Sexsmith quietly proving himself in Vancouver

By Guy Flaming

He’s been one of the top netminders in the WHL since the 2006-07 season and has a Memorial Cup ring and the individual records to prove it. Still, Tyson Sexsmith finds himself having to prove himself to critics time and time again.

Sexsmith hails from the Southern Alberta community of Priddis, a stark contrast to the town in which he currently resides. Since 2005, Sexsmith has been a member of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants and he currently resides in the city year-round.

The WHL has 22 teams located in places ranging from NHL cities like Calgary and Edmonton to much smaller centers such as Swift Current and Prince Albert. For Sexsmith, being based in Vancouver has its distinct pros and cons. 

“You get lots of fans out, great support in the city,” the 19-year-old told Hockey’s Future. “But when things go bad they’re all over you especially being a goalie in Vancouver – there is lots of criticism and the finger is always pointed at the goalie. It’s a great city to live in and a great city to play in outside of that.”

Teams like the Brandon Wheat Kings or the Medicine Hat Tigers are definitely the top draw in their town so the focus on the club is always high. That’s a positive thing when things are going well but it can get uncomfortable if the team is losing. Being below the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks on the local totem pole helps the Giants escape some of that pressure.

“Yeah it definitely does fly under the radar if things are going bad and the Canucks are in town,” Sexsmith agreed. “With Mats Sundin coming or Roberto Luongo returning from an injury, things like that overtake [the coverage of us] but we have sports guys that cover us and there is always articles in the paper about us, we’re just not always on the front page all the time.”

Of course it’s pretty rare that the Giants find themselves mired in a slump anyway. The team has been a perennial powerhouse in the league for the past half decade and this season is no different. Vancouver is the top team in the league’s Western Conference and are virtually unbeatable at home where they hold a 20-1-2 record. On the road they’re not exactly easy to defeat either, going 18-3-0-1.

Some years the Giants are the top team because of their offensive dominance. Players like Gilbert Brule, Michael Repik, Spencer Machacek, Kenndal McArdle, Milan Lucic and Andrej Meszaros have all worn the Giants sweater in the last few years but according to Sexsmith, the team is winning a different way this season.

“We don’t have a lot of skilled guys but we have a lot of guys who just come in and they work hard. They do the little things you need to do to win games and that’s the way we practice,” he said. “Lots of people want to play in Vancouver but it’s not the easiest thing to do. It’s a nose-to-the-grindstone type of mentality and practice every day is hard, we rarely get a day off and when you do you really look forward to it. Practices run for an hour and a half to two hours every day and they’re not easy to say the least.”

Team success and individual success generally go hand in hand. This year Sexsmith set a new record in the WHL for career shutouts when he blanked the Prince George Cougars on November 7. Bryan Bridges and Leland Irving both had 21 career shutouts and shared the previous record. Sexsmith has now raised the bar to 23 by posting another goose egg last week against the Edmonton Oil Kings.

Sexsmith was asked how much personal pride he takes in the impressive record but was quick to share the glory.

“Yeah definitely it’s a good accomplishment but I consider it a team thing,” Sexsmith said. “Every once in a while a goalie can get a shutout and steal a game by himself but for the most part shutouts are a team effort. It takes a lot of work to get that many shutouts and when you take a look at all the guys I’ve played with over the years there have been some pretty good guys like Cody Franson (NSH), Brendan Mikkelsson, Brett Festerling, Mark Fistric and those are pretty big-name guys that have gone on to have successful careers. I give a lot of credit to those guys for helping me earn the record.”

Sexsmith has had the WHL’s best goals against average in each of the last two seasons and is currently third in that category this year. In his rookie year he played in 51 games and lost only 12 times. What’s more impressive is that in that same season he posted 10 shutouts. He had nine more shutouts the following campaign and again almost matched his total number of losses on the year (11).

Yet sometimes no matter what you do, how well you play, how good your numbers are — you still can’t make believers out of everyone. Ask about Sexsmith and despite all of his accolades and past successes you’ll eventually hear someone tell you that he’s not as good as he appears to be –- that the Giants’ seasonal records (and his own) are a product of Vancouver’s system rather than an indication of his own quality.

It’s something he’s heard plenty of times before but he readily admits that coach Don Hay and his defensive approach has been a huge reason for his success.

“I played Jr. A before I came out to Vancouver where I was facing 50 shots a night and so it’s a whole different mindset coming here where I face a limited number of shots,” Sexsmith said. “In saying that though you have to be ready for whatever shot comes your way because it may be at the 10-minute mark of the first period you never know but the mental toughness that it takes to always stay in the game and not be staring off into the crowd looking at some girl or doing whatever, staying into it mentally can be a hard thing to do.”

San Jose owns the NHL rights to Sexsmith and they have no qualms about their prospect being sheltered under Hay. In fact, the Sharks tend to believe that Vancouver was a perfect setting for Sexsmith.

“Don Hay runs his team like an NHL club and that’s a great environment for Tyson,” said a team source. “As a young player he needed this structure and has grown under it.

“In the playoffs he probably won’t see a lot of shots but Tyson would tell you that this is just as tough as seeing 30 or more shots because he has to stay focused and mentally in the game; that is where Tyson’s maturity takes over,” the NHL source said, echoing exactly what Sexsmith told HF. “He knows as the playoffs progress things will get tougher. He has the experience and the will to win.”

Despite what the goalie says, this year’s club boasts a ton of talent too and is considered a true contender for the Memorial Cup. The Giants hosted and won the title in 2007 with Sexsmith, a rookie, backstopping them against the Lewiston Maineiacs, Plymouth Whalers and finally the Medicine Hat Tigers in the title game. That victory was recent enough that there are several players still with the team today who held the trophy that May.

“We actually counted the other day so I know that we have eight guys that were on the Memorial Cup team in 2007 including two guys who were 15-year-olds at the time in [Evander] Kane and [Neil] Manning,” said Sexsmith, who believes that will pay big dividends this year. “I think the leadership and the experience you get from the competition that you face at the Memorial Cup, especially at a young age, guys learn what it’s all about and what it takes to win. You can’t take a night off especially in a tournament like that where it’s a round robin you have to be ready right from the first game or else you can get behind the 8-ball really fast.”

Hockey’s Future asked the San Jose Sharks what it was about Sexsmith that sold them on him so completely that they drafted him in the third round in 2007. WHL-based scout Brian Gross had a lengthy list of reasons.

“Tyson had a solid season and playoffs for a young player as he led his team all the way to the Memorial Cup,” Gross reported. “He is unflappable, hates to be scored on and lose, and never blamed his teammates. He was always in position for the first shot and never gave up on a play. He showed excellent technical skills and a great glove hand and he was strong physically.”

It wasn’t just his skills that won the Sharks over though.

“[Sexsmith] had a strong personality like he was 18 going on 30. Wise beyond his age” Gross continued. “He showed good goaltender tendencies, was serious about his game and followed up reviewing and studying his games. He wanted to better… he wanted to play in the NHL.”

Sexsmith has faced disappointment during his junior career as well as triumph. Most recently that came in December when he failed to make Canada’s entry for the 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa. He was competing against Jake Allen of the Montreal Juniors as well as Spokane Chiefs keeper Dustin Tokarski (TB) and Tri City Americans netminder Chet Pickard (NAS).

Although he didn’t make the final cut, Sexsmith says it’s hard to say that Hockey Canada made a mistake with the way things turned out.

“I’d been through it a couple of times and it was disappointing not making the team but they felt that was the best choice for the team this year and it turned out good and they won gold,” he shrugged. “I guess I have to look at it like I kind of helped them in a way. I’ve played with or against those guys and we’ve always had good battles against those two guys who were on the team.”

Some would argue that Canada’s options at the goalie position were so equal that they may still have won gold had they chosen the other two goalies anyway.

“I was watching the games and I remember they were beating Kazakhstan 15-0 and one of the announcers joked that it would have been 15-12 if Canada hadn’t even played with a goalie so that explains pretty much the situation right there,” Sexsmith joked.

With his WHL career likely wrapping up at the end of the current campaign, HF asked Sexsmith if he spends much time looking ahead to his pro career.

“Yeah it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, I think every kid has dreamed about it playing ball hockey on the street or whatever it may be,” he admitted. “I’ve been able to experience life in San Jose having been down there four times in the last two years and it’s a great lifestyle to have and a great place to live. For the little bit of hard work that you do it’s a lot of money that you get paid.”

That said, the goalie knows that nothing is going to be handed to him and that he’s going to have to work even harder once the money starts coming in.

“There are a lot of expectations going in there so you really have to be ready,” Sexsmith said. “There’s an expression that we have here in Vancouver that goes “Pros do it every day and amateurs do it whenever they feel like it” and that’s something that I’ve worked on over my career in being a guy that battles everyday in practice and every day in a game.”

When asked how he thought it would feel getting to pull on the Sharks uniform for real one day Sexsmith was all smiles.

“It would be a great feeling!” he beamed. “They’re a well coached team there with Todd McLellan who won a Stanley Cup last year in Detroit so you know that he knows his stuff. There are a lot of talented players and I was actually on the team with [Evegeny] Nabokov during camp last fall so I got to work with him a bit and he was telling me some stuff and all the little things that you can take from a guy that’s played in World Cups and Olympics… I don’t think there is anyone better you could take advice from.”

From their standpoint, the San Jose Sharks appear just as eager as Sexsmith to see the talented puck stopper graduate to the next level.     
“Since he has been drafted his game has matured and he has shown that he can carry the team when he has to by making the big save to keep them in the real tough games,” Gross said. “He is working and getting better in the things he has been asked to improve on, like coming out to the top of the blue paint or staying tight when moving post to post. He is making the game easier for himself just by being professional in his approach to his position. Cory Schwab [San Jose’s Goaltender Coach] continues to work with Tyson and likes where he is at right now.”

There are several things the San Jose Sharks have shown a knack for procuring at the draft in the last several years one of which is the ability to select key goaltending prospects. Sexsmith will join a group of netminders like Timo Pielmeier, Harri Sateri, Thomas Greiss, Dmitri Patzold, Vesa Toskala, Miikka Kiprusoff and Evgeny Nabokov – all chosen by the Sharks in the last 15 years.  

For some, the fact that San Jose believes him to be a solid goalie prospect is all the evidence they need and Sexsmith doesn’t need to prove anything more.