By Kristina Rutherford in Winnipeg
By Kristina Rutherford in Winnipeg
Connor Hellebuyck has been achieving goals people told him were impossible his whole life. Now he's got his sights set on winning the Winnipeg Jets' first-ever Stanley Cup.

Connor Hellebuyck doesn’t remember everything he said to his college coach the first time they met, but he doesn’t doubt the way his coach recalls the conversation, either. Anyone who knows the Winnipeg Jets goalie will tell you, too: It’s classic Hellebuyck.

He was tall and lanky and 19 years old when he turned up at The University of Massachusetts Lowell for a visit to the only school to offer him a full scholarship — one he’d happily accepted. River Hawks head coach Norm Bazin welcomed Hellebuyck and, in his You’ll Love This School And This Team presentation, also made it clear there would be plenty of competition for the crease. You see, Bazin explained, Doug Carr had been stellar in his sophomore season, named runner-up for Hockey East’s conference player of the year after posting a sparkling .928 save percentage.

What happened next, Bazin will never forget, even if Hellebuyck has. The Michigan-born teenager who’d gone undrafted in junior hockey’s ranks asked if there was time for a question. Bazin was encouraged, because he likes inquisitive kids who pay attention to detail. “Fire away,” he said.

“Is that good?” Hellebuyck asked, straight-faced, of Carr’s save percentage. “Or should we push for .950?”

Bazin was shocked. He doesn’t recall what he said next, only that he wondered: “Is he crazy or is he that driven?” Says the River Hawks coach today, with a laugh, “I understood after: That’s Connor.”

It has been six years since that moment, and now Hellebuyck is sitting in his stall in the Jets dressing room, one day after making 36 saves in a 7-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. His legs — still long and lanky — are stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles, his feet in flip flops. His dark hair is parted in the middle. Hellebuyck shakes his head and smiles when that college conversation comes up. “Well,” he says, with a shrug, “I ended up hitting the mark.” He actually bettered it, posting a .952 save percentage in his freshman year.

“Crazy or driven?” Hellebuyck says, considering Bazin’s question for a moment. “It’s probably a little bit of both.”

“We proved it last year. We’re capable of winning the Cup.”

Those two words go a ways towards explaining how the Jets goaltender got to this point, too: backstopping a team with a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup. And while Hellebuyck may be coming off a season that saw him nearly win the Vezina and earn a bunch of votes for the Hart, his is far from a destined-for-greatness story: He almost died the summer before college, for starters, and though he grew up 30 miles north of USA Hockey’s headquarters, barely anyone noticed him until he was 18. But thanks to talent and an unwavering self-belief, Hellebuyck has since proven he has the potential to be the difference-maker for the Jets, and in a season crowded with contenders who could win it all.

He’s had a slower start this year than last, but Hellebuyck is beginning to feel more like himself, and his confidence that this team is ready to win the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup hasn’t wavered. “We proved it last year, and building that chemistry is all we needed — that was the last piece,” he says. After coming oh-so-close in 2018, stymied by those upstart Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final, there’s no doubt in Hellebuyck’s mind, he says: “We’re capable of winning the Cup.” Jets fans will be happy to know, too, that statement comes from a guy who’s never been shy about stating and then achieving his goals, even when they sound outlandish to everybody but him.

An extreme work ethic has contributed to Hellebuyck's success, but so has a lack of self-doubt that seems, at times, borderline unhinged to those around him.

Try as he might, Chuck Hellebuyck was not going to dissuade his youngest son from becoming a goalie. The signs were there from the beginning, the most obvious coming when Connor was three or four and watching a Red Wings game with a baseball glove on his left hand and a mini stick in his right. Chuck figured Connor was mimicking Detroit’s goaltender, but when the NHLer went down before a high shot on a breakaway, Connor stayed up and made the fake save, handling the play his own way. “When he was really young, just able to sit up on his own, he would sit and he could see a bug crawling on the floor, and he’d just stare at it,” Chuck says of the first signs of Connor’s uncanny focus. “You’re thinking: ‘What is he looking at?’ But he’d spot this bug crawling and he just stayed focused on it. I thought, ‘Wow, that kid’s got some concentration.’”

Hellebuyck played lots of sports as a kid, and at age four he started road and roller hockey, a big pastime on the neighbourhood streets of Commerce, the Detroit suburb he grew up in. (Hellebuyck’s parents still live there, and he has a house in nearby Orchard Lake, where he spends the off-season). “I just would always gravitate towards the net,” the 25-year-old explains. “In road hockey, you’ve got a player chest pad on. I’d take shots off the arm all the time and it killed, but I had a knack for making saves, and I really enjoyed it. That’s all I wanted to do.”

Hellebuyck took the ice at age five, and by then he was mostly a goalie. He started playing AA around 10, and while both he and older brother, Chris, were good enough to play AAA, Chuck, an engineer, says the family couldn’t afford to have the kids travelling separately across the country for tournaments. Plus, he and Erin wanted their boys to be able to go to parties, to enjoy other aspects of growing up. As a result, Hellebuyck rarely missed parties and never played higher than AA.

He wasn’t playing at the most elite levels, but Hellebuyck’s focus was on getting there. After a mediocre junior year while playing Division 2 at Walled Lake Northern High School, he told his dad he didn’t have a backup plan for his NHL dream. When Chuck explained it could take time to figure out what he wanted to do, Hellebuyck replied: “No, you don’t understand: I don’t want a backup plan. I don’t want any distractions. I’m going to make it. I want to make it.”

“That was, to a parent, a little shocking,” Chuck says, now. “But the determination in his eyes? I was like, ‘Ok kid, go for it. If you say you’re gonna make it, then make it. I wish you luck.’”

The summer that preceded his senior year of high school, Hellebuyck went to work. He developed the self-described “boring” style of goaltending he plays today, and part of the change came from a new set of Reebok pads. “They helped form my style, just the way they sat on my knees, it morphed the way I was sitting in the net,” Hellebuyck explains. He still uses the brand today, though its hockey division is now owned by CCM.

“Screw it. I’m gonna do whatever it takes. If I have to go play Tier 3 junior, I’ll do it.”

He got those pads around the same time he first noticed a trend while studying games. “I was realizing how often the puck just barely misses you, or all these goalies that go into desperation, and they might make the save, but they didn’t need to go into desperation — or, at least, I didn’t think they needed to,” he says. “I started morphing my game into staying calm and trying to get ahead of it and trusting you’re going to get there. I was watching a lot of goals go in and analysing what the goalies did for them, and started to realize that you can just move and stay in position and still give yourself the best chance of making saves.”

Hellebuyck figures he’s the least flexible goalie in the NHL today, and he doesn’t think he could do the splits if he had to. “Everyone talks about athleticism in goalies and I don’t think that their view of athleticism is the be-all and end-all,” he explains. “They always talk about, ‘Oh he’s so athletic, he can make a save any way,’ but the thing is, he doesn’t need to. If you keep yourself in position, you give yourself a chance at all times to make the save as opposed to being able to dive around and do the splits.”

That calm style is exactly what caught the eye of a scout. Yes, just one. Because while you’d think it would be easy for a kid who was well on his way to his full six-foot-four at age 17 to get noticed, not so if your high school team isn’t elite and you never play AAA. “Looking back now, I wouldn’t suggest going the same route,” Hellebuyck says with a laugh. “But that was the only route I knew.”

The only time scouts got a look at him, really, came when he played for a Michigan all-star team at a high-school tournament in Minnesota. That’s where Craig Sarner, a scout for Sioux Falls of the USHL and the NAHL’s Odessa Jackalopes, caught sight of him. “He was big, athletic, he competed the hell out of the game,” says Sarner. Still, that didn’t earn Hellebuyck an invite to either team’s training camp. “I just told Connor to be patient,” Sarner says. “More than anything, there’s always NAHL scouts at those camps, and I didn’t want anybody else to see him. I didn’t think anybody else knew about him.” Sarner was right: Hellebuyck was passed over in both the USHL and NAHL drafts.

“I expected to get drafted in the NA at least, then I didn’t and that was a huge heartbreak,” Hellebuyck says, shaking his head. “I had a moment, like, ‘Aw, what am I gonna do it?’ Then I said: ‘Screw it. I’m gonna do whatever it takes. If I have to go play Tier 3 junior, I’ll do it.’”

Fortunately it didn’t come to that. Instead, Sarner called with an invite to the Jackalopes’ main camp in Texas, which the scout says had been the plan all along. “I thought I had a chance, then,” Hellebuyck says. “I was very driven, because that was my only shot.”

Jackalopes head coach Paul Gillis could tell almost immediately that Hellebuyck was going to be “something special,” he says. “Very tall and skinny, but the thing about him was that he really looked, maybe the word is ‘comfortable’ in net. He was very calm and stable in there. And then as we got to know him, you would never meet a nicer kid. His work ethic was just fantastic.”

“I think that talent was in him the whole time — he just had to get it out.”

When Hellebuyck got scored on, he’d review the goal as soon as possible. As in, between periods. “Seriously,” Gillis says. “He was all over it. He hated losing, and that manifested itself into extra hours on the ice, extra hours watching himself play.” A forced day off would see the goalie attend practice to watch, then hit the gym. “That’s the only way I knew,” Hellebuyck says, “just grind all the time.”

Hellebuyck carried the mediocre Jackalopes into the playoffs, earning NAHL goaltender and rookie of the year honours. “Bucky came a long way that year,” Gillis says, “but I think [that talent] was in him the whole time — he just had to get it out.” (Hellebuyck’s nicknames include ‘Bucky,’ ‘Buck Buck’ and ‘Helly.’ He prefers the last, but it got out among the Jets that in college he was called Bucky, so that one made its return and then spawned Buck Buck, thanks to former Winnipeg teammate, Mark Stuart).

During and after that season with the Jacaklopes, he was recruited by UMass Lowell, so his NCAA career would begin even sooner than he’d thought. And the Jets would draft him in the fifth round that summer, months before his college career got started. “Things were starting to happen,” Hellebuyck says with a smile.

He was about to set NCAA records. He was about to become the 13th goalie selected in the 2012 NHL Draft. He was about to lead the River Hawks to a first-ever Hockey East title. But before all that, he had to get rushed into emergency surgery.

Hellebuyck's dad, Chuck, first noticed the young goalie's exceptional concentration watching him make plays in front of the TV during NHL games.

A range of topics have been covered on this off-day, here in Hellebuyck’s stall just inside the entrance of the Jets dressing room. In the last half hour, he’s talked Tiger Woods (he’s a big fan), the decline of roller hockey on the streets of his hometown (it makes him sad), his golf game (he’s “addicted,” and had a career-best four handicap two summers ago), his dog (Tinley is an Alaskan malamute) and Fortnite (the video game he calls “the hype of the nation”). He’s been chatting so much that captain Blake Wheeler looked over and wondered: “How long can you talk about yourself for?” That made Hellebuyck laugh.

All that talking about himself was pretty breezy, though. It’s only as Hellebuyck is recounting his first year of college, when he missed some playing time early on because of mono, that he stumbles into a story that’s decidedly more serious, and scary.

“I lost two pints of blood and almost died. Yeah, it wasn’t the best time.”

After his season with the Jackalopes, Hellebuyck returned home for the summer like he always did, and he played roller hockey — out, as a forward, like he always did. During one game that May, he was tripped and crashed into the pavement, his arm bleeding from the fall. It wasn’t his arm that hurt, though. Hellebuyck began coughing up blood, his stomach hurting so bad he was writhing in pain on the pavement. A spectator called an ambulance to rush him to hospital, which luckily was just a mile or so up the road.

Hellebuyck tells this story in his usual measured and calm tone: “So, zoom, zoom, zoom, went to the hospital and had a ruptured spleen and had to be rushed to emergency surgery to get it removed.” His spleen was swollen to three times its normal size, and he’d been bleeding internally after the fall. “I lost two pints of blood and almost died,” he says. “Yeah, it wasn’t the best time.” You don’t say.

Lucky for Hellebuyck, the surgeon at the hospital had just wrapped up another procedure and was on site and able to operate immediately. Hellebuyck says he has since had no health issues as a result of that operation, but still, you’d think the fact that No. 37 is missing an organ would be common knowledge among his teammates. Not so. Forward Mark Scheifele says it’s the first he’s heard of it. Finnish sniper Patrik Laine’s reaction is: “I didn’t know any of this,” and then he asks, “What’s a spleen?” It’s a good question, really.

Hellebuyck was told to take two months off following the surgery, but he was back on ice after one. He wasn’t about to miss tryouts for the American world junior team after receiving an unexpected invite. His mobility was compromised and he didn’t make the roster, but one coach pulled Chuck aside and told him: “I don’t know how we didn’t see your son before.” Hellebuyck was at last on USA Hockey’s radar.

He wasn’t on NHL Central Scouting’s radar, though, not listed among the top 30 draft-eligible goaltenders ahead of the 2012 NHL Draft — though that didn’t stop the Jets from taking him 130th overall. Still, he wasn’t what you’d call a proven commodity.

That’s probably why Doug Carr wasn’t at all worried that his starting job at UMass Lowell was in peril ahead of the 2012–13 season, when he met Hellebuyck for the first time. “I remember thinking, ‘Who’s this goofball?’” Carr says. “I had some confidence after the sophomore year that I had. I got a lot of accolades and didn’t think there would be a freshman that would bump me from the crease for a significant time. Little did I know he would go on to set pretty much every NCAA record that year.”

MR. 946
Hellebuyck and his teammates at UMass Lowell won back-to-back Hockey East titles, and his career save percentage of .946 remains an NCAA record.

Hellebuyck, who attended Carr’s wedding this past summer, says the relationship between the goaltenders was invaluable. “We drove each other so hard and then we became pretty close because of it,” he says. “We had this push-pull that we always had going and it was so awesome and fun, honestly — it was just so fun. He would go, then I would go and the whole team would be sweet, and we were setting records.”

Throughout his freshman season, Hellebuyck kept his eye on stats, and there was a span of the year when he and Carr were 1-2 across the country in save percentage and goals against average. “He told me, there’s no reason we shouldn’t end the year as the 1-2 punch across the country,” Carr remembers. “Some people might think that would be tough to do, but he was dead serious.”

Hellebuyck held up his end of the deal, and he took over the crease as the team’s No. 1 halfway through his freshman season. The River Hawks went on to win their first of back-to-back Hockey East Titles, and Hellebuyck was named tournament MVP both years. His sophomore year, he won the Mike Richter Award for the top goalie in the NCAA. His career save percentage (.946) remains the best in NCAA men’s hockey history. After two seasons with the River Hawks in which he posted equal numbers of shutouts and losses (12), Hellebuyck made the decision to turn pro and begin his first season in the AHL with Winnipeg’s affiliate, then in St. John’s, Nfld. His plan, he says, was simple: “I went to the AHL, I was like, ‘I’m gonna kill this league and see what happens.’”

Hellebuyck’s shot with the Jets would come sooner than he thought — and, finally, he was getting the recognition and praise he deserved. Not that he cared about that last part. “I kind of was always the underdog,” Hellebuyck says with a shrug. “And I don’t even want to be recognized, I don’t need the fame or any of that, I figure it’s going to come if it comes. I just want to do the best, I want to be the best at what I do. I don’t care if other people think it or not.”

Hellebuyck describes his style of play as "boring" and figures he's the least flexible goalie in the NHL.

Even after a weak performance, it’s rare to hear Hellebuyck speak negatively. Six goals can get past him on a given night and he might still say he liked the way he played. Ask how he stays so positive and Hellebuyck counters with a question of his own: “Have you seen The Secret?”

It’s Chuck who got the family to sit down and watch the documentary, back in 2006, when Hellebuyck was 13. Chuck had read the book, a cult favourite focused on positive thinking. “It’s all about the belief system,” Hellebuyck explains. “If you truly believe something’s going to happen, it will end up happening. So nourish that, don’t fill your head with negativity, keep striding away. Even when it’s at its low, you need your lows to get better. You don’t get better in your highs, you get better in your lows. Keep working.”

Hellebuyck took that philosophy to heart, and that was exactly his plan in the AHL, to grind until he got a shot. During his second of two all-star seasons there, he was called up to dress for the Jets in November of 2015 after an injury to Ondrej Pavelec. Hellebuyck got his first NHL win about a week later, and his first shutout came a month after that, against that season’s future Stanley Cup champions from Pittsburgh.

“Sometimes you shake your head doubting him, like, ‘Ok, Helly.’ But then he’ll go out and do it. The kid’s a freak.”

“I didn’t know what to expect when I finally got here,” Hellebuyck says. “I knew I had to take advantage. When I first got up, I didn’t think I was going to play much. I thought I was going to learn behind Hutch [Michael Hutchinson], and then I started doing well and they started playing me a lot. I kind of realized, ‘This is my shot. This is it.’”

After earning the Jets’ starting role in 2016–17 and putting up a 2.89 GAA in 56 games, Hellebuyck signed a one-year deal in the summer of 2017. He followed that up with a league-leading 44 wins last season, including six shutouts and a career-best .924 save percentage, finishing second in Vezina voting and 13th for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Hellebuyck didn’t entirely reinvent himself last season, but he did get a new trainer (he visits Adam Francilia monthly in Kelowna, B.C.) and together they developed a “new foundation,” he says. “It means I’m doing the same thing every time now. I’m moving right. The search to train like a goalie and feel like a goalie finally started to sink in.” When things go badly, he says, “I have a foundation to go back to. I’m gonna do this, it works for me. That was huge and it just sunk into place. It was perfect.”

He had belief in himself, but what he didn’t feel he had full-bore until last season was the confidence of the dressing room. “I was rolling. I was able to get the team on board, too,” he says. “I was [confident], but you can’t do it by yourself. You need everyone.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, who came in as a rookie the same year as Hellebuyck, agrees there was a shift during the 2017–18 campaign. “We trust our goalies,” the forward explains, “but last year, he found another level. Everybody saw that, he was amazing. And he’s kept that level going. A lot of people say he’s had his downs already this season … Everybody goes through a tough time, but even in his tough time we’re still winning games. He’s incredible. We trust him as much, if not more, than we did last year.”

Hellebuyck’s first 20 outings of the season saw him hovering around career-low numbers, with a GAA of nearly 3.00. He was “trying to do too much,” he says. In December, he felt a shift, “relying on that foundation so I can relax and sink in more.”

Jets head coach Paul Maurice says he saw the tide begin to turn for Hellebuyck after a few big saves (he robbed Jordan Eberle, for one) in December, and that now the team is seeing a more relaxed version of the goalie, more like the guy they were used to seeing last season. What hasn’t changed, in Maurice’s view, is Hellebuyck’s approach. “He’s simply focused on being great,” Maurice says. “He doesn’t have any concern that he’s capable of being great, he has an expectation of greatness. But I think he still has an awareness that he’s on the path to that. We still feel that he can get better, and that’s not me telling you that we need more out of this player, it’s just me telling you that we think he has the capacity to do it.”

Hellebuyck has goals for this season, though he hasn’t been vocal about any numbers he wants to hit the way he was in college. Back then, he was confident he’d achieve that .950 save percentage he was striving for. “I truly believed it was going to happen, and then everything I did revolved around making it happen,” he says. “I don’t think other people do that enough. I think they might set a goal, but they don’t really think it’s going to happen.”

Setting that goal before he’d ever faced a collegiate-level shot might seem to most like something you’d hear from a kid who’s getting way ahead of himself. “But that’s Connor in a nutshell,” Carr says. “You can call him a little bit delusional at times, but he’s dead serious and he thinks pretty much everything is achievable. Sometimes you shake your head, like, ‘Ok, Helly.’ But then he’ll go out and do it. The kid’s a freak.”

Hellebuyck doesn’t deny any of that. “No one thinks like I do, I don’t think,” he says, furrowing his brow. “I guess I’m a little more out there. To believe that something’s going to happen to the extent I do? That takes a little bit of craziness.”

Hellebuyck has already made it clear he believes these Jets can win the Cup. Just before he heads home for the day — he’ll have tomorrow’s game off, before a win against Edmonton later this week — he considers what he can personally accomplish. “Sky’s the limit, I guess,” Hellebuyck says. “Capable of it all.”

Edited and designed by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images; Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images; Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images; Richard T. Gagnon/Getty Images; Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images.