Sam Brittain, the sophomore goaltender for the University of Denver, is gearing up for a return to the ice after spending the first half of the season rehabilitating from surgery to repair his knee. Brittain suffered the injury in the WCHA Final Five game against the University of North Dakota on what seemed like an innocuous play, but eventually cost him not only 20-plus games for the Pioneers, but also a unique chance to play for Team Canada in the World Junior Championships.
After playing midget hockey in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta, and a season of Junior A hockey in Canmore, Brittain joined the Pioneers. He played 33 games as a freshman, finishing among the NCAA-leading goaltenders after posting a .921 save percentage and a 2.28 goals against average. As of Monday, January 23rd, Brittain has been cleared to begin practicing with the team, and could soon see a return to action.
Hockey’s Future recently had a chance to talk to the Panthers prospect about goaltending, his injury and rehabilitation, and what it has been like watching his team play this fall.
Hockey’s Future: How and why did you become a goaltender?
Sam Brittain: I always wanted to be a goalie. I loved watching Patrick Roy and when I was twelve, my parents finally let me play goalie and I never looked back.
HF: Did you model your game after Roy, then?
SB: Yeah, I mean, at the beginning it’s a matter of just trying to get the fundamentals down, but I always loved watching him and how he played. It was always really cool to be able to see him and see him win in Colorado, as well.
HF: So, did watching Roy play for the Avalanche factor into your decision to play for the University of Denver?
SB: I chose Denver because the city is a lot like Calgary, the hockey program speaks for itself with seven national championships, and the academics part of the schooling is phenomenal. It was just a perfect for me. When I decided, I was very happy.
HF: News of your knee injury was first reported at the beginning of Team Canada’s goaltender camp for the World Juniors. When did you injure your knee, and when did the extent of the injury become clear to you?
SB: It was in the second period [of the Final Five game with North Dakota]. I was down in the butterfly, and a guy awkwardly fell on me, and it wasn’t like a huge thing at once. It was pretty painful but I was still able to play. I didn’t even think that the extent of the injury was bad until we had the MRI done. As I remember it wasn’t even a major collision, it was just a really awkward, awkward time and movement.
HF: But you went on to not only finish the game, but play in the Frozen Four and then attend the goalie camp for Team Canada.
SB: Yeah. The MRI found the severity of the injury, but I decided to work through it. I couldn’t really butterfly, but wanted a chance to play for Canada.
HF: It must have been disappointing to have the injury keep you from working at the camp.
SB: Sure, it was, but I’m not the first person to have to go through this.
HF: Did the Panthers staff talk to you about the injury at all?
SB: Yeah. They checked with me, and wished me luck. They’ve been tremendous, but they know I’m in good hands and well taken care of.
HF: How much time do you spend rehabbing, and do you spend a lot of time with the team?
SB: Right now, it’s Monday through Friday, two hours a day, and then I’m able to do workouts, modified so I don’t put the knee in a position that it’s not ready for yet. We have team workouts and I’m able to work out when the team does. I’m watching practice and hanging out with the guys in the locker room, definitely still being a part of the team. Then doing my rehab separately just because it’s in a different facility.
HF: Do you think that at this point in your rehab, things seem to be going well enough that the injury is not going to be an issue going forward, or have you thought about having to change up your butterfly style a little bit if the rehab doesn’t go as well as expected?
SB: I think talking with my doctor and [Denver athletic trainer] Aaron Leu, it’s not going to be an issue at all. I have to make sure that I don’t rush back and that [my knee] is strong and healthy when I return but that should not affect any style or play for the rest of my career.
HF: Outside of the injury, what do you think is the biggest improvement area for you as a netminder going forward?
SB: I think the biggest thing that I need to work on is actually my speed, both lateral and reaction speed, reaction with my hands or my legs. As the guys get bigger, their shots get harder, and they’re able to generate plays faster. I think for me being a bigger guy I just need to keep working on my speed, and what comes with that is also flexibility. Those are two areas that I’d like to continue working on that will help my game significantly.
HF: How much time do you spending working on the mental aspects of the game? Do you have a routine to get focused? How much do you work on that?
SB: Well, we have a team psychologist that I’m able to meet with, so he helps for about an hour a week. And then basic visualizing training before bed or after practice, even for just five or ten minutes on something that I’m working on in practice, especially if I’ve been working on something new, helps me incorporate it into my play smoothly. It helps in games and transitioning from practice to games, as well.
HF: Do you spend a lot of time watching film of opponent teams, their shooters and styles? Do you try to visualize that as well?
SB: Well, definitely before we play a weekend series we identify the team’s top lines and their powerplay units and what their powerplay likes to do, because that’s a big factor. Each team has a different powerplay, and making sure you’re aware of what they’re doing. Those two aspects: identifying the top players and knowing their powerplay, are definitely huge helpers in the goaltending position, knowing a little bit what to expect.
HF: During this last off-season, two of the goalies in the Panthers organization were traded or left the organization. How do you feel about these changes to the depth chart, because that in a sense opens a spot for you, right?
SB: Well, from my perspective, in any NHL organization, it’s going to be a battle for spots. Florida still has some phenomenal goalies in their system. It’s always a competition no matter what level you’re trying to crack or whatever lineup you’re trying to get into. It’s always phenomenal goalies wherever you go. I mean, being just a sophomore I’m not in any rush—especially with the injury—to hurry things up. I just want to make sure I get this healthy before I worry about anything else.
HF: What has it been like for you having to sit and watch your team this fall?
SB: Watching the team play this fall has been beneficial. Despite wanting to play, it’s interesting to gain a different perspective on how everything unfolds.
HF: What do you think you have gained the most from watching?
SB: I think the ability to see plays formulate and come together, and to understand what opposing forwards are trying to do on the rush and in zone play.
Editor’s Note: Brittain could play as soon as Friday, January 27th in the first of a back-to-back series against Alaska-Anchorage.