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Sawchenko Leaves WHL Early, Commits To University of Alberta

Sawchenko Leaves WHL Early, Commits To University of Alberta

 

In a somewhat surprising move, Zach Sawchenko, one of the top goaltenders in the WHL, has elected to forgo his final year of eligibility with the Moose Jaw Warriors to play U Sports hockey with the University of Alberta. The decision comes on the heels of a game seven loss to the Swift Current Broncos in the first round of the playoffs.

He appeared in 177 WHL games, all with the Warriors, finishing with a record of 88-65-12-4, 3.11 goals-against-average, .908 save percentage, and nine shutouts. He completes his career second in Warriors franchise history in career games played, wins, and shutouts. In 2016-17, he won Eastern Conference Goaltender of the Year for the second year in a row – posting a 30-14-6-1 record, 2.79 goals against average, and .917 save percentage.

Taking to social media, Sawchenko thanked the organization from top to bottom, as well as the entire city of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan:

Speaking to InGoal Magazine, Sawchenko further explained his decision to play for the Golden Bears in 2017-18.

“It was a long process. There were a lot of late-night conversations and late-night thoughts. It wasn’t an easy decision. The biggest thing that made me realize, was that now more than ever, you see guys losing their [starting] job. There isn’t as much security in the game as there once was.”

Not that his starting job was ever in doubt; Sawchenko maintains that the door was open to return for his 20-year-old season. Things just fell into place quickly when Golden Bears’ goaltender Luke Siemens signed a late-season pro contract with the Rapid City Rush of the ECHL, opening the door for a spot on the university team’s roster for next season.

“Knowing how successful their hockey program is, how capable they are of sending players out of their program to professional leagues, made it a lot easier to make that commitment,” Sawchenko explained. “They have, without a doubt in my mind, the best program in Canada. When I saw that opportunity, I had to jump on it.”

He’s not wrong in his assessment, as Sawchenko will be joining a program that has won a total of 15 national championships in their history. The school also has a strong family connection to the Alberta-raised Sawchenko, with many of his family and friends already attending.

Another reason why he was able to come to his decision was the fact that he isn’t leaving the Warriors without a backup plan. The team has been grooming promising young Brody Willms behind him, and he felt like the time was right to pass the torch.

“They have a good, young goalie waiting in Brody Willms. He’s been behind me for about two-and-a-half years. He’s more than capable of being the starter on a good hockey team. Moose Jaw is a team that needs their goaltending, but they also have a lot of firepower to win those run-and-gun games. Brody is a great goalie, though. He went to Los Angeles Kings camp last year, and I’m sure he’ll go to another camp this year. It was a lot easier leaving Moose Jaw knowing that they have some security on the back end.”

With much of the focus being placed on Sawchenko seemingly “passing” on a pro career, more needs to be made of the fact that taking up the opportunity for a free education in this economic climate gives him a head start on most 19-year-olds. He’ll be able to study business at one of the top schools in the province, and walk away with little-to-no debt. That has massive value.

“It’s crazy, I know,” Sawchenko confessed. “When I came into the league at 15-16 years old, there’s no way I would have thought about doing this. Maturing into the 19-year-old that I am, and seeing some of my friends go through experiences where…they weren’t exactly screwed-over, but they weren’t left with the best circumstances. I hope a lot of guys will start to think about using their education package before signing that contract.”

I believe in myself. Getting an education is just very important to me.”

This decision doesn’t close any doors, in terms of joining the professional ranks. As was seen with Siemens, the previous Golden Bears goaltender, playing multiple years of U Sports hockey then attempting a pro career is no longer an uncommon path. That doesn’t mean it will be easy.

“I’m definitely not closing the door on going pro,” Sawchenko maintained. “I still want to play pro hockey. I still want to be a National Hockey League goaltender. I just want to take a more few years to do it than most people expected, and I’ll have a degree in my back pocket.”

“I still want to play pro hockey. I still want to be a National Hockey League goaltender. I just want to take a more few years to do it than most people expected, and I’ll have a degree in my back pocket.”

“A lot of people won’t understand this, they’ll say ‘What is he doing? He has a chance to go pro.’ But at the end of the day, I still believe after my degree, or after a few years when I have some education, I’ll still be able to go pro. We’ll see in a couple of years.”

The decision to go this route has certainly been building for a while. One of the turning points was at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Sawchenko was heralded as one of the top goaltending prospects entering the draft, and was invited to the combine shortly before.

He even flew to Buffalo to take part in the festivities. Pick after pick went off the board, but Sawchenko’s name was nowhere to be found. It was every hopeful junior hockey player’s nightmare come to fruition. He was left undrafted for reasons unknown, with many unanswered questions as to why.

“It sucked,” Sawchenko remembered. “I had to watch every single pick. Everything was leaning toward me being drafted. I thought I established myself as one of the best goalies in the draft class. I thought someone was going to take a chance on me. It was a real eye-opener for me. Even when everything looks promising, nothing is guaranteed.”

“[Going undrafted] was definitely a factor in my recent decision.”

He is still technically eligible for this year’s upcoming entry draft, but he doesn’t expect to be selected, especially after this announcement. He will not be attending it in person, at the very least.

A lot of people won’t understand this, they’ll say ‘What is he doing? He has a chance to go pro.’ But at the end of the day, I still believe after my degree, or after a few years when I have some education, I’ll be able to go pro.”

As far as his off-season approach is concerned, nothing has changed. He’s determined to become the top U Sports netminder in his first season, which is no easy task. He’ll stick around Edmonton to learn the campus, and work with some of the University of Alberta staff – both on and off the ice.

He’s as determined as ever, and the ultimate goal of eventually playing professional hockey hasn’t changed. If anything – this decision seems like a weight off his shoulders. He can finally stop worrying about his future, and just play hockey for the right reasons. He’s on a path that he is comfortable with – academically and athletically.

“A lot of people might be scratching their heads, and some might say it’s wrong – but at the end of the day it was my decision. I was fortunate to leave junior hockey on my terms. I didn’t get cut or age out, it was my decision to leave.”

“It will be nice to know that I’ll be doing everything I can to make my dream a reality – plus I’ll have a degree.”

About The Author

Greg Balloch

Greg Balloch is a Vancouver-based writer, broadcaster, and goaltending coach. His career began in Hamilton, Ontario as the voice of the Junior 'A' Hamilton Red Wings, before moving to Vancouver to cover the Canucks for CISL 650. A lifelong goaltender, he has been teaching the position for over a decade. He is currently an instructor for Pro4 Sports, and is the goaltending consultant for the BCHL's Surrey Eagles.

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