Wild goalie Kuemper is one resilient rookie

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2014 - 2:11 PM

– He’s a baby-faced 23-year-old rookie who helped save a Wild season that easily could have gone belly-up, but Darcy Kuemper’s road to the NHL hasn’t been fast-tracked.

Kuemper, who started 12 consecutive games before an Olympic break that officially ends Thursday night with a game against the Oilers, had to maturely accept being returned to junior hockey when he already was 20. Then, after finally turning pro at 21, he spent time developing in the low-level East Coast Hockey League.

A year ago, Kuemper thought he was on the verge of being traded; and this season he had a rocky first six weeks.

“It’s just part of the development process,” the happy-go-lucky Kuemper said of his winding road to the Wild cage.

This is why teammates love him. He bounces into the locker room between periods and apologizes if he gave up a bad goal. He’s the type of guy who, after giving up three goals on seven shots in a game the Wild dominated in Toronto, stood in front of his locker stall waiting to face the music from reporters.

“That was a game we deserved to win, so there was nothing to hide,” Kuemper said of the Oct. 15 start. “It didn’t show who I was as a goalie. It was just a bad game. I had to admit it.”

Kuemper could best be described as he describes himself: almost “un-goalie-like.”

On game days, many men who play hockey’s loneliest position want to be left alone.

Not Kuemper. If it wasn’t against Wild policy, he would gladly conduct media interviews on game mornings. He yuks it up with teammates and takes part in the team’s pregame soccer hackysack matches.

Keeping it loose

“Every team I’ve played on, usually the starter, especially on a gameday, you don’t really go around him,” said veteran Dany Heatley, an NHLer since 2001. “But Kuemps is around, hanging out, telling jokes, telling stories. And when it’s time to play, he’s ready to go.

“He’s a fun kid. He comes to the rink everyday smiling all day. That’s part of the reason he’s been so good for us. He keeps calm in the net, and whatever happens doesn’t seem to faze him. It rubs off on the rest of us.”

How does he do it?

“Well, it’s partly my personality to goof around,” said Kuemper, a native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where his father, Brent, is a police officer and his mother, Sharon, is an accountant. “But in junior, obviously, you’re trying to find what works for you. My first few years of junior, I’d try to focus the moment I woke up, and I’d just be tight when the game came around.

“To play my best, I just need to stay loose until I get to the rink and you start going through your routine. Then when it’s time to go — maybe an hour before warmups, you turn on the focus, get into the zone and visualize the game coming up. It gets my head into it.”

General Manager Chuck Fletcher gives former head scout Tommy Thompson and current Wild scouts Guy Lapointe and Paul Charles credit. In 2009, the men saw enough of Kuemper during a 21-25-8 junior season for Red Deer of the Western Hockey League to select him in the sixth round, three rounds after they took another goalie, Matt Hackett.

Facing adversity

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