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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Winterhawks goalie calls World Juniors title 'dream come true'

PMG FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Joel Hofer has helped the Portland Winterhawks get off to a strong start in the Western Hockey League season.The Portland Winterhawks have had an abundance of talent during their 43 years in the Western Hockey League, with dozens of forwards and defensemen moving on to make their mark in the NHL.

Premier goaltenders have been harder to come by. Clint Malarchuk (1978-81) went on to play 11 NHL seasons, and Byron Dafoe (1986-91) and Jason LaBarbera (1996-2000) each played in 12 NHL campaigns. Brent Belecki (1997-98 Memorial Cup champions), Mac Carruth (2012-13 WHL champions) and Adin Hill (2013-16, now with the Arizona Coyotes) distinguished themselves.

Portland's current netminder — Joel Hofer — may be the best of them all.

Earlier this month, Hofer (pronounced "Haw-fer") led Canada to the gold medal in the World Junior Championships at the Czech Republic. The 6-5, 170-pound Winnipeg native stopped 35 of 38 shots in the gold-medal game as Canada beat Russia 4-3.

Hofer was 5-0 in his starts, including a 32-save shutout in the semifinal against Finland. He was named the tournament's top goaltender and recognized by the media as a tournament All-Star. He finished the tournament with a .939 save percentage and a 1.60 goals-against average.

"The whole thing was unreal, starting with just getting invited to the (tryout) camp, then making the team and me getting to play," Hofer said. "For us to win the gold medal — it was a dream come true."

The fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in the 2018 draft, Hofer leads the WHL with a 2.00 goals-against average, is second in save percentage at .932 and owns a record of 22-4-2 for the Hawks, who have the league's best record.

"We've never had a goaltender play internationally, play on such a big stage and win a world championship," said Mike Johnston, Portland's head coach/general manager. "That might separate him from the others we've had in the past. Winning 20 games before the Christmas break is an incredible stat, too. It's really quite impressive to do that."

"He's the best goalie in our league, and he came out of the World Juniors as one of the top goalies in the world," said Portland assistant coach Don Hay, the winningest head coach in WHL history. "Joel has improved through his work ethic and his commitment to the game."

Hofer didn't always seem destined for greatness. He didn't play AAA hockey — the highest kids' level — until he was 16.

"I was never the top player," he said. "It just goes to show, you don't need to play the top leagues growing up. With lots of hard work and determination, you can reach your goals. It's also about having fun and playing the game you love."

Hofer played hockey soon after he learned to skate, but became a goalie at age 10.

"I always loved the position," he said. "My parents would always take me to watch the Manitoba Moose (the American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL Winnipeg Jets). I was always looking at the goalies. Even when I was playing street hockey, I always wanted to be the goalie."

Hofer likes being in the eye of the storm, much like a quarterback in football or a pitcher in baseball.

"A goalie is always in the action," he said. "And I love the fact that when you make a save, the fans get behind you."

Hofer left his family at age 15 to spend two years at the Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy in Kelowna, British Columbia, where he also attended school.

"It was a really good stepping-stone for me, really good for my development," he said. "We were on the ice working out every day. It skyrocketed my career from there."

Being away from the family is the life of a junior hockey player, "but it was definitely hard," Hofer said. "My mom didn't like it a lot, but she knew it was best for me, and she knew I wanted it, too. No matter what, my parents are always supporting me. They've made a lot of sacrifices for me. I'm really grateful for that."

As a WHL rookie in 2017-18, Hofer was backup goalie to veteran Stuart Skinner for the Swift Current Broncos, who won the league title and went on to participate in the Memorial Cup.

"First year in the league — it was everything I could have wished for," Hofer said. "We had a special group, a cool group of guys. Stuart was a role model for me. Going to the Memorial Cup was really cool for me. I hope I can bring some of that to Portland this year."

Hofer was a midseason acquisition last season and took over the starting job late in the season. He was in goal when the Hawks lost in five games in a first-round playoff series with Spokane.

"We learned from it," he said. "After the season was done, we met together as a group. We were focused on having a good summer, and coming back and being a stronger club, a top contender in the league."

That has happened, in no small part to Hofer's presence.

"The elite goaltenders have to have great hockey sense and be able to read the game," Johnston said. "They have to know what's happening away from the puck. Joel has very good anticipation, very good awareness, very good reads. He's athletic. He moves really well in the net. He's not just a blocker. He's a big guy who moves well and reads the play well."

After Portland's 2018-19 season was over, Hofer spent two weeks with the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League. He played one game, making 31 saves in a 4-3 loss.

"Pretty special for me to go there and get my first taste of pro hockey," he said.

Hofer was one of three goalies chosen for Team Canada, but he wasn't the starter to open the World Juniors. He entered late in a 6-0 loss to Russia in pool play and played well enough to win the starting job — along with MVP and all-tournament laurels — the rest of the way.

"I couldn't have gotten those awards without my teammates," he said modestly. "Got to give a lot of credit to those guys. They really helped me out."

Hofer hopes to provide leadership for the Hawks in the playoffs this season.

"Hopefully, I can mentor the young guys," he said. "We learned from our playoff experience last year. We're really eager for the playoffs and to get it rolling."

Hofer is not a vocal leader, his coach said.

"The best leaders lead by their presence," Johnston said. "He has a great presence, a calming influence on his teammates. No matter what's happening in the game, things are going to be fine. With the great ones, it's, 'How's your confidence? How's your poise? Are you unflappable?' He's like that. He's very resilient.

"Having the experience of winning a world championship is a plus for us. Goalie is your most important position. If you've had a guy play on the biggest stage and win in that position, it helps your team be that much calmer. We need that, because we have so many young, inexperienced guys who haven't been through it before. It's great to have a guy who is the backbone of your team, having been through all of that."

Hofer already owns one WHL championship ring from his time with Swift Current. Could he earn another one this year?

"For sure," he said. "We're fast, we're skilled and we have a good 'D' — everything a championship team needs," he said.

Oh — and a more than capable goalie, too.

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