LONDON, Ont. – Two days before the Ontario Hockey League season opened, Justin Nichols was on a highway wondering where he was headed.
The goalie had been pulled from practice with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He was told by general manager Kyle Dubas a trade was in the works with the destination still to be determined.
Nichols was advised to pack his bags and head to Sudbury, where there was a hotel room booked for him.
So Nichols started driving east on the No. 17.
“It was a bit of an interesting experience to start driving and not know where you were going after Sudbury,” Nichols recalls.
“It’s a pretty boring drive, but I had a lot on my mind that day. It was a little nerve-wracking, but I was excited because I knew I was going to get the chance to play more wherever I went.”
The suspense ended about 10 minutes outside Sudbury, when Guelph Storm general manager Mike Kelly and coach Scott Walker called him to welcome him to the team.
“Once I heard it was Guelph, I was excited because I knew they had a strong team,” Nichols says. “I didn’t know we were going to be this team.”
The Guelph Storm scored the most goals and finished first in the OHL, won the league championship and will play in Sunday’s final of the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Nichols is the only goaltender among the four starters in the tournament not drafted by an NHL team.
Val-d’Or’s Antoine Bibeau is a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, Edmonton’s Tristan Jarry is Pittsburgh’s property and London’s Anthony Stolarz is a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick.
The Storm have churned out 18 goals in three games in the tournament. While it helps a goalie to have that kind of offensive talent in front of him, Nichols has been solid, particularly in a 45-save win to knock the host London Knights out of the tournament.
The 18-year-old from St. Catharines is 3-0 at the Memorial Cup with a goals-against average of 2.33 and a save percentage of .941.
Nichols was the odd-man out among the three goalies at the Greyhounds’ training camp. In fact, he was informed at the end of last season the team was going to move him.
Guelph got him cheaply for a third-round draft pick. Generously listed at five foot 10, 163 pounds, Nichols is the smallest goaltender at the Memorial Cup.
“Obviously there’s the stereotype that bigger goalies are the trend, those guys 6-2 and up, that kind of thing,” he says.
“I’m well under 6-2. I just try my best and try to keep myself big in the net. I can’t control how tall I am, but I get in front of pucks the best I can.”
As the Storm showed signs of being a real contender during the season, Nichols knew there was discussion about his abilities and whether Guelph should go looking for a big-name goalie for a championship run.
“Obviously a lot of people talked about bigger names around the league,” Nichols says. “My answer has been how I’ve played all year. I just go out there and try to give the team a chance to win. When I do that, we seem to pull through.”
He and Mike Mancina were deployed as a tandem for the first half of the season. As the January trade deadline passed, Nichols won nine of his 10 starts that month to stake his claim on the No. 1 job.
“We were going to see how it went until the trade deadline and see if we needed to change,” Walker says. “At the time we were like ‘Hey, we’re happy with the way he fits in, he’s playing good, we’ve got a good feeling in the room and he makes the stops we need when we need him.’
“There were always people questioning us, every reporter, every person always said ‘What about goaltending?’ To be honest with you, that’s extremely tough on our goalie.
“You come to the rink every day, it’s a mental game and he’s so mentally strong. He just kept going. If people question your size and people question this and that and you just keep playing and playing well, it kind of makes it hard for them to be right.”
So instead of bartering for a goalie at the trade deadline, the Storm got older and deeper up front and on defence by acquiring winger Kerby Rychel and defenceman Nick Ebert from Windsor.
“Luckily we were able to use the assets we had to bring in guys like Kerby Rychel and Nick Ebert and I could fill that role without costing what a bigger name would have in a trade,” Nichols points out. “It all worked out.”
Nichols carried a goals-against average of 2.63 and a save percentage of .919 through all 20 playoff games. He also posted a pair of shutouts.
While players drafted or signed by NHL teams garner a lot of attention at Memorial Cups, the tournament is also a stage for the unheralded junior hockey players to make a name for themselves and hoist a trophy.
“I don’t necessarily want to prove people wrong as much as everybody’s been saying,” Nichols says. “I just want to win this tournament.
“Good goalies win and when you win, obviously the goalie had to help you get there.”
© The Canadian Press, 2014