Chilliwack Chiefs head coach Jason Tatarnic always says, ‘It doesn’t matter if they’re 16 or 20 years old. If they can play, they can play.’
He’s never been shy about that either.
Year after year he sends youngsters into battle when other coaches would have them stapled to the bench or warming a seat in the press box.
Tatarnic can point to Dennis Cholowski as a player who was chucked into the deep end as a 16 year old and didn’t just survive.
But defencemen and forwards are one thing.
This year Coach T is running with an 18 year old (Daniel Chenard) and a 17 year old (Mathieu Caron) as his crease tandem. If you haven’t heard by now, the Chiefs are hosting the Royal Bank Cup next spring, and RBC hosts usually run with grizzled vets in goal.
But as Tatarnic says with a grin on his face, ‘I’m not afraid to try something different.’
“For me it’s like, I didn’t want to get caught up in the age thing,” he added. “They’re just good goalies.”
It is the second year in a row that Tatarnic has turned to the junior B Caledonia Corvairs for a netminder. He plucked Mark Sinclair from the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League squad last year, and that worked out quite well, so why not try again?
“People have the opinion that he might be better than Sinclair at this age, and Sinclair was a pretty good goalie,” Tatarnic said. “If Daniel’s as good as Mark was, I’m happy. But if he has the potential to be better than him, I’m extremely happy.”
“Some other teams in our league were interested in him, and from I’ve seen already I can understand why.”
Caron is more a known quantity. The Yale Academy grad looked good in limited action last season, including a Western Canada Cup game vs the Battlefords North Stars in which he surrendered two goals on 25 shots.
“He has all the tools and athletic ability and he just has to fine tune some stuff,” Tatarnic said. “Sometimes he’s too quick for his own good, but if he channels that and controls it, we may have another really good goalie.”
Chenard made his Chiefs debut last Sunday, stopping 37 pucks in a 3-0 shutout win over the Langley Rivermen.
Standing a shade under six feet, he is a smaller goalie. But what he lacks in height he makes up for in quickness and anticipation.
“My goalie partner in Caledonia (Bradley VanSchubert) was five-foot-eight and he was an amazing goalie,” Chenard noted. “I have to be a little faster to make up for being a little smaller, but I feel I’m calm and composed and pretty good at reading the play.
“For shooters, they might see a little more net with a guy like me, but if you’re good at tracking the puck and being patient, I don’t think it makes a difference.”
Chenard had a 1.77 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 27 regular season appearances with the Corvairs in 2016-17 and was even better in the playoffs, lifting that SP to .937.
He plays his best when the spotlight shines brightest and isn’t shying away from the pressure of being a goalie for an RBC Cup contender.
“We’ve got an amazing team so I don’t feel as much pressure as maybe I should,” Chenard said. “A lot of coaches and GMs see experience as a big thing, but for me I’ve played goalie forever and big games always bring the best out of me.
“I’ve always played on winning teams and big games just make me more calm. I’m more dialed in and they’re just a lot more fun.”
Caron won’t yield playing time easily and Chenard expects friendly competition between the two netminders from start to finish.
Off the ice, the goalies have already struck up a friendship.
“He’s such a nice guy and we get along really well,” Chenard said. “He really helped me get used to everything when I got here.
“On the ice, it will be a competition. We both have the drive to be good and we’re going to become better goalies pushing each other.”
Circling back to Tatarnic, the bench boss draws inspiration and hope from a player he once coached in Woodstock (New Brunswick) and how a hunch once paid off big time.
“There was always this thing where the organization felt we had to be older and more experienced, and I always wanted to take some younger players in,” he recalled. “One year I just did it and brought in an 18 year old kid named Nick Huard.
“Well he scored almost 50 goals for us and ended up being our captain.
“Sometimes you just have to give those young guys an opportunity.”