A day after he learned the start of the Western Hockey League season has been pushed back another month and won’t begin until January, Taylor Gauthier put his game face on.
He answered the call to play for the Okotoks Oilers as an emergency injury replacement goalie for a pair of Alberta Junior Hockey League exhibition games against the Brooks Bandits this weekend.
The 19-year-old Prince George Cougar netminder from Calgary hadn’t played a game since early March, when the WHL season abruptly ended due to the pandemic and he was thrown into the fire, facing the Bandits, the defending national junior A champions from 2019.
“They’re a hard team to play coming off that long of a break,” said Gauthier.
“It kind of came out of nowhere, I was skating with my summer group on Tuesday and the Okotoks head coach (Tyler Deis) was my spring coach for a year when I was 13, so I built a relationship with him, and when both of their guys went down on the weekend he asked if I wanted to go out and skate with them until their guys got back.
“It was real nice getting the feel of game action again, it’s been something I’ve been looking for for quite a while.”
Gauthier made 37 saves in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Bandits on Friday in Okotoks and in the rematch Saturday in Brooks, the Bandits took a 2-1 lead on a second-period power-play goal and added an empty-netter for a 3-1 victory. Gauthier blocked 22 shots.
“Even though it’s exhibition, Okotoks and Brooks have a pretty crazy rivalry and there was lots of intensity in both games,” said Gauthier. “It was really cool to play a game with some meaning behind it. Okotoks has a really good team with lots of returning guys and I’ve grown up playing with and against the majority of that team.
“I was knocking the rust off the first night. It’s hard to get into game shape when you don’t have much time to do it. The first one I made a couple mistakes that ended up costing the team a couple goals but I think (Saturday) I played a pretty good game overall. I felt a lot more comfortable and a lot calmer in the net.”
Both games were limited to an audience of 100 fans.
“It was different but 100 fans is better than no fans,” he said. “Not knowing what the spectating is going to be like in our league, I hope we can get fans because it makes the game that much better.”
Gauthier has been working construction job in Calgary and has added 10 pounds of muscle to his six-foot-two frame and now tips the scales at 200. Aside from a few scrimmages and goaltender practices over the summer, he hadn’t had any opportunities to play at a high level.
Having represented Canada several times in international tournaments, starting when he was 16, Gauthier is still on the radar to wear the maple leaf at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton Dec. 26-Jan. 5. He’s one of five goalies who will be invited to the Hockey Canada tryouts in late-November of early-December..
He was part of the team’s virtual camp in July , working with national team goalie coach and former Prince George resident Jason LaBarbera.
“I’ve been to camps for Team Canada virtually every year since I was 16 and going through the camps in person it’s a lot harder physically than mentally so it was different sitting in front of the computer six hours a day,” Gauthoer said. “It was more taxing mentally than anything but they did a really good job of having the camp. We went over lots of our systems and did quite a few team-builders.
Dyland Garand (Kamloops Blazers), Sebastian Cossa (Edmonton Oil Kings), Tristan Lennox (Saginaw Spirit, OHL) and Brett Brochu (London Knights, OHL) are the other invited Team Canada goalies.
“The plan is to have that bubble they had for the NHL playoffs and if all goes according to plan I’ll be Edmonton over the Christmas break, hopefully winning a medal for Canada,” said Gauthier. “It’s going to be tough to get that intensity level ramped up but it’s a tournament that all of us have grown up dreaming to play in, so there won’t be any issue getting up for those games.”
Gauthier is confident he can pick up where he left off last season as one of the top puckstoppers in the WHL. He was a workhorse for the Cougars and played in 50 of their 62 games, sported a 2.93 goals-against average and .917 save percentage with two shutouts as the team MVP.
Gauthier was eligible for the NHL draft, Oct. 6-7, but not get picked. He was better prepared for that disappointment this time than he was a year ago, when he attended the draft in Vancouver and was not selected.
“This year I went into it with a different mindset, I didn’t get my hopes up too high,” he said. “I watched until the end of the draft with my parents and I didn’t end up going again but I think I handled it really well this year. I didn’t take time to feel sorry for myself. I went into my room, was mad for the night, and woke up the next morning and went back to work. I think I’ve matured a lot over the last year-and-a-half since I got passed over the first time and it’s just another opportunity for me to prove everyone wrong.”
The Cougars’ season will start Jan. 8 and Prince George will play the entire season against only B.C. Division opponents – Kamloops, Kelowna, Vancouver and Victoria. He’s looking forward to seeing the whole team assemble for training camp and says there’s much to look forward to for Cougar fans hungry for a winner.
“The division this year is pretty wide open, in my opinion I don’t think there’s a clearcut division winner or basement dweller, going into it I think everyone has a good shot at making playoffs,” he said. It’s going to be a battle all year long and we’re prepared for it, after last season and those last couple months trying to get into playoffs. We’re all raring to go and we have a little bit of experience under our belt now.”
Gauthier is looking forward to seeing defenceman Keaton Dowhaniuk and forward Koehn Ziemmer skating full-time for the Cougars as 16-year-old rookies. The Cougars picked Dowhaniuk third overall in the 2019 WHL bantam draft and locked up Ziemmer with the fourth overall pick.
“They’re going to be a huge contributing factor to our success this year, I think we have probably two of the best 16-year-olds coming into the league,” Gauthier said.
Ziemmer is now with the Whitecourt Wolverines of the AJHL. The six-foot, 194-pound Ziemmer, who turns 16 on Dec. 8, played in the Alberta Midget Triple-A Hockey League last season for the St. Albert Raiders and was a point-per-game producer with 15 goals and 11 assists in 26 games. He also put up five goals and 11 points in six playoff games. In three AJHL games last year for the Wolverines he scored two goals.
Gauthier will work one more week at his construction job then plans to drive Saturday to Prince George, where a few of his Cougar teammates, past and present, will be renting some ice on their own to get ready for the season.