Tokarski hopes to stand tall for Team Canada
Dustin Tokarski was hoping for some help from above. He must have gotten it.
The Spokane Chiefs goalie waded through a deep goaltending class for this year's World Junior Championship and came out as one of two that Canada National Junior Team coach Pat Quinn decided to keep.
"This is what you want," Tokarski told NHL.com. "You want to be in the best group you possibly can, and this is it right here."
A day before Hockey Canada kicked off its first National Junior Team Evaluation Camp in July, Tokarski was a pall bearer at his grandfather's funeral. He said the last thing his grandfather, a former goalie himself, told him was, "Just give her a go, buddy. You made it this far, so just be yourself, play your game and you'll be fine."
Tokarski has been just fine since arriving in Spokane in 2006. Getting selected by Quinn to represent Canada in the nation's capital city starting Dec. 26 is the crown jewel in his against-all-odds junior career.
He's generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, but he joins Canada's National Junior Team with a championship resume.
"To some people it does matter," Tokarski said of his height. "It's been a knock on me my whole life, but I seem to keep on trucking and that's what I plan to keep on doing."
Prior to joining the Chiefs, Tokarski won the Canadian Midget National Championship with the Prince Albert Mintos. Last April, he backstopped Spokane to the Memorial Cup championship, and thanks to his 4-0 record and 1.72 goals-against average, he was named the tournament's MVP. He made 52 saves in the championship game.
One month later, he was drafted in the fifth round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now he joins Tri-City Americans goalie Chet Pickard, Nashville's first-round pick, as Canada's goalies in the greatest teenage hockey tournament in the world.
"Dustin Tokarski has won everywhere he has been," Hockey Canada chief scout Al Murray told NHL.com. "He has shown time after time that he is part of winning teams."
But before his incredible Memorial Cup run, Tokarski was considered nothing more than a middle-of-the-road prospect. Scouts wondered if he could handle the pressure of the big events, not to mention if he was big enough to play in the big events.
"In midgets, I couldn't make a team. I tried out for seven teams and finally made one," Tokarski said. "You know, I have been told I can't do it because of my height, but I plan to keep going and keep proving them wrong."
"I think I can stop the puck just as good as guys that are 6-3 and 6-4," he said. "People have their opinions and that's fine. Some people don't like small goalies, but every time I'm out there I'm battling to try to win."
The Lightning forgot about the height factor and drafted Tokarski anyway. He entered the draft as the ninth-rated North American goaltending prospect and was the 13th goalie taken, behind 10 North Americans and two Europeans.
Tokarski impressed the Lightning with his play at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in September. He had a 3.32 GAA and .863 save percentage in two appearances. Tampa Bay finished eighth out of eight teams.
At the time of his selection to Canada's National Junior Team, Tokarski was first in the WHL among starting goalies with a 1.97 GAA and .938 save percentage this season. He was tied for first with four shutouts and ranked fifth with 16 victories in 27 appearances.
"A real surprise was Dustin Tokarski," said Darren Rumble, who coached Tampa's prospects in the tournament. "Boy is he solid, so we may have found something there. In listening to scouts, I don't even think he was projected to be (Spokane's) No. 1 last year, but he sort of took that over. Then they end up with a ring. We got him fairly late in the draft, so there's something there."
Tokarski didn't attend the draft in Ottawa because he wasn't sure where, or even if, he was going to get selected. Spokane defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who was among the last cuts Quinn made to finalize Canada's roster, believes Tokarski still battles to get notoriety despite his overwhelming success.
"He was a little underrated and he still is I guess," Spurgeon, a New York Islanders' prospect, told NHL.com. "He wasn't drafted into the WHL. He went through a couple of tryouts and then stuck with us. He was a big reason for our success (last season)."
Tokarski has no shortage of support at home. He comes from a family of goalies.
"Yeah, there are a bunch of goalies in the family, so if I play a good game they razz me and if I play a bad game they razz me," Tokarski said. "It's a lot of fun for the family."
A picture of the goalies, including Dustin, his grandfather, his father, two uncles and younger cousin who has recently taken a liking to the position, hangs in his home.
"It's all of us from youngest to oldest and it's pretty funny," Tokarski said. "My grandpa is wearing his old gear that he wore at one end and there is me in my bantam gear, the new stuff, at the other end. It's pretty funny stuff."
Tokarski said his grandfather, who is wearing his vintage pads in the photo, was "a huge part of my life and my huge fan. All he wants for me is to do my best and play my heart out for him. Hopefully he can help me out from up there now."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer