St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen has assembled quite the resume in his relatively young career. The Fredericton, New Brunswick native helped the Canadian Under-18 Team win the gold medal in 2008, and was named the tournament’s MVP. His showing was impressive enough for the Blues to draft him in the second round of that year’s NHL Entry Draft. Two years later, Allen won the Jacques Plante Memorial Trophy as the top goalie in the QMJHL. He was also named the CHL Goaltender of the Year as the best goalie in major junior hockey.
In the 2012-13 season, Allen was called up by the St. Louis Blues, playing in 15 games. His nine wins, one shutout and 2.45 goals-allowed average in the lockout-shortened season netted him a spot on the 2013 NHL All-Rookie Team. The next year, Allen won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the American Hockey League’s top goaltender, when he led the league in goals against average (2.03), wins (33), save percentage (0.928%) and shutouts (7). His remarkable play earned him the backup role with the St. Louis Blues this year.
I recently spoke with Allen about his blossoming career, the differences between playing in the NHL and AHL and what goes through his mind during a shootout.
Sal Barry: What is your earliest memory of playing hockey?
Jake Allen: Putting on the pads for the first time. It was a great feeling, something that was meant to be. Putting those big pads on is something I’ll never forget.
SB: When did you become a goalie?
JA: At eight years old. I started as a player when I was five. And I played for three years [as a skater]. I took a turn in net. Eventually, I stuck with it and had been doing it since.
SB: Who were some of your goaltending heroes growing up?
JA: John Vanbiesbrouck was one of my first heroes when I was real young. I always looked up to him. He had a pretty cool mask back in the day. And Martin Brodeur. I always looked up to him, too. He was definitely my idol.
SB: What is the best thing about being a goalie?
JA: It’s a pressure-filled job, and you’re able to be the anchor for your team, make that big save. Just the ability to change the game is such an important role on the team.
SB: What would you say is the toughest part?
JA: When you let in a soft goal, the blame is on you. But you know as a goaltender it’s going to happen and it is part of the game. You can be a hero or a zero.
SB: When you won the gold medal with Team Canada at the 2008 Under-18 Championship, what did you learn that helped you grow as a player?
JA: It was my first real international competition and I didn’t know what to expect, so I went in with an open mind and took it day-by-day. I learned a lot about myself. To never give up when you play, be patient, trust in your ability. Have confidence in yourself and try to get better each time you get out on the ice. I think I did that.
SB: You skipped your high school graduation to attend the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa. Were you disappointed that you did not get selected in the first round?
JA: No, I wasn’t disappointed at all. I really had no expectation to go in the first round. I wasn’t right to go in the first round. I had a good tournament before that, but it didn’t mean…if I went in the first round, it would have been a bonus, but my goal was to be drafted. I had to wait a little longer (the next day), but it was worth missing my high school graduation. It was a day I’ll never forget, and I had my family there with me.
SB: In your NHL debut [April 30, 2012], you played one minute of one playoff game. What was going through your mind when Blues coach Ken Hitchcock sent you out there?
JA: You know, I wasn’t even really thinking of going in at the time. It was more of just a ploy to get the guys time to recuperate. We were on a 5-on-3 power play, so change it up and get an extra 30 seconds of a breather. I was sort of shocked that he put me out there, but I don’t even think I was out there long enough — I was still in shock — to realize what was going on. But I was sure to take a look around and realize that I got my feet on that ice, finally. I had to wait a few more months to get my actual first game in, but that moment was very special.
SB: When you did get your first start the next season [February 13, 2013], what was on your mind that day?
JA: It was obviously a dream come true. I was pretty nervous before my first game at Joe Louis Arena, a nationally-televised game on NBC. I was excited. In the first period, I was a little shaky. I didn’t feel like myself out there. I told myself after the first, take a couple of deep breaths, I can play with these guys, relax and play my game. I did that after the first period and we ended up winning the game. It was an experience that I’ll never forget, and some kind of nervousness that I’ll never have again in my life because I experienced most of it now. But that feeling was something special and tough to explain unless you experience it firsthand.
SB: What is the biggest adjustment you had to make when playing in the NHL versus the AHL?
JA: You’ve got to trust yourself and your ability, that you can play there. And the reading of the plays. You’ve got to be able to read what’s going on around you, read where guys are, read who’s on the ice. The game isn’t much faster, it’s the ability of the players to make plays, execute plays at 100% capability. In the AHL, maybe a guy will stop the puck before he puts it in the net, and in the NHL a guy might one-touch the puck into the net. It’s a split-second difference that you got to be able to adjust to. And be as patient as you can. I think a lot of guys just jump into it going all-out and overwhelm themselves [when first playing in the NHL]. Just be patient. Let the game come to you and you’ll be all right.
SB: What has been your favorite accomplishment so far in your career?
JA: Just getting to where I am today. I said as a kid that I wanted to play in the NHL, but realistically that rarely happens. And just to get here with all the people who have helped me is probably my biggest accomplishment.
SB: When you let in a goal on the road, and everyone cheers because you made a mistake, how do you shrug it off?
JA: Once you get to this point in your career, you really don’t notice the crowd. There’s a couple of buildings that are definitely harder to play in than others, but in all the crowds you rarely notice. You rarely notice the music. For me, I just shrug it off. It’s a goal. What can you do about it? You can’t do anything about it now, you can’t pout about it and get frustrated. You just get back on your horse, fight another day and stop the next puck that’s coming at you. You let in a goal, you bounce back. It doesn’t matter where you are.
SB: When you are in a shootout, are you thinking about the tendencies of the shooter
JA: For sure, you got to know who you are up against. You got to know some of their tendencies — if they’re a shooter or a deker. But you can’t read too much into it. You have to let your natural ability react, your instincts take over. Be as patient as possible. Be aware of the situation around you, but at the same time let your instincts do the work. Try to let the shooter make the first move. Have some fun with it too. I’ve seen some young goalies put a lot of pressure on themselves in the shootout. You got your team a point (in the standings) this far, so have fun and enjoy it! It’s a crapshoot. You never know what’s going to go on, but it’s enjoyable and I love it.
SB: What other advice to you have for young goalies?
JA: You don’t have to be overly-technical and overwork yourself at such a young age. That will come with maturity, but enjoy the game. You don’t have to play hockey 365 days a year. It’s important to get away from the game. Go play other sports, enjoy your childhood, don’t over-analyze things when you’re so young and it will go well. ■