Highly touted WHL goaltender opts for unusual career course

Team Cherry goalie Zach Sawchenko makes a save against Team Orr during third period CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game hockey action in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday January 28, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Zach Sawchenko admits he’s making an unconventional hockey career choice. But that doesn’t mean he’s throwing in the towel.

Sawchenko, a two-time Eastern Conference goaltender of the year with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors, announced earlier this week he’s foregoing his overage season to join the University of Alberta Golden Bears.

“I’m very fortunate I got to leave junior hockey on my own terms,” Sawchenko, 19, said. “I didn’t age out. I didn’t get cut. I didn’t get kicked off. It was my decision to leave. Not a lot of people can say they can do that.

“I may have closed one door in junior, but I may have opened a few more by going to school.”

While Sawchenko’s decision to leave major junior early to join U Sports isn’t without precedent, it’s all but unheard of for someone with his track record.

The six-foot-one, 175-pound netminder was one of the best in the WHL this season, compiling 30 wins, a 2.79 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. This is someone who’s competed for Canada at both under-18 tournaments, has attended an NHL team’s main training camp and was invited to a world junior summer camp.

However, the last year has been filled with disappointment and made him question the meat-grinder of pro hockey.

Following his first Eastern Conference top goalie nod, Sawchenko was the sixth-rated North American goaltender by NHL Central Scouting entering the 2016 draft. He sat in the stands in Buffalo for two days and didn’t hear his name called.

“To this day, I’m not too sure why. Maybe I never will. Maybe I’ll find out eventually,” he said. “It was a mystery. I hate to sound like that guy, but I fully expected to go to Buffalo and get drafted by an NHL team. But I’m a strong believer that everything happens for a reason.”

His agent, Ritch Winter, helped get Sawchenko invited to the Nashville Predators prospects camp, which he parlayed into a trip to main camp. Sawchenko also attended the Canadian camp in August.

But when he wasn’t selected to the WHL team for the Canada-Russia Series in November, the final main evaluation before the Canadian world junior selection camp roster is named, Sawchenko began reconsidering his hockey future.

He had a frank conversation about his future with Warriors GM Alan Millar in late December. The topic of leaving the league a year early for university came up. Even though Sawchenko said he was committed to returning to Moose Jaw after the season, Millar had a strong inkling which way he was leaning after their first talk.

“Zach’s a mature kid. He’s been with us for parts of five years. He grew up in our program,” Millar said. “As much as we’re disappointed – he’s very good player and a big part of our team – it’s hard to be upset about a young man who has thought through an important life decision.”

Millar provided plenty of counsel during Sawchenko’s decision-making process, as did Warriors goalie coach Jamie Hodson and parents Greg Sawchenko and Chantal Cyr.

Having already maxed out his five-year education package, the chance to play for the perennial Canada West front-running Golden Bears – his parents’ and grandparents’ alma mater – was too good to pass up.

Former WHL goaltender Luke Siemens recently signed a pro contract with the ECHL’s Rapid City Rush, opening a spot for Sawchenko. With a finite number of spots available, he jumped at the chance.

“Now, more than ever, I don’t think there’s much security in the game,” said Sawchenko, a Calgary native. “Everywhere starting goaltenders are losing their jobs.

“Leaving a year early, I always wanted to get that degree. It didn’t matter if I got drafted, I wanted my degree. I was looking to get it as soon as (I possibly) could.”

Sawchenko’s departure leaves the Warriors without their No. 1 netminder in a season where they’re pegged as a contender with captain and Tampa Bay first-rounder Brett Howden leading the way.

The silver lining is they can only keep three overagers anyway and have Jayden Halbgewachs and Brayden Burke, their two top scorers this season, and alternate captain Tanner Jeannot eligible to return.

And they have 19-year-old netminder Brody Willms, whose .907 save percentage as Sawchenko’s understudy has convinced Millar he’s ready for an increased role.

“We’re not in panic mode. We’re not on the phone trying to trade for a goaltender,” Millar said. “We believe in what we’ve got. We believe we’ll have a very good team in front of Brody and that he’ll be able to do the job.”

Leaving the Warriors when they have a chance at a WHL title was cause for pause, but ultimately didn’t sway Sawchenko’s thinking.

Without a contract with an NHL team – which would have voided his education package – Sawchenko could foresee a future of toiling in the minor pros. He sought another option.

Once his days at the U of A are over, Sawchenko’s determined to make a go at pro hockey. He’s under no grand illusions a spot with an NHL team will magically open up in four or five years.

But playing in the ECHL or Europe with a degree is a much more prudent option. He’ll start by taking general arts courses in the fall and plans to transfer to business the following year.

“People may call me crazy and saying I’m giving up on the dream, but they’re entirely wrong,” Sawchenko said. “I want a backup plan and something to fall back on if it doesn’t work out. If I have a good university career and dominate – which is my goal and something I’d love to do – leading into the next year (after leaving U of A), I don’t think the door’s closed by any means.

“I still believe I can play pro hockey. I still believe in myself. I just wanted a degree in my back pocket more secured.”