Hockey is a special sport, because it is one of the few left where a support role can be the difference between obscurity and legend. Michael Jordan was an amazing basketball player in his prime, obviously, but many folks forget the invaluable service done to him by Scottie Pippen and Steve Kerr. But in hockey, there would simply be no Wayne Gretzky legend without the other early 1980s Edmonton Oilers like Paul Coffey and Glenn Anderson.
In terms of the Portland Winterhawks this season, which is almost at an end, there were many young men primed to be the key figure on the ice. Certainly team captain Keegan Iverson has provided some steady leadership during a transition year, Cody Glass and Ryan Hughes have been the offensive phalanx, and Caleb Jones has set a new bar for two-way defensemen. But the recent clinching of a playoff slot for the Hawks has no bigger champion than Cole Kehler, who started the season as a backup and has since played 52 games in the net, including two shutouts and 1684 shots faced.
Portland has a fairly traditional system for goalie development: the backup player is usually on the younger side of the league’s age range and develops his game alongside a more seasoned starter, eventually “graduating” into the starting position when his counterpart moves on. Kehler, now 19, had his contract traded to the Winterhawks from the Kamloops Blazers, who had him as a backup for two seasons before he was sent to the Merritt Centennials of the BCHL for a season. The trade slotted Kehler to back up Michael Bullion after the departure of Adin Hill (who himself was recently called up to the NHL, incidentally). Bullion was traded to the Medicine Hat Tigers at the beginning of January, however, and Kehler has taken on a lot of responsibility in a short amount of time. Within only a few weeks of becoming the starter, he was boasting a .910 save percentage and named WHL Goalie of the Week after a thrilling 46 saves in one game on Jan 27. Now Kehler is the seasoned veteran with a rookie counterpart in 17-year-old Shane Farkas.
The real mark of quality in Kehler’s performance has been his endurance, especially coupled with the sometimes undisciplined defensive positioning from his skaters. His save percentage stays in the mid-90s in almost every game wherein he faces over 40 shots on goal, which has happened more than it should. The 200-pound, 6-foot-4 Canadian has had 14 games this season where he saw over 40 shots on goal, and as high as 54. That is staggering. Fifty-four shots at him in one night, and he had 51 saves and the win.
An amazing sniper who can nail the back of the net from the blue line will always be a fan favorite, but Cole Kehler is a definite hero and the recent uptick in wins and league positioning for the Hawks are direct results of his abilities. It’s likely he will get a brief respite in the coming days, with the rest of the season to finish and Farkas likely to take some time in the net before the playoffs. If the team’s performance patterns are any indication, he will need all the rest he can get. I don’t know if Kehler’s efforts in goal alone will keep Portland afloat in a four-game series against a team as nimble as the Everett Silvertips. While the Hawks’ offense can compete with any team in the Western Conference, it’s that sluggish backcheck and chaos in the defensive zone that caused Everett to sweep them in the first round last year. The good news is that the Portland net has someone as prepared and conditioned for playoffs as Cole Kehler protecting it.