03/17/2014 2:11 PM
By Tom Witosky
Follow Tom @toskyAHLWild
Undersized, unnoticed, and undrafted.
But when it comes to Iowa Wild goalie John Curry, there is one more word that describes the 30-year-old veteran hockey player -- undeterred.
“It’s not a vengeance or a negative thing, though some people have suggested I enjoy being the underdog a lot,” Curry said. “It’s just that I have known since high school I can play this game at a high level. It’s just how I play the game.”
The Shorewood, MN native has shown again this year that no one should doubt the level of Curry’s tenacity. Starting out at ECHL Orlando this season, Curry has overcome an unusual major hip injury from last season to battle his way back onto an American Hockey League roster. In February, Curry was rewarded for stellar performances in Iowa with a two-way NHL contract with Minnesota.
Part of his success has been simply the result of opportunity, as the Minnesota Wild has faced major uncertainty at its goalie position. In January, Wild goalie Josh Harding had to be placed on injured reserve to allow him to cope with a change in protocol to treat his muscular sclerosis. At the same time, back-up goalie Niklas Backstrom has been dealing with an abdominal problem that has prevented him from playing consistently.
As a result, Minnesota thrust Darcy Kuemper, who was expected to carry the lion’s share of work with Iowa this season along with rookie Johan Gustafsson as his back-up, into the NHL’s starting lineup. Kuemper turned that opportunity from a short-term stay into a starting position in the Wild line-up by building up to an unexpected 12-4-4-2 record going into this week.
For Curry, Kuemper’s NHL opportunity immediately became his AHL opportunity when Iowa General Manager Jim Mill called Curry up in the midst of a five-game losing streak. Curry’s first outing resulted in a 2-1 loss to Abbotsford – at the time the leading club in the league, but Curry’s steady play and 17 saves impressed Coach Kurt Kleinendorst.
“John Curry is a professional. He shows you how important it is to have depth. We needed a guy who could help us win hockey games and he did,” Kleinendorst said.
Curry also showed an ability to recognize what kind of situation he had arrived in.
“The guys were working so hard trying to get out of the skid,” Curry said. “You couldn’t help not wanting to be a part of that effort.”
Since arriving, Curry has played in 17 games and compiled a 7-7-2 record, but his overall performance rates among the league’s best with a 2.31 GAA and a .928 SV%.
Curry said that it is too early to know whether he is going to be satisfied with his season, but he knows he has come a long way already given how last season ended. Playing for the Houston Aeros against Charlotte, Curry tore his hamstring completely away from his hip trying to make a save during a shootout.
That kind of injury is so unusual that Curry said he couldn’t find any hockey player who had been through it. It also meant that surgeons had to reattach it to the hip bone putting Curry into six to nine months of recovery. While rehabilitation was a daily necessity, Curry knew he wouldn’t be skating for a while.
“In some ways, it was good for me,” Curry said. “It was a good opportunity to turn my brain on and devote my mind to something else other than hockey.
Curry said that he spent much of the summer studying in preparation for taking the Graduate Management Admission Test that would get him into a graduate-degree program in business incase the injury forced him to retire.
“I had full plans to keep on playing, but I didn’t know how it would end up with the injury,” Curry, who played college hockey at Boston University and received a bachelor’s degree. “I got a good test score and feel really positive that is the direction I am going when I am done.”
Curry said that his hockey career, which has included four seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguin organization mostly at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the 2011-12 season playing for the Hamburg Freezers of the Deutschland Elite League, has been a lesson in dealing with uncertainty and the expectations others have had of him. He ended his college career by helping to lead the team into the NCAA Frozen Four Tournament and was among the Top 10 candidates for the Hobey Baker Award, the annual award for college’s most valuable hockey player.
At 5-foot, 11-inches and 185 pounds, Curry said that there always have been questions whether he is big enough to play in the NHL. Those questions even arose back when a lot of colleges declined to recruit him, forcing him to be a recruited walk-on at Boston University. Then when he left college, it took a while before he signed a free-agent contract with Pittsburgh.
“For sure, (size) is the knock against me,” Curry said. “You do have to prove yourself all that much more. You have to play well and then they have no problem leaving you in there.”
And prove it to the Pens, he did. In his first two seasons, Curry compiled a 57-27 win-loss record that declined only slight in the following two seasons when he went 46-32.
Of his craft, Curry said that the goalie position has always been about playing to a high-potential level and then focusing on keeping it there.
“The goal is to always be around 95 to 100 percent of your potential,” he said. “But it is really hard to be at that level all of the time. You are trying, but that confidence and comfort will slip a little bit. So you spend a lot of time fighting to keep it or trying to find it again.”
Kleinendorst said that Curry’s approach to the game and his career is one of his strongest assets. Kleinendorst said that three straight losses prompted him to put Gustafsson back into the starting line-up and Iowa has won three straight since.
“John gets it, he totally understands the game,” Kleinendorst said. “When we needed someone to step up and win a game, Johan beat him to it. John has been nothing but class and professional about it and I know he will be ready when he gets his opportunity. Right now, the guy who wins is the guy who is going to play.”
Curry said that he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I’ve learned that this is a game about what have you done for me lately and that’s fine,” he said. “It has always been about mindset and timing. I have been able to show that I can play at this level and don’t see any reason why it won’t continue.”