Spokane Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur and goalie Mac Engel have the same philosophy for their second season with the Western Hockey League team.
“It’s all based on how well people play and earning it,” Nachbaur said as camp opened at the Arena. “It’s always up to veteran players to hold on to what they have got.”
Engel, 18, who won the competition last year to backup James Reid, said, “I’m just trying to do what I did last year, improve more and try to fill the role I’m about to step into this year.”
That’s a good approach for both after Engel’s interesting rookie season. He had a tough time getting a win as a reserve. In rare starts or appearances in blowouts he was 0-6, hardly inspiring numbers when Reid was hurt in late January, right after he set the franchise record for career wins.
Engel went 3-2 before a disastrous game against Portland, giving up four goals in less than 18 minutes.
Then the Red Deer native showed what he was made of with a shutout in his next game, starting a run where he won 11 of his next 12 starts, with two shutouts and never allowing more than two goals.
“He has experience under his belt; he knows what it takes to play in the league,” Nachbaur said. “It takes that focus every day, that work ethic every day and it takes confidence. That’s one thing Mac has from last season.”
When all was said and done, Engel was 13-8-2-1 with a 2.30 goals against average, which was second in the league and the reason he has a job to lose as one of nine goaltenders in camp this weekend.
“When he got the opportunity, he was solid,” general manager Tim Speltz said of the WHL’s goaltender of the month for February. This is his opportunity to prove he’s a Western Hockey League starter.”
So Engel has gone from the pressure of making the team to the pressure of being the top dog.
“For me there’s always nerves, it’s what you do with them,” he said. “You can either let them affect you in a bad way or a positive way. I just try to go out there and have fun and use that to my advantage.”
He said it was easier coming back knowing who everyone was and what to expect, but that also made him wary.
“The confidence is better, but obviously I’ve got to work,” he said. “It’s easier to come in playing for a spot because sometimes a guy coming in thinking he has a spot kind of lays back. A guy coming in not knowing he has a spot works the whole time, he’s not going to give up.”
Nachbaur said: “For me, having that pressure, living up to that pressure, is what you do to focus on the hard work in the summer and being ready in the moment.
“We’re confident in his abilities, otherwise he wouldn’t have been here last year. He grew last year and that’s what the league is all about, growing, being ready when your chance comes.”
Engel did everything he could to prepare in the offseason and doesn’t plan to let down now.
“It’s up to us as players, you’ve got to know if you’re working your hardest,” he said. “If you don’t know you’re not working your hardest, something’s not right. And Donny will let you know if you’re not doing your best. He knows.”
After being intimidated by the Nachbaur bark at times last year – “He always demands respect and if you give it to him he’s good.” – Engel is trying to help the guys battling to make the team.
“I think mostly I lead by example,” he said. “It starts with a work ethic on the ice. Just work hard every day, do your best to make sure you’re getting better. You can’t take a day off . . . I’ll talk to them a bit, try to get them to calm down, just do the thing that got them here instead of getting all nervous.”
It’s an approach that works.