ST. LOUIS – Good thing for Devan Dubnyk’s persistence, or he might never have become a goaltender.
Devan’s dad, Barry, was a goalie as a kid. He played the position because he couldn’t skate, which wasn’t uncommon in those days.
At 9 years old, Devan asked his dad if he could play goal. His buddy was a goalie, and he thought the gear was cool. But Barry wanted his boy to continue to develop as a skater.
“I remember him saying no right away. He said, ‘Not a chance,’ ” said the Wild goaltender, set to make his playoff debut Thursday night against the Blues. “But I worked on him for a while.”
Father and son made a compromise. Barry was the coach, so the two agreed Devan could play every second game.
“He played the first game and we won. We put somebody else in for the second game and we lost 16-1,” the father said, laughing. “Devan played the rest of the year. I’m a competitive coach, so I went with the guy that was going to give me the win.”
“I’ve always been defensively minded,” the son explained. “When I played soccer, I’d always kind of hang back and play defense, which is pretty rare for a kid because everybody wants to go score. Baseball, I loved being a catcher.”
Years later, after his son was drafted by the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers, Barry Dubnyk was talking to a scout who showed him a report he had done on Devan years earlier.
Written down was “L-L-A-G.”
“I thought, ‘What the heck is L-L-A-G?’ So I asked him and he said, ‘I don’t know anything about goaltending, but he looks like a goalie,’ ” Barry Dubnyk said. “I never forgot that [because] that’s exactly what I felt. I saw him at 9 years old in his first summer season, and he looked like a goalie. And I started watching that against other kids, and bias aside, I felt like there was something there.”
The Wild and its appreciative fans can relate.
From the moment Devan Dubnyk parachuted into Buffalo on Jan. 15 to save the Wild’s season, he has looked like a goalie.
Even though coach Mike Yeo initially told the 28-year-old not to feel he had to be a “hero,” the 2004 Edmonton Oilers first-round pick hoisted a down-and-out Wild team and carried it into the postseason. Dubnyk started 38 consecutive games (39 in a row overall; the most in the NHL since 2007-08). He gave up 68 goals in 39 starts, allowing two or fewer 29 times and recording five shutouts in his first 16 starts.
Since Jan. 15, no NHL goalie who has played in more than 31 games could top Dubnyk’s 27 victories, his 1.78 goals-against average or his .936 save percentage. He went 15-2-1 on the road. In the second game of his last six back-to-back situations, he gave up a total of seven goals. He was the NHL’s First Star of the Month for February, Third Star for March and a two-time First Star of the Week.
He has entered the Hart and Vezina trophy conversations, is Vegas’ second-likeliest Conn Smythe Trophy candidate (for playoff MVP, which would be good news for the Wild) and was the Wild nominee for the Masterton Trophy.
From afar, Barry Dubnyk and his wife, Barb, their 35-year-old daughter, Christianne, and 30-year-old son, Dave, have enjoyed every second of Devan becoming the toast of the NHL.
Remember, last year was a well-chronicled, as his parents described it, “horrible” nightmare. Dubnyk was traded twice and ended up in the minors.
“My cheeks are sore from smiling all the time,” Barry Dubnyk said.
The back yard of the Dubnyk’s Calgary home had an elaborate World Wrestling Entertainment set erected. Every summer day, a mob of boys from the neighborhood would flock to the back yard, where they’d body slam the heck out of each other and act out intricate plot lines.
They’d wear costumes, they’d blast music, they’d award championship belts after staging WrestleMania and the Royal Rumble.
Devan Dubnyk was the Rock. Sometimes, Stone Cold Steve Austin.
“The older brothers were bigger and stronger, so they’d chuck us younger guys around pretty good,” Dubnyk said. “I was a maniac on the trampoline. I used to give my parents a heart attack.
“I could do a back 720 aerial by the time I was 13. I did a double front flip one time. My dad came out and snapped on me because I cleared the trampoline by a foot.”
To this day, Dubnyk is pals with all his fellow wrestlers. He’s got them all on a group text exchange and does an annual Vegas trip with many.
“They have been in his corner along the way, and maintaining those friendships are really important to Devan,” said Dubnyk’s sister, Christianne Wile.
“We have the chance to do something special here. This is a special group, and we want this to continue”
Deep down, Dubnyk wonders if those long days wrestling are what made him so flexible, if this is how he’s able to slide from side to side and sprawl across the crease without tearing his groin in half.
“My poor parents, though, there was absolutely nothing I wouldn’t try on the trampoline without even thinking twice about it,” Dubnyk said.
Dubnyk was always a big kid. Today, he’s nearly 6-6. It’s clearly genetic. His dad is 6-3. His parents each have brothers that are 6-5. And Devan’s brother, Dave, is almost 6-10.
“He had the never-ending toe drag,” Devan deadpanned.
Enduring moves, cancer scare
Barb Dubnyk said Devan was a super-active, rough-and-tumble kid, the most difficult of her three children. He was always on the move, never sat still. Much to the glee of the entire family, Dubnyk’s 19-month-old son, Nathaniel, is the exact same way.
“[His wife] Jen gets no rest,” Barb said, laughing. “We used to tease him and say, ‘You know, Devan, if we would’ve had you first, we probably wouldn’t have any other children.’ ”
Devan had a tendency to miss curfew as a teenager. Barb figured out the perfect way to nip that in the bud.
“It took me a long time to convince Barry that we should try this, but when he missed his curfew one night, we said, ‘You know what, Devan, we’re not taking you to hockey practice tomorrow morning. You have to find your own ride.’ He didn’t know what to do with himself. That was the worst thing that could’ve ever happened to him. So that never happened again.”
These days, Barry, Barb and Devan own a Mazda dealership in Lethbridge, Alberta. Back then, though, Barry worked for IBM.
That kept them moving a lot. Christianne went to nine schools in 12 years. Devan lived in Regina, Newmarket, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary all before age 10.
Such moving was traumatic for Christianne and Dave because they were older. Devan was younger, so he always made friends immediately, Christianne said.
“Well, you hear me talk here,” Dubnyk said. “I’m not short of words. I always like to meet new people. I never was afraid to go up to a kid at a new school and introduce myself. That’s why I love hockey. You go to tryouts and get on a team, you’ve got 20 friends right away.”
On the back of Dubnyk’s mask, near the sketch of son Nathaniel, is a breast cancer ribbon. It’s to honor his mom, who is 13 years cancer-free.
Dubnyk has talked many times about what that terrifying time meant to him and his family. He says the way his mom handled that situation shaped the way he lives his life.
“It really touched me because I think he just wanted to forget that it ever happened,” Barb said. “It was a really hard time for our family and it was really scary for all of us. … At the time I didn’t think it affected them as much as it did. Apparently it did.
“And Devan, he’s honestly one of the strongest people. We always laugh when we read in the paper how everyone is so worried about him getting hurt [starting all those games in a row]. The truth is the kid is so strong in his mind.”
In fact, Devan’s parents revealed that not only has Devan played through minor injuries, he secretly played through the mumps in Arizona.
There’s no doubt the bond is tight between the Dubnyk clan.
“It was all those moves,” Dubnyk said. “It just brings you closer. You go to all these new places and don’t know people. You just have each other. It was always just the five of us.”
Bonding with his hockey family
Dubnyk quickly became a beloved teammate on the Wild. Players appreciated how he flew all night crumpled up in a ball in a tight middle seat to start that first game in Buffalo. The next day, after that 7-0 victory, teammates took notice that, despite his entire life being turned upside down and despite his wife and son still being in Arizona, there Dubnyk was at J.P. Parise’s funeral supporting a new teammate — J.P.’s son, Zach — rather than getting his life in order.
“There are things in life that are a lot bigger,” Dubnyk said. “This became my second family and it was important for us to be together as a team to support Zach.”
Immediately embraced, Dubnyk brought more than renewed confidence in net. He was the desperately needed fresh face.
“He’s a really easygoing guy, very easy to get along with,” said Parise, who took a house off the market so Dubnyk and his family could settle into it. “You’ve got a guy like [Niklas] Backstrom, you can’t talk to him on the day of a game. It’s like you don’t even exist.”
Parise added, kiddingly, “I don’t know how he lives his life like that. So it’s kind of refreshing to have someone you can joke around with in the locker room before the game.”
The family is excited to root on the Wild in the playoffs and see how this incredible run plays out after a trying last season.
Barb and Barry told Devan last year not to lose himself, “that you just have to find the right team to play for and get your confidence back. And that’s exactly what happened. So we’re just so thrilled to see him with a big smile on his face,” Barb said.
Dubnyk isn’t worried about being a playoff newbie — after all, he’s been playing “playoff hockey” for two months.
“It was a good opportunity to see a lot of situations this year where we played huge hockey games that we needed to win,” Dubnyk said. “But I’ve done a really good job of keeping the picture as small as possible. The more you get wrapped up in the atmosphere and the excitement of the games, the better chance you can get thrown off.
“So this is even more important as we go forward. If I let in a bad goal or something goes wrong, as long as I stick with the basic fundamentals of playing goal — finding the puck, pushing, stopping, being set — and not worrying about it being my first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs, I’ll be fine.
“We have the chance to do something special here. This is a special group, and we want it to continue.”