CHL Update: St. Pierre Shines in Idaho

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.

Xavier St. Pierre

“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.”

CHL Update: Wild Third Period Leads to OT Thriller in Oshawa

Fans who showed up at Oshawa’s General Motors Arena on Sunday for a CHL interdivision clash between the Oshawa Drive and the Idaho Spuds probably weren’t expecting anything noteworthy.  The Drive and Spuds have no rivalry to speak of, and on paper, the matchup between Western-division-leading Idaho (14-7-3 coming into the game) and third-place Oshawa (9-12-3 coming in) seemed like mismatch.

Surprisingly, the fans were treated to a thrilling contest, highlighted by a crazy third period in which the home town built a three-goal lead, lost it, and had to head to overtime before finally claiming a 4-3 win.

“That game was just plain bat-[guano] insane,” said Oshawa coach Harvey Williams.  “No other way to put it.’”

Going into the third, it looked like things were going to end well for the home team, despite being outplayed.  Although Idaho outshot Oshawa 23-14 through two, Drive goalie Hector Orinoco was in top form, turning aside every shot and staking his team to a 2-0 lead.

When LW Troy Blackwood went top-shelf on Spuds goalie Guy Laroche to put Oshawa up 3-0 a mere 96 seconds into the third, the crowd was ready to start celebrating its victory.  They began chanting “Start the bus!  Start the bus!” at the dejected Idaho bench.

Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne saw the crowd’s taunting chant as an opportunity.  “You hear that?  Hear it?” McCoyne barked at his players.  “The folks up in the stands seem to think the game’s over already.  Are you gonna let ‘em get away with that?”

“Hell no!” responded Spuds F Trace Walker.  “Time for us to turn the bus around!”  His teammates thumped their sticks on the ground in approval.

Just over three minutes later, Walker found D Gray Torian with a laser-beam pass in the slot.  Torian tipped the puck past Orinoco’s catching glove to break the shutout.

Unfortunately for the Spuds, they struggled to generate another goal as the minutes ticked off the clock.  With just under six minutes to go and the Drive still up 3-1, the fans began the “Start the bus!” chant again.

“They’re really trying that again?” hollered Walker.  “Time to really make ‘em pay.”

A few seconds later, Walker ripped a shot over Orinoco’s left shoulder to make it 3-2.  Walker skated around with his hand cupped over his ear, but the crowd had fallen quiet.

Just over a minute later, Drive C Albert North tried to draw a penalty, snapping his head back as though Torian had hit him with a high stick.  But eagle-eyed referee Alan Cole wasn’t fooled, and he sent North to the box for embellishment.  Oshawa managed to kill off the penalty, barely, but were unable to get the puck out of their own end.  Idaho kept up the pressure after the penalty expired, as the exhausted Drive desperately tried to hold off the vistors.

Finally, with 15 seconds left, the puck got lost in a scrum in front of the Oshawa net.  It seemed to bounce off a forest of sticks and bodies before winding up on the blade of Spuds D Rodney Black, who jammed it home to tie the game and stun the crowd.

Orinoco slumped on the ice and several Oshawa players slammed down their sticks and looked at the ceiling in frustration.  Williams argued vigorously for a goaltender interference call, to no avail.

The Spuds turned the heckling back on the fans, chanting “Stop the bus!  Stop the bus!” before launching into a round of the nursery rhyme “The Wheels on the Bus” as the fans sat in disconsolate silence.

“I was really proud of the way the boys didn’t give up when it looked bad,” said McCoyne.  “Especially on a long road trip like this, it can be hard to find the energy.  But they found it – thanks to the fans.  Appreciate it!”

At the end of regulation, the Drive filed quietly into their locker room, unsure what had happened.  “It’s like [the Spuds] drove the bus right over us,” said C Pat Collistone.

But with a pep talk from Williams and a crucial opportunity to catch their breath, Oshawa pulled themselves together, and D Elvis Bodett banged home the winning goal 24 seconds into overtime.

“I don’t know if they were trying to give me another heart attack or what,” quipped Williams, who only recently returned to the bench after collapsing on the bench due to cardiac trouble.  “I told ‘em after the game, ‘Don’t do that to an old fart with a bad ticker like me!’”