When Calvin Pickard was a 9-year-old in Winnipeg he made one of the most important decisions of his life — he wanted to be a goalie.
Pickard had first been “thrown into” the net when he was eight. And he played “pretty well” in goal, but still split time between forward and goalie until that all-important decision.
“It was after practice one day and right at that spot I had to make a decision,” Pickard said. “And at that spot I said ‘I want to be a full-time goalie.’ I’ve never regretted that decision.”
Fourteen years later, the Colorado Avalanche are reaping the benefits of 9-year-old Pickard’s decision.
Now 23, Pickard is arguably the best goalie in North America that didn’t start the season in the NHL.
Even though he had an NHL-best .932 save percentage in 16 games last season, Pickard was sent down to the San Antonio Rampage to start the season as Colorado elected to carry Reto Berra as Semyon Varlamov’s back-up.
It was a close battle in training camp, but Pickard’s two-way, waiver-exempt contract and the opportunity to have him play on a frequent basis in San Antonio were too much to pass up for Colorado head coach Patrick Roy.
“The message was great and I had a very good meeting before coming down here,” Pickard said. “They said I had a great camp. And, truthfully, it wouldn’t have been too much fun to be up there and not play. You aren’t happy when you’re sent down, but I’m happy about being able to play every night.”
If he spends the whole season in San Antonio, Pickard could play upwards of 60 games. He said he’s ready for that and pointed to the fact that he played 66 between the NHL and AHL last season.
“It’s nice being on a team where you’re the guy — someone who always is going to impact the game,” Pickard said. “If I play well and I’m sharp, and I’m seeing the puck well, I know we’ll do well with the team we have (in San Antonio).”
It’s a mix of confidence and swagger that have helped Pickard develop as a pro after four seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL.
Pickard’s biggest critic looks back at him in the mirror each morning, and when the red light goes on behind him, he is quickly assessing what he should have done on that particular play.
“I’m always judging on how I could play,” Pickard said. “I always feel like almost every goal I let in I could have stopped. That’s how you develop confidence. I know I just can’t expect to stop every shot, but I have to strive for it.”
It’s the type of mental preparation he witnessed first hand in the NHL last season.
“The thing I noticed most about the NHL is how much value goes into every shift,” Pickard said. “Everybody has their job and everybody is nipping at somebody’s heels to take a spot or improve. There is more urgency to block shots, clear pucks, and not as many broken plays in the NHL.”
Playing in the NHL also forced Pickard to fill out his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame.
He has added leg strength over the past couple of seasons to better battle with “NHL size and talent” that crashes the crease. He uses that added explosiveness to track and adapt to plays behind the San Antonio defense, which is subject to conceding shots like it is the NHL parent club.
In his 66 appearances between Colorado and the Lake Erie Monsters — Colorado changed affiliations to San Antonio this past season — Pickard faced an average of 31.67 shots last season.
And when you face a lot of shots — and stop a lot — in Colorado’s organization, one of the best goalies of all time takes notice.
“I’ve been asked a lot about that,” Pickard said. “Everyone knows how unbelievable Patrick Roy was. If you had asked me as a kid, I wouldn’t have believed you that I’d have a chance to play for him. Today, it’s something where I just focus on my own play and rely on a great knowledge base.”
Pickard also works with Avalanche goalie coach Francois Allaire and Rampage goalie coach Jean-Ian Filliatrault. But, one of the most important voices in Pickard’s development as a goalie has been his brother, Chet, who plays for the Iserlohn Roosters in Germany.
“We talk a ton, we’re really close,” Pickard said. “He’s three years older than me, but we’re pretty much the same personally. We talk about everything and anything, it’s a great help to have someone like that.”
To be fair, Chet may have also been on Calvin’s mind when he first protected a net in Winnipeg.
“When you’re older brother is a full-time goalie you have to try it out,” Pickard said. “Once again, it was a good decision.”
Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @SeanShapiro