Everything about Alex Auld seems calm and relaxed. Everything about the situations he's been in during the past two years has been anything but.
From being thrown into the fire of the National Hockey League playoffs as a raw rookie in the spring of 2004, to losing his job as a starting goaltender in the American Hockey League a year later, to being one of the busiest netminders in the NHL this season, it's been one wild ride.
And although Auld, remarkably laid-back and grounded for a guy in his position, has been up to the challenge so far this season, the real adventure is about to begin. After a two-week Olympic break-before which the keeper lost two of three and in one got yanked in favour of backup Maxime Ouellet-the Vancouver Canucks will head into the end-of-season stretch and, hopefully, into the postseason with a still relatively untested netminder as their last line of defence.
Skeptics wonder whether the 25-year-old-in his first full NHL season and only getting the chance to be a starting goalie because of a season-ending knee injury to Dan Cloutier-is ready for the challenge.
Alex Auld believes he is.
"How do you get experience? That's the biggest question. You've got to go through things, and I think I've shown that I've kept learning from everything and I keep improving and keep working on my game," Auld tells the Straight in a lengthy conversation after a recent practice at GM Place. "I don't think anyone wants a goalie who doesn't believe in himself or believe that he can be the guy to do it. This is something I'm looking forward to, that's for sure."
Auld-who was born in Cold Lake, Alberta, and was raised in England for a few years before his family returned to Canada and settled in Thunder Bay, Ontario-has been put in tough situations before. In fact, how much tougher can it get than pulling out a win in triple overtime on the road with your team facing playoff elimination, as he did in game six in Calgary two years ago? And two nights later, he gained more valuable experience by going to overtime in game seven of that same playoff series, although he and the Canucks came up short when Martin Gelinas dashed their dreams of advancing, by scoring a power-play goal to end the game and the season.
"I think you can draw on those, for sure, where you have situations like that where the next goal against and you're done for the year. That's a lot of pressure," he says in a deep voice that could easily land him radio work if the goaltending gig ever falls through. "You learn from it and you get that experience; you build on it and it makes you better."
Yet not all of the experiences that Auld has to draw on have been positive ones. Last spring during the NHL lockout, the lanky 6-4, 200-pounder was expected to lead the Canucks' American Hockey League affiliate in Winnipeg on a long playoff run. But a spell of indifferent play late in the season had Auld watching as the backup to 38-year-old Wade Flaherty.
Here was Auld-the Canucks goalie of the future-and he couldn't make the grade in the minors. It brought him to a crossroads early in his career. And as he reflects on the situation almost a year after the fact, he realizes he's much wiser for having dealt with such adversity.
"You're always frustrated whenever you're not playing. The first couple of games, I don't know how I came across and I don't know if bitter is the right word, but you're frustrated. Then I realized after a couple of games of the first round Wade was playing so well, and I sort of stepped back and thought about it. We had an opportunity with the team we had to do something extremely special, and I just wanted to be a part of that any way I could," he says. "So I took the approach that it was team first and I'd do whatever I could to help us be successful-whether that was cheering the guys on or saying something in the dressing room or just working hard in practice. I tried to stay as ready as I could. And I'm glad I changed, because it was some of the most fun I'd ever had and I wasn't even playing. I'm glad that I was able to feel a part of it and to sort of step back and decide I had to put the team first and not sit there and pout."
It's hard to imagine Alex Auld sitting on the bench these days. Since the injury to Cloutier in mid-November, Auld has been a workhorse for the Canucks, playing in 35 of their last 38 games. He ranks among the NHL leaders in wins, minutes played, and saves made.
And through it all, he seems totally unfazed, which shouldn't come as a huge surprise to anyone who knows Auld. He's taking the challenges of being a starting goaltender in the NHL the way he handles everything in life: in that calm, relaxed manner that defines him.
Now much has been made of the Canuck goalie coming by his "nerves of steel" honestly; after all, his father was a helicopter test pilot with the Canadian military. Auld doesn't doubt that he owes much of who he is to his father, but he's not sure that it has anything to do with what his dad did for a living.
"It obviously makes a great story. But I didn't really experience it because he retired when I was five or six. He left the military and went to the private sector, so I didn't see that, but I do think so much of those sorts of things come from your family and your upbringing," he says. "My parents taught me to work hard. They never pushed me. They knew I really wanted it, so they made sure at whatever times that I'd stay with it. I just think some of it is natural and you just kind of learn what works and how to be as you go along."
Auld has clearly found what works for him in the National Hockey League. His size allows him to cover much of the net, giving opposition snipers little to shoot at. And his "grace under fire" mentality allows him to stay calm even when he and the Canucks are under siege.
"You can't tell on him whether he had a great game or a not-so-good game," says veteran defenceman Mattias Ohlund, one of the guys who has made Auld's job easier on a lot of nights this year. "He still looks the same the next day, and as a goaltender that's obviously one of the things you have to have. After a bad goal or a soft goal, you have to be able to let it go and focus on the next save, and I think he's doing a great job of that. He's come a long way. He's still a young guy and he's been put in a spot that's very tough, playing as many games as he has so far, but I think he's done a great job and he's obviously going to continue to improve."
"From day one he's always been a guy who's had a very calm demeanour and he exudes confidence, which I think carries over to the team," adds Trevor Linden. "He's very calm, and that's a real interesting trait for someone who's as young as him, especially when you look two years ago and he started playoff games and such. And that's a big challenge for a young guy like that. He's solid. He's very mature for his age and he's done a great job for us."
In an effort to rest up for the end-of-season challenge ahead, Auld decided to trade in his regular relaxation routine of walking the False Creek seawall with his wife, Melanie, and their three dogs and take advantage of the Olympic break in the NHL schedule to spend a week on Maui. There, he will be free to recharge his batteries without having to deal with the distractions of home.
"It's crazy that the fans care so much and they pay so much attention and are so passionate. Even when I was first called up and I'd only played one game, people seemed to know who I was, and I couldn't believe [it]," Auld says of the recognition he gets wherever he goes. "It's an adjustment. In a city like this that follows the team so closely, and it [goalie] is a high- profile position, too, it sort of comes with the territory."
When he gets back to work, Auld knows the stakes will be raised and he'll be in for the most intense period of his professional hockey career.
And he can't wait.
"I think I've learned I feel better when I'm doing more," he explains. "It may seem a little backward, but I've realized that I have to make sure I stay on top of the details of my game and the little things. As far as how I've felt, I don't feel like I've played that many games. I feel good and I just feel like I can keep on playing."
And although he may want to continue playing as much as he has in the past three months, Auld realizes that in order to be able to make a strong playoff push, he has to stay fresh. To that end, the Canucks are bound to bolster their goaltending situation through a trade-although Auld's performance this season has shown the Canucks they need only bring in a secondary netminder to spell off the starter rather than finding someone to replace who they've already got.
That means Alex Auld's time has arrived-perhaps sooner than he expected-but the nature of the position he plays means always being ready when opportunity presents itself. And Auld plans to make the most of this one.
"This is absolutely the best opportunity I've ever gotten. This is something you can't take for granted and can't take lightly. You have to make sure you really take advantage of it. Not many guys in their first full year in the league have the chance to be one of the top guys in minutes played and all those things. You really have to respect it and understand the responsibility that comes along with it. I'm excited about it, but I just know that every day I have to keep proving that I belong and that I deserve it.
"I believe I can do it, and I don't think anyone wants a goalie who doesn't believe. Confidence in yourself is so important as a goaltender, and that's something I have and I think I want it and I just have to keep showing that."
And if Alex Auld keeps showing the Vancouver Canucks and their fans what he's already shown them this season, goaltending could be the least of their concerns as they begin their run for the Stanley Cup.
Jeff Paterson hosts Sportstalk Weekend on Saturdays and Sundays, 9 p.m. to midnight, on CKNW. E-mail him at email@example.com.