Kuemper debuts with poise and a win
The AHL is a bit of an odd duck league. It’s a constant ebb and flow of gripping disappointment for some and life-long dreams being fulfilled for others, as players are sent down to the AAs or up to “the Show.
You catch guys before they become household names, before fame has a chance to tamper with them. And because so few players go from Major Junior straight to the NHL, we often get to watch young men put skate to ice for the first time as professional hockey players.
It’s one of the great joys for me, as someone drawn to hockey as much for the human interest stories as for the game itself, to witness some of those unforgettable moments in a player’s career. First pro game, first pro goal, or like tonight for Houston Aeros goalie Darcy Kuemper, first pro win.
After the Aeros 4-3 victory over the Chicago Wolves, a team they’ve failed to beat all season until tonight, the 19-year-old couldn’t have quit smiling if you’d put a gun to his head.
“You know, it’s a great feeling,” Kuemper beamed. “I didn’t even know if I’d get any playing time when I got called up, and to go in and get my first win is an amazing feeling right now. I’m on cloud nine.”
He got his chance because Anton Khudobin was up with the Minnesota Wild, who drafted Kuemper in the 6th round last summer, and Wade Dubielewicz has been struggling. Kuemper’s pro debut was actually last Wednesday, getting mop up duty after the game was already out of hand.
Tonight, however, it was his start.
“I think the fact he got in the other night and played a period probably was real helpful,” said Coach Kevin Constantine. “And then if you look at a goalie who at first is maybe just a bit nervous, is when he battles a few rebounds that kind of go to him and then lay in front of him. And there was a little bit of that early.”
But by the third period, he’d shaken off the nerves and was making some big saves to keep the team in it, in particular some nifty glove saves. If you had to single out a flaw in his game, during which he stopped 23 of 26, it was punching some juicy rebounds into the slot, one of which finally caught up to him for the second Chicago goal.
But with the lead in hand, he stayed focused.
“I was kinda, not nervous, but in the third period I really realized I can play at this level,” Kuemper, who has spent the last two years with the WHL Red Deer Rebels, said. “I just calmed down and played my game, and I knew when we got that second one to go up 4-2 to get the 2 goal lead, I knew we were going to win it. ”
Kuemper will likely return to the WHL next season to get a third year of seasoning, but will take with him a wealth of experience and a sense of where his game needs to be this time next year as he makes the permanent leap to the pros.
But for tonight, it’s all about savoring the moment: the happy crush of teammates swarming him at the buzzer, accepting first star honors at center ice, and that first call to some proud parents back home in Saskatoon.