Twenty-six-year-old Cam Talbot, in what will be his first ever NHL action, is hours away from becoming the first New York Rangers goaltender besides Henrik Lundqvist to start against the Flyers since January 16th, 2011; Fifteen meetings ago. As he prepares to represent his new club – an Original Six club based in New York with tremendous history and expectations – it becomes incredibly amusing to look at his unlikely journey to the NHL and see how it could not be more opposite than the pressure cooker under the limelight he is about to be thrown into.
There are a number of states that are hockey hotbeds and hold a number of prominent hockey programs. Massachusetts and Wisconsin are two of them. Talbot, though, spent his college hockey career in one of the least likely places; Alabama. An alumnus of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Talbot will become just the second hockey player in the school's history to make it to the NHL level; center Jared Ross, who played 13 games and registered no points for the Flyers between 2008 and 2010, is the only other. The Division 1 program is hardly a fixture in college hockey. In fact, the team was only saved from being eliminated by last minute campaign efforts in 2011.
Nonetheless, Talbot began his collegiate career with UAH in 2007 and was mentored by head coach and former NHLer Danton Cole. Cole met with Talbot as part of his recruiting duties and immediately knew what kind of person he was bringing to his program.
“You could tell right away that he has the demeanor and attitude that you want,” Cole said.
One of the benefits of attending UAH for Talbot was that it allowed him to get playing time much sooner than he would have at one of the more mainstream hockey schools. Talbot became the team's starting goaltender in his second season but posted an underwhelming 2-16-3 record. Still, his performances were solid, and he worked hard to become even better for his third and final season with UAH.
“I think his athleticism and size were always there… but he showed up to camp in extremely good shape (in 2009)” said Cole. “He worked hard and got his fitness up to an elite level. His athleticism, his knowledge of the position, and his fitness all came together. We could help him get to that spot but a lot of that was on him.”
UAH started off the 2009-2010 season as a significant underdog against number five ranked Notre Dame, but managed to pull off an unlikely 3-2 road win. Talbot played a key role in the victory, making 40 saves and earning the third star of the game for his efforts. Though they lost to Notre Dame 3-1 the next day, Talbot was phenomenal, making 48 saves on 51 shots. It was at this point that Cole realized Talbot might beat the odds and have a hockey career in his future.
“Cam had a great weekend. He won one game and played real well in the other one. (Scouts) were on him right away,” said Cole. “I think at that point it became a real possibility.”
Those two games were the start of a tremendous final season for Talbot, who posted a much improved 12-18-3 record along with a 2.61 Goals Against Average and .925 Save Percentage. He and his team won the College Hockey America Conference Tournament and made it into the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the school's history. For his efforts, he was named the goaltender on the CHA's All-Tournament Team and was voted by all coaches as the MVP of the tournament.
“The longer it went on the more guys had confidence in him and the more he had in himself,” said Cole. “He was a big part of us getting to the NCAA Tournament. Every time we needed him to have a big game and keep us in it he did. He did a tremendous job and guys liked playing in front of him.”
As many as ten to fifteen NHL teams spoke to Cole about Talbot and showed interest in signing him to a contract. Talbot eventually chose to commit to the Rangers and joined the team's AHL affiliate in Hartford at the end of the college season. Chad Johnson, the incumbent starting goaltender for the then-Connecticut Whale, left the Rangers after the 2011-2012 season and Talbot took on the starting role. He he has shined ever since. This season, Talbot has stood tall behind a brand new defensive group still trying to mesh and went 4-0-1 in five starts. If all goes well for Talbot then he will never go back to the AHL and tonight will be the beginning of a productive NHL career. Cole, who played in 319 total NHL games himself, believes that he has what it takes to make that possible.
“I think his confidence… if you don't have that then you're not a good goalie,” Cole stated before laughing. “You might sneak in there and get a couple of (NHL) games but all the great ones truly have that belief in themselves that they're going to stop the puck. Cam has that. He's put in an awful lot of work but he has that belief in himself. I think that and his work ethic will get him through.”
*NOTE: Following the 2009-2010 season Cole was offered the head coaching position for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program; a position he accepted and still holds. Much thanks to him for taking time to speak with me and contribute to this piece.*
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