WHL Next Generation is a 23-part series highlighting a handful of the future stars of the Western Hockey League. From first-round bantam draft picks to later-blooming selections, get to know the names of players set to establish themselves as the newest crop of exciting talent to grace the WHL. From August 1 through August 31, get the inside scoop on the incoming rookie class of 2018-19.
Team: Medicine Hat Tigers
It’s not often that young goaltenders make an impact in the WHL, but there are some cases where a rookie goaltender can improve a team. One instance is Carl Stankowski, who was lights out in the 2016-17 playoffs after Seattle’s starting net-minder was lost to injury. He played 20 playoff games and helped the Thunderbirds to a WHL Championship.
Last season saw a rookie goaltender shine in Nolan Maier (Saskatoon Blades), who is the first 16-year-old goaltender to win 20 or more games (23-17-2) since Clavin Pickard (Seattle Thunderbirds) did it in 2008-09.
Enter another young goaltending prodigy in Garin Bjorklund. Bjorklund has been watching Maier’s rise, and it gives the Medicine Hat Tigers prospect hope for the coming season.
“Seeing someone like [Maier] definitely increases my confidence going into training camp,” said Bjorklund. “My brother played with Taylor Gauthier (Prince George Cougars) last year and he is a [Calgary Midget AAA] Buffaloes kid and he played at 16. It definitely pushes me as [the WHL] is where I want to play next year and that is my main focus.”
Like Gauthier, Bjorklund played with the Buffaloes last season, posting an impressive 1.92 GAA and .913 SVS%.
“Last season was pretty good,” stated the Tigers prospect. “We had a really strong team and a lot of WHL prospects on our team. Unfortunately, we fell short and didn’t get the result we wanted but it was a great experience playing Midget AAA.”
While his team fell short in the playoffs, Bjorklund enjoyed the opportunity and the learning experience of intense playoff hockey between the pipes.
“Everyone moves a lot faster, the whole game is just quicker from passes to shots, so you have to be ready for that,” explained Bjorklund. “At the start of playoffs, I was just getting back from Medicine Hat (where he was a backup for a few games), I didn’t get any other Midget games until the playoffs, so I was coming in cold. It was new to me but something I learned I need to prepare for as you could be forced into a game at anytime.”
“Overall it was really cool. The fans are louder, the players are more invested, and the whole experience just brings your compete to a new level. I can’t wait to get into playoffs with Medicine Hat and take that in as well.”
Goaltenders get lots of credit when their team is winning, but also take a lot of blame when things aren’t going right. Just look at former WHL goaltenders Carey Price and Martin Jones. They receive their fair share of glory and criticism. So, what is the secret to performing well night in and out? Staying calm.
“You just have to breath,” explained Bjorklund. “You can’t get upset if one gets by you even if you should have had it. You just go for a skate and move on. You have to have faith that your team will get it back and if you don’t have faith that’s usually when it sticks with you and you end up making more mistakes.”
Bjorklund has had to use this tactic. But not very often, as he has succeeded in almost every league and tournament he has been in. In 2016-17, he was named the AMBHL Top Goaltender after posting a 1.97 GAA and .918 SVS%. Last year, he won a Silver Medal with Team Alberta at the WHL Cup, where he posted a 2.00 GAA and a .878 SVS% in three games.
“It was really fun and exciting to get to play with the top prospects from Alberta and against the top prospects from across Western Canada.” Stated the Silver-Medalist. “You’ve known most of them for a while know, growing up together and playing against each other, so it’s exciting to play with the guys who you know have a good shot and then the other goaltender will have to face it.”
Bjorklund knows he will have to face tough shots heading into next season. He has been training all summer in preparation of facing them and stopping them. Additionally, he has been getting stronger and more agile, boosting his chances of facing WHL shots this season.
“I’ve been working off the ice with Jeff Hope-Ross from Big Sky Fitness. We have one-on-one sessions three times a week, but I try to be in the gym at least five times. On the ice I work with J.F. [Martel], the Tigers goaltending coach and then I work on my skating with Brayden Point’s dad.”
With the training he has put in, there is a good chance we will see Bjorklund in the WHL this season. But goal-tending is a competitive position, as there are only 22 starters in the league.
“It’s different being a goalie,” explained the net-minder. “You want to be the starter and start every game but because there are only 22 starters in the league you know you have to share the crease, which is nice on some nights to recover. It’s an unwritten rule that you want the other goalie on your team to do succeed. I think that is true for most goalies as it helps them and your team and gives you competition which usually increases your own play.”
With all the training Bjorklund is doing, he is still enjoying his summer, and is excited for the season to start back up.
“I’ve been hanging out with friends, and I am glad that school is over for the summer, so I can focus more of training. I have gone back to Grand Prairie a couple times, I used to live there so I went to visit some friends there.”
Bjorklund is hoping another move to Medicine Hat is coming soon, and he will get his chance to prove himself when the Tigers kickoff their preseason on Friday August 31st against the Lethbridge Hurricanes at 7:00 p.m. at the Enmax Centre in Lethbridge Alta.
What is your favorite food?
Medium Rare Steak with some French Fries or a Baked Potato.
What is a hobby of yours that not many people know about?
I used to be really good at yo-yoing and that I love playing basketball.
Is there a song you could sing solely based of memory with no lyrics in front of you?
I don’t think I could do a full song, but I think my best bet would be Lose Yourself by Eminem. I feel pretty confident I could do the first half.
What fad or trend do you wish would come back?
My favourite trend was the mullets because I had a couple of them when I was younger, I think I looked pretty good in one at the time but looking back I don’t think I could pull it off again. But with other trends, I think a new dance move comes out every two weeks so its exciting to see what will come next.
Who was your favorite hockey player to watch growing up?
My favourite hockey player to watch growing up would have to be my older brother Paycen Bjorklund because he would always teach me new things and playing with him on the backyard rink when we were younger was always a highlight in my childhood. Alongside watching Sidney Crosby and Carey Price.