Severna Park, Md., native Nick Ellis isn't from a hockey hotbed, but the goalie for the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, has been pursuing his dream of playing in the NHL since he was 5 years old.
"The first time I went skating was at a birthday party," said Ellis, 23. "Then my mother started taking me to public skates."
In one of his first games, Ellis wore the goalie pads backward and kept falling down. He played for the now-defunct Benfield Ice Vipers in the early days and started working with a goalie coach at 7. He rose through the ranks of youth hockey and was playing U16 AAA before deciding to attend the Pomfret School, a prep school in Connecticut, after the 10th grade.
After prep school, he played 37 games for the Des Moines Buccaneers in the United States Hockey League, allowing 3.41 goals per game and recording a .909 save percentage.
"That was the biggest adjustment for me," he said. "It was definitely a higher level of play and my first inclination that I was going to play Division I and get drafted."
He attended Providence College and was a reserve for two years before helping lead the Friars to a 27-7-4 record in 2015. He allowed fewer than two goals per game.
"I've never needed someone to motivate me," he said. "I've always had a passion for hockey. I love the pressure that comes with the position. I like being the difference-maker. You are a big part of the team's success. It's kind of fun."
At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Ellis is not considered a large netminder.
"I'm not big or small," he said. "I focus on good movements -- edge work and balance -- so that I can play big."
Ellis works out five days a week and does vision training.
"Vision training has gotten pretty big lately," he said. "It strengthens your eyes. The eye is basically a muscle. I put on 3-D glasses and play games designed to help me project and react."
His biggest challenge as a goalie is fighting through screens when two or three players are blocking his vision.
"Traffic and screens are the hardest thing to figure out," he said. "I handle breakaways the same way every time, only the reactions are different. The approach and the method allow the player to make the first move and you react from there."
Ellis hopes all his training eventually leads to the sport's highest level.
"My ultimate goal is to play in the NHL," he said. "I want to have a good career and win the Stanley Cup."
In his first season for the Condors, Ellis went 16-12-1 and recorded 897 saves. It's a different lifestyle for him.
"You're living on your own," he said. "You have to figure things out. No one will babysit you."
Ellis is grateful to his parents for supporting him.
"They drove me everywhere to play on certain teams," he said. "They made all the sacrifices and put in a lot of work. They gave me this opportunity. And they watch or listen to every game. They are enjoying this for as long as it lasts."
Issue 236: August 2017