Goalie Calvin Pickard is taking a level-headed approach to his eighth pro season.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Goalie Calvin Pickard is known for his unflappable demeanor, but even he has to admit that the past couple of years have been a little unsettling.
The Canadian-born netminder has been on an emotional rollercoaster ever since he was the first player selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. He’s been waived, traded, then waived and claimed, not once but twice. In the past two seasons alone, he has played for five different teams.
“It goes to show that you never know what’s going to happen,” Pickard said.
So it was with great relief that he signed a two-year, $1.4 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings this summer. All the past moves have proved one thing: he is still wanted.
“When Detroit came calling right away, I was excited about the opportunity, especially to an up-and-coming team like the Wings,” he said. “I’m really excited to be part of this organization for the next two years.”
Pickard brings a wealth of experience to the Red Wings organization, where he is expected to help mentor NHL prospect Filip Larsson.
A native of Moncton, New Brunswick, he is the younger brother of Chet Pickard, who is also a goalie and was a first-round pick of the Nashville Predators in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Two goalies in the same family would seem to be unusual, to say the least.
Pickard was still a skater when his brother became a full-time goalie. “My dad told me one day that I had to make the decision to become either a player or a goalie, and I chose goalie and never looked back,” he said.
At the age of seven, his family moved from Moncton to Winnipeg when his father was transferred because of his job as an air traffic controller.
“From a young age, I was pretty good,” Pickard said. “With my brother almost three years older, he went through the junior ranks and pro ranks before I did, so it was nice that I could see him go through everything and be able to talk to him about it.
“We always wanted to see each other do well, but as brothers we were competitive. My first year in juniors was his last year in juniors. We played in the same division and we faced each other four times, but I never won.
“It was pretty cool to play against him in juniors because he was pretty high-profile. He was a first-round pick and to this day I have never seen a more in-the-zone goalie than he was in junior hockey. It was really fun to have that experience of playing against him.”
Having an older brother as a mentor has helped Pickard through the years.
“There are a lot of things I either did or didn’t do because I had watched his career,” he said. “He was a really good goalie and he’s still playing – this is his fifth year playing in Germany – but I was lucky to follow in his footsteps. We’re really close and we still talk almost every day.”
Pickard played all four years of his major junior career with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL.
“I was playing a lot under all types of circumstances,” he said. “When I was 16, I played 47 games on a pretty good team that got into the playoffs. When I was 17, 18 and 19, our team never made the playoffs, but I played a lot of regular season games.”
Pickard saw a lot of action and a lot of rubber. During his last three years of junior hockey, he played 62, 68 and 64 games, respectively, recording more than 2,000 saves each season.
“You won’t see that anymore, but I was lucky to see a lot of action,” said Pickard, who played in all but 22 of 216 games between 2009-12 and became a second-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. “We were losing a lot and I would have preferred to have been on a winning team, but Colorado continued to believe in me.”
It was during his years in junior hockey that Pickard developed the disposition that would serve him well during his subsequent years. Poise and presence are particularly pivotal for a position where temperament is key.
“I learned a lot of good lessons in juniors,” he said. “I used to be a little bit of a hothead, but I had some good coaches in people like Rod Sumner and Turner Stevenson, who gave me the gears a few times.”
He also credits the Thunderbirds’ goalie coach, Paul Fricker, who remains his personal goalie coach to this day.
“We work together during the summer and he’s a really good person for me,” he said. “I can talk to him about anything. He’s almost like a psychologist to me. It’s definitely helped to have him in my corner.”
Pickard started his pro career with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, logging two games in the spring of 2012 before turning pro that fall.
“Coming into my 20th year, there was some uncertainty in my game,” he admitted. “Not being able to win at the junior level, I had to restock my confidence going into my first year in the pros, but I got a good opportunity in Cleveland.
“I thank Colorado for playing me right off the bat so that I was able to develop my confidence.”
It was during his second full season in Cleveland that Pickard came under the guidance of notable goaltending coach Francois Allaire, who had successfully mentored Patrick Roy and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, both Conn Smythe Trophy winners as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Pickard, who had a looser, freewheeling style, adopted a more consistent, controlled approach under Allaire’s tutoring.
“I was kind of all over the map,” he said. “I think there may have been some trickle effect from playing in Seattle where I was trying to do everybody’s job because shots were coming from everywhere.”
His transformation did not occur overnight.
“There definitely was a learning curve,” he said. “I was thinking a little too much on the ice. I was trying to be square and be positioned properly instead of just stopping the puck. But after that, I trusted the system and it became second nature and I could just play.
“Bumping into Frankie Allaire was perfect timing for me. You never want to lose your natural ability, your athleticism, the way you follow the puck, but he put that needed structure into my game and I thank him for that.”
Pickard kept fine-tuning his game, splitting time between the Monsters and Avalanche during the 2014-15 season when he earned the confidence of Hall of Famer Roy, who was Colorado’s head coach and vice president of hockey operations.
“They didn’t rush me,” said Pickard, who notched his first two NHL wins in relief. “My third year, I ended up playing 66 games between the NHL and AHL.”
He recorded his first NHL shutout against New Jersey during the 2015-16 season, which he again split between the AHL and NHL. “I was still waiver-exempt, so I started the year in the minors, but I played well and eventually they called me up and found a full-time job in the NHL by Christmas time. It was a really good situation for me because I got to play a decent amount in Colorado.”
Roy departed the scene before the 2016-17 season when Pickard played a career-high 50 games for the Avalanche under new head coach Jared Bednar, the one-time Griffins defenseman (1998-99).
Pickard enjoyed the heavy workload. “Obviously when you’re playing a lot, you get into a rhythm,” he said.
“When you’re a workhorse, you still work hard in practice and do your work for 30-45 minutes, and when you’re away from the rink, you rest up. I’ve been lucky and stayed healthy, so I’ve played a lot of games in the pros, which has helped my career.”
Pickard has twice represented Canada in international play. He won a gold medal at the 2016 World Championship in Russia when he won two round-robin games, then took home a silver medal at the 2017 World Championship when Canada lost the title contest in a 2-1 shootout to Sweden in Cologne, Germany.
“My wife and I traveled around Europe after the world championships before the expansion draft which happened a month later,” he recalled. “I got word that I wasn’t going to be protected, which is what I expected, but I didn’t think about it because there were a lot of goalies available.”
When Pickard started reading that he might be on Vegas’ radar, he began to think his days in Denver might be numbered.
“After spending several years in Colorado, you begin to become comfortable and you think you’re going to play there forever,” he said. “The night before the draft, I couldn’t sleep because Colorado was all I knew.
“When I went to the gym the next day, my agent texted me: ‘Big News.’ At that point, I knew what was coming.”
Pickard had the distinction of being the first player selected by Vegas in the expansion draft.
“I was in shock,” he said. “After playing four years in Seattle in juniors, I spent the next five with Colorado and all of a sudden, everything changes and you have to re-establish yourself.”
Still, he was excited by the potential opportunity, even going so far as holding a contest with Vegas fans to design his goalie mask. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite as well as he had hoped.
“I didn’t get much of an opportunity in Vegas,” he said. “I played two games in the preseason and played average, but they kept giving me a vote of confidence. They said, ‘You and (Marc-Andre) Fleury are our goalies.’ That’s when I learned how quickly hockey can change.”
Pickard was expected to be the backup behind Fleury until the Golden Knights claimed goalie Malcolm Subban off waivers from the Boston Bruins a few days before the regular season. He was subsequently waived himself but was traded instead to Toronto and then assigned to the Leafs’ AHL affiliate.
“Things happen fast and that’s when the domino effect started,” he said. “Since then I’ve seen a lot of different places and met a lot of new people, which has definitely seasoned me.”
He admits that there were “some tough days” mentally speaking. “After playing 50 games with Colorado, the next year I was back in the minors,” he said. “But you have to remember that the AHL is still a great league with a lot of great players and every day is another opportunity to get better.”
In 2017-18, Pickard split time with Garret Sparks, who posted a league-leading .936 save percentage on the way to being named the AHL’s top goaltender. Together, the pair were awarded the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award (for lowest goals against average) and led the Marlies to the Calder Cup.
“I thought I had a really good year in Toronto,” he said. “We won the Calder Cup with a heckuva team. When you’re winning a lot and not letting in many goals, it makes it a lot of fun. I loved every minute of my time in Toronto.”
With Sparks claiming the backup role with the Maple Leafs last season, Pickard was claimed off waivers by Philadelphia. “I didn’t play great in Philly, so when Arizona picked me up, I looked at it as another opportunity. I didn’t play a lot there, but I got some good instruction.”
Pickard saw action in only 17 games in the NHL, plus four games in the AHL.
“When you’re not the starting goalie on the team, you learn how to play once a week or only once every 10 days,” he said. “I’ve seen it at both levels, so you learn how to keep yourself sharp. Practice becomes huge.”
He confessed that he looked at this past July with a bit of trepidation.
“It was the first time I had to go through free agency, so I didn’t know what to expect, especially after a season when I didn’t play much,” he said. “When the Red Wings came calling right away, I was excited about the opportunity, especially in an up-and-coming organization like Detroit.”
Pickard felt good coming into training camp and was looking forward to settling into his role within the Red Wings organization.
“In today’s game, every organization needs a number of good goalies because there are a lot of games to go around, especially with all the back-to-back games in the AHL,” he said. “As a goalie, you’re always competing for ice time.
“The way the season works, you’ll spend your time on the bench – that’s the way it works. But you don’t want to be on the bench, you want to be on the ice, so you want your goalies to push each other, both on and off the ice.”
As a veteran at age 27, Pickard looks forward to using his experience and being a quiet leader.
“For me, the main thing is to lead by example,” he said. “It’s all about working hard, doing my job in the net, saying all the right things, being an open book and talking, but not mentor too much. Mostly, I just want to be myself.”
Not surprisingly, Pickard is taking nothing for granted. Like a seasoned pro, he is going to take it one game at a time.
“Nobody’s perfect. You’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “How you handle yourself is what’s important.”