PLYMOUTH, MI – Anthony Stolarz is sitting in the stands of a darkened Compuware Arena. There is no one else around. He quietly alternates from taping his goalie stick to staring out blankly into the empty barn.
Blaring over the arena speakers is a weird collection of music. It is mostly house jams, but at this one particular moment, Nate Reuss, the front man for the band fun., who sounds a lot like Freddy Mercury, is belting the words to the band’s mega-hit “Some Nights.”
Being in a visiting arena, it certainly isn’t Stolarz who chooses the music that is playing. And considering he is donning his own ear buds listening to http://3.cdn.nhle.com/flyers/images/upload/2013/03/StolarzLondonDL.jpgwhatever music gets him in the mood to play goal, there’s a good chance that he’s oblivious to Reuss’ melancholy, indie-rock musing over the anthemic pulse of the music behind him.
Nevertheless, it is an appropriate amalgam of sports and songwriting. It is almost cinematic in its tone.
Because here is Reuss, crooning in self-segregating sadness over a loudspeaker, while a goalie, who still can’t believe his own journey to get to where he is actually happened, sits alone, preparing for the biggest game of his young life.
Ruess’ words echo through the empty building, bouncing off walls with the voracity of a stray slap shot that comes quickly off the end boards:
“I was never one to believe the hype
Save that for the black and white
I try twice as hard and I'm half as liked,
But here they come again to jack my style”
And although Stolarz is imminently focused on Game 3 of the OHL Western Conference Finals this night, the words of the song could certainly be indicative of Stolarz’ humble beginnings.
Flashback to a couple of years earlier:
Stolarz had decided to try and pursue a dream of playing hockey, however he had already been cut from two junior league tryouts – and not the pinnacle of junior leagues either. It was from the Eastern Junior Hockey League, or Tier III Junior A.
Considering it was only one year before his draft eligible year, it didn’t look good for Stolarz to plan for a career in the sport he loved.
Scarred by his rejections, Stolarz wanted to give it one more shot – at an open tryout for the North American Hockey League.
So, he packed his equipment into the car and drove five hours to Albany, N.Y. for one last chance.
When he arrived, he drew stares from many observers in attendance. He was a tall, lanky kid trying to make an impression as a goalie, wearing hand-me-down street hockey goalie pads that used to belong to his older brother Todd.
Not only was the equipment not suited for ice hockey, it was too small for his now 6-foot-6 frame.
It’s very likely that many thought he was a joke. A ruse. A side show.
Then he played – with more intensity and determination than any other goalie there. Eyes opened in surprise. The whispers started to spread like wildfire – “have you seen the kid in the too-small, road hockey gear?”
Stolarz likes to think that because the equipment was so small, it forced him to be quicker in net to keep from getting hit by a puck somewhere that could hurt because it was a normally protected area of the body that was uncovered.
It’s more likely though that some folks from the NAHL recognized that Stolarz had some natural skill and talent, and decided to offer him a shot.
Stolarz landed with the Corpus Christi Ice Rays. Moving to Texas from his home in Jackson, N.J. was another big leap, but if he was going to give a career in hockey a go, it was something he needed to do.
While there, Stolarz caught the eye of someone else – Flyers scout – and former goalie – Neil Little.
“First and foremost when you find a guy with that kind of size with great mobility, it really opens your eyes,” Little said. “Not many guys can combine their size with flexibility, agility and overall skill. There are a lot of qualities there that I really liked about him.”
So much so that Little convinced the Flyers to take a shot on him in the draft last summer. And, with one of the picks acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets (2nd round, 39th overall) in the trade for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the Flyers selected Stolarz.
“Anthony is a tremendous athlete and from a technical standpoint, he has a real good foundation,” Little said. “He can only improve from there an we expect big things from him.”
Now on the radar, Stolarz suddenly had a ton of options. He could join a major junior team – London Knights general manager Mark Hunter was the first to make contact with him – or he could go the college route, where he would maintain amateur status.
Stolarz decided to go to college, accepting a scholarship from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a program that spent much of the season ranked nationally.
And while he played well in limited time at Omaha, Stolarz was further down on the depth chart than he had hoped. Of course, he was a Freshman, and he knew he’d have to bide his time, but at the same time, he knew if he had gone to major junior, he would have jump started his professional career.
Suddenly, as the Christmas Holiday approached, his life was in flux.
Should he stay in school? It was his father’s wish that his son get an education, in case the long shot, feel-good hockey story didn’t come to fruition.
Or, should he leave and essentially turn pro, and get a chance to sign his first pro contract sooner?
It weighed on his mind. He went home for support from his family, especially his parents and Todd, who, at 28 was a former goalie who became his younger brother’s de facto coach as he was growing up.
But, he also turned to Ian Laperriere, the Flyers director of player development for some advice.
“He’s tremendous and a great guy,” Stolarz said of Laperriere. “He’s so friendly and you can talk to him about anything. During the whole process he really helped me out, guiding me with each decision I had to make and continue to make for my hockey career.”
Ultimately though, Stolarz said the Flyers didn’t try to force his hand in one direction or the other, but that they just wanted him to make a decision and stick with it.
“They just wanted me to make a decision I was comfortable with,” Stolarz said. “They didn’t try to sway me one way or the other. I talked to them about both options and they laid out the pros and cons of both options. In the end, I chose London.
“I just wanted to do what was best for my hockey career. UNO gave me a great opportunity and a good education but in the end it came down to me wanting to pursue a hockey career. AT UNO with John Faulkner in net with Ryan Massa and Dayn Belfour (son of former NHL star Ed Belfour) also there, I didn’t think it was the best situation for me.”
Word had gotten around that Stolarz was looking to make the jump to major junior, and no less than a dozen teams reached out to him.
But Stolarz is a loyal kid, and because London reached out to him before any other team did – before he even decided to go to UNO - he agreed to sign with the Knights.
Of course, he’s going to school still – taking classes at Western Ontario University, which is keeping his folks happy – majoring in business marketing. But the persuasion of a lot of playing time as well as the opportunity to work with goalie coach and guru Bill Dark had a lot to do with that decision as well.
“Ever since I’ve worked with him I’ve seen great strides in my game,” Stolarz said. “I’ve really improved.”
And people around the world of hockey have taken notice, and many believe there are reasons to believe the Flyers may have found something special in Stolarz.
Back to Plymouth…
Stolarz has finished his pregame meditation and begins to walk down from the steps to go to the locker room.
For some reason, a handful of songs are on loop in the arena before it is opened to the general public 90 minutes before faceoff.
So again, fun. Again, Reuss’, emotion-filled crooning:
“Well, some nights I wish that this all would end
'Cause I could use some friends for a change.
And some nights I'm scared you'll forget me again
Some nights I always win, I always win...”
When Stolarz arrived in London, the Knights had just completed a 24-game winning streak.
The goalie who was in place, the over-aged Kevin Bailie, had performed excellently. In 27 games he was 18-4-1 with a 2.50 goals against average and a .921 save percentage.
The thought around the Knights was the old adage – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But Mark Hunter and his brother Dale, who serves as the Knights coach, saw a chance to not only improve the Knights for the remainder of this season, but for next season as well.
“We had an opportunity to get a high-end goaltender to come in and play games for us,” Dale Hunter said. “[Bailie] played well for us, so this is to take nothing away from him but we thought we had a chance to get someone to come in [for more than this year] and he’s been great for us.”
It didn’t start off that well for Stolarz, who arrived just in time for the Knights to drop eight of his first 12 games this coming directly on the heels of that 24-game-winning streak before his arrival.
Of course, Stolarz didn’t lose all eight of those games, but there were many who thought that the change was having an adverse affect on the team.
It couldn’t have been further from the truth though.
“Some guys were shocked,” said Tyler Ferry, one of Stolarz’ veteran teammates. “Bailie had been in the league for four years and he had some pretty good numbers. But at the end of the day it’s a business and Stolarz came in and within a few days he was comfortable with the room.
“He fit in right away. Everyone likes him. He likes to talk to a lot of guys – which is strange for a goalie because they’re usually off in their own world – but he’s good at getting the boys fired up and he’s well-liked in the room.”
Those relationships go a long way toward building confidence not just in individual players, but for the team as well, and Stolarz’ ease within the locker room as well as his play on the ice almost immediately translated well.
He finished the regular season having played in 20 games for the Knights and posted a record of 13-3-2 with a 2.29 GAA and a .920 save percentage.
He helped them secure the top seed in the Western Conference and so far, he’s been the difference-maker in each round of the playoffs.
Never the focus of a preview for each series because of the news-making capabilities of his opposition, all Stolarz has done has come in and out-played some of the bigger name goaltenders in the OHL.
In the first round it was Jake Patterson, a Canadian who was on the World Junior team. Stolarz out-dueled him as London swept Saginaw in four games, with Stolarz allowing just six goals.
In round two, he outplayed John Gibson – who started for the Gold-medal-winning United States in net in World Juniors, as the Knights knocked off the Kitchener Rangers in five games.
And now he’s getting the best of 17-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic of a stacked Plymouth team, trumping Nedeljkovic’s 62-save performance in Game 2 that went two overtimes, by making 80 saves on back-to-back nights in a hostile arena.
“You can see what he’s done on the ice,” Dale Hunter said. “He’s done very well for himself. His compete level is so high. He never gives up on a puck, whether it’s in a game or even in practice. I can’t say enough about the kid. You like to see that compete level in a goalie. He fits on this team perfectly.”
Hunter said Stolarz’ compete level comes from being an underdog of sorts all through his life.
“His work ethic is outstanding,” Hunter said. “Other kids may be ahead of him at first, but they don’t work as hard as he does in practice and he gets better because of it. That’s why he’s playing great for us and he’s a big factor as to why we’re having success in the playoffs.”
As for those two games in Plymouth…
Stolarz was easily the star of the night for Game 3. He had 25 saves through the first two periods as the Knights built a 3-0 lead.
But then Plymouth came roaring back in the third period, and scored four unanswered goals to take the lead – and you couldn’t blame Stolarz. He was stopping all that he could, but his teammates failed him in front of the net.
He particularly had a hard time stopping Tom Wilson, a talented power forward who is a Washington Capitals prospect.
Wilson had a hat trick in the Game 2 win for Plymouth and then scored two of those four goals in the furious comeback in Game 3.
However, were it not for Stolarz, he could have had a few more.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Stolarz said. “He has a knack around the net. He’s got a good shot and is always in the right place at the right time so you got to be aware of him when he’s on the ice.”
Which is what Stolarz was, robbing Wilson of a surefire repeat hat trick twice – first with a big pad save and secondly robbing him with a sprawling glove save.
And each time, you could almost hear Reuss, as if offering color analysis:
… I always win. I always win…
“He’s been unbelievable,” said teammate and roommate Dakota Mermis. “He bailed us out so many times when we weren’t playing our best and even when we were playing well, he still made big saves to keep us going.
“He’s won games for us. In the playoffs you need your goalie to be your best player and there’s no question he’s been our best player in the playoffs this year.”
Game 4 wasn’t much different, with the exception of Plymouth not waiting to dictate the play until the third period, but rather pushing the issue from the opening faceoff.
Again, Stolarz was the great equalizer. He had 38 saves in Game 3. He had 42 in Game 4.
With Plymouth trying to harass him all game by crashing into him and trying to take him out of his game, Stolarz kept his cool and was a brick wall – much to the frustration of the Whalers.
At one point, Stolarz made an unbelievable post-to-post save to stop Plymouth star Garret Meurs.
There were two members of Plymouth management sitting side by side to this reporter in the press box.
One said, “Wow, that was a great save.”
The other added, “That kid has been the difference in this series.”
Stolarz entered Game 5 Friday night with an 11-1-1 record in the playoffs with a 2.13 GAA and a .938 save percentage.
Yep, He’s been the difference all right.
And after signing him to his entry level contract, which begins next season, the Flyers are banking on that being the case for a long-time to come.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37
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