handily outplayed Laroche, but slid right back into the backup role without complaint when White returned. “Sometimes with backup, you feel like they’re almost rooting for you to get hurt so they can get a shot,” said White. “But Xav’s been totally supportive all the way.”
Although he has triumphed in the face of long odds, St. Pierre has remained calm and unruffled, like he was supposed to be here all along. In part, that’s due to a remarkable coincidence. The netminder hails from a small town in Quebec called Saint-Michel, and he comes from a long line of – believe it or not – potato farmers.
“All through my life, it is potatoes,” said St. Pierre. “So when I come to a team named ‘Spuds,’ with a potato [logo] on the chest, I know this is my place.”
The fans in Boise have embraced him, chanting “X-S-P! X-S-P!” after each of his acrobatic saves. “I think he’s probably the most popular guy on the team,” quipped White.
Of course, one good half-season does not a career make. St. Pierre has a long way to go before he has a shot to make the SHL, much less to succeed there. But McCoyne warns everyone not to bet against the young netminder: “If you can work your way into the big time, this is the kid who can do it. I expect you’ll be hearing more about him down the line.”