“Being a kid growing up just outside Toronto, you always want to play for your team you watched growing up, and Toronto’s my team.”
It was one of the last things Andrew Engelage said after a lengthy discussion at the Ricoh Coliseum, but it definitely resonated the loudest.
There’s nothing quite like the story of the home-grown athlete. Everyone likes asking Oakville’s John Mitchell what it’s like to put on the Leafs sweater every day, or trying to find some way to relate to Jesse Blacker’s being drafted by his local club. But when adversity is thrown into the mix, when a player has to go through some degree of hardship to make it to not only the level he wants to be, but for the team he wants to play for, that’s when a story becomes a best seller.
Toronto had the Curtis Joseph story, one of the best in hockey. The Keswick, ON native went undrafted during his eligibility, spent time outside of the NHL spotlight only to later shine and earn himself a spot with the team he had been a fan of growing up, the Leafs. Adored by fans, CuJo’s #31, the image of the dog painted on his helmet and the memories of his acrobatic saves will live long in Toronto lore. For the young, undrafted, Andrew Engelage, the choice of an idol could not be more fitting.
In the span of only about six months, Andrew had played in three different leagues and suited up for the Leafs during their annual skills competition. He was the Memorial Cup winning goalie with the Windsor Spitfires, a performance that garnered the attention of Brian Burke and then Marlies GM , Jeff Jackson. Having started with the ECHL Reading Royals, the season was only a few weeks old when Engelage received the call to join the Marlies; MacDonald and Reimer had been summoned to the Leafs in relief of the injured puck-stoppers.
“[It’s hard] not being used to the guys tendancies all the time,” Engelage confesses. “It’s hard, but it’s fun at the same time. Nothing really gets ever too old, you’re always getting something knew thrown at ya.” They have a phrase for that – taking lemons and making lemonade (perhaps more fitting, taking gators and making gatorade).
His run with the Marlies was not magnificent, finishing the season with a record of 2-6-1 and a GAA greater than 4. His lack of experience, shortened off-season, bouncing between teams and unfamiliarity with his teammates was bound to take its toll on the first-year pro. But the training and conditioning received is incomparable.
When at his best, Engelage’s calm, strong demeanor at the top of the crease matched with his outstanding ability to cover the bottom of the net brought an immediate comparison to the Sabres’ Miller to mind. But keeping that mentality, especially in the minutes following a goal against, proved to be tough for the rookie netminder last season.
“I’m working a little bit with Francois Allaire, obviously, and trying to perfect his style of how he wants you to play,” said Andrew. “I think it’s just a day-in, day-out mentality right now for me, trying to work at bringing the same effort every day and every time I’m out on the ice.”
Though having conformed to an Allaire-influenced style of play while in junior has helped Andrew’s transition from the OHL Spitfires to the Leafs organization, it hasn’t meant a lack of coaching. “There’s a few nitpicking things here and there that are a little bit different in how he would like you to try and play things.”
His development was evident during the recent rookie tournament. In a game against the Senators which saw the Leafs lose 3-2 after taking a multitude of bad penalties, Engelage remained focused through heavy traffic and a perceived missed interference call that lead to a goal against. A quality not apparent last season.
With a total of six goaltenders being invited to the Maple Leafs camp, Engelage included, it’s not yet apparent where Andrew will end up, or what role he will fill. But he has his eyes firmly fixated on the goal, to wear the Leafs sweater.
When asked what it was like to be a home-town boy now part of the Leafs organization, Andrew started with the usual, same-old cliche “a dream come true,” he then paused, and decided to continue with a tone of pure sincerity, “especially for that skills competition. Being a kid growing up just outside Toronto, you always want to play for your team you watched growing up, and Toronto’s my team.”
Take a home-grown athlete, add in some adversity, and top it off with a contract with the local club – those are the stories that sell papers.
Make it a hockey goaltender in Toronto – now that’s a story that inspires dreams.
*Glove tap to J.P. Nikota & PensionPlanPuppets for the images