If you had asked Nico Daws at the start of the season whether or not he expected to don the highly sought after maple leaf on his jersey over the holidays, he would’ve shaken his head.
“No, I would not have believed you,” admits the Guelph Storm netminder.
His response isn’t for nothing.
The 18-year-old has been a backup goalie his whole OHL career up until this year. He did not hear his name called at last summer’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. He’s never suited up at the international level. He’s never played for Team Canada.
But this year has been different. After an impressive start to his third season with the Storm, the Burlington, Ont. native has landed himself a spot on the Team Canada World Junior roster.
“You dream about it as a kid,” said Daws. “Growing up, you watch it all the time, and to be able to be a part of it is an honour.”
It’s a dream come true, and a dream that felt like it had been slipping away.
But again, this year’s been different.
Through 20 games, the same number of games he suited up for last season, Daws has found his way as a starting goaltender atop the OHL standings. He boasts a league-leading .939 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against-average. He’s faced 35 shots or more six times.
There’s no doubt about it – his road has been an unlikely one. The word “underdog” has been thrown around a lot. It’s a description Daws has embraced, and tends to agree with.
“It’s easy to count someone like me out,” he said. “But I think I’ve done a good job of getting myself out there this year and showing people that I can be a good goalie.”
He’s exceeded expectations. In fact, his whole team has. Considering the sizeable amount of players that moved on following last year’s Memorial Cup run, the Storm are turning heads.
The reigning OHL champions boast a young team with 10 rookies and only one healthy NHL-drafted player in captain Cam Hillis, with injured overager Fedor Gordeev sidelined for the time being.
“Everybody thought we were going to be bad,” he said. “I think a lot of people had us ranked at the bottom of the West.”
Instead, the Storm are first in the Western Conference with 42 points and a commendable 19-8-1-3 record.
“We want to prove everyone wrong and show them we can do this. Just because we’re young, it doesn’t mean we’re not good.”
Daws’ numbers speak for themselves, but he chooses to emphasize his teammates’ effort as a whole. He credits Hillis with bringing the team together, a task that doesn’t necessarily come easy with a squad of newcomers.
“It’s hard when you have such a new team like that, to get everyone together,” Daws said.
“Hillis has done a great job and it’s really starting to show.”
Development camp in Oakville was hectic, busy, and admittedly a little stressful. Ahead of that, there weren’t really any shoo-ins for Team Canada’s goaltending spots. While the open-ended possibilities helped pave the way for unlikely candidates like Daws, he’s chosen not to dwell on what his chances may have looked like compared to the other Canadian goalies vying for the same dream.
“I’m just more worried about having fun and playing hockey,” he said.
Making the cut for Team Canada alongside Daws are Joel Hofer of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks and Olivier Rodrigue of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats. Hofer was scooped up by the St. Louis Blues in the fourth round of the 2018 NHL Draft, and the Edmonton Oilers drafted Rodrigue in the second round that same year.
“It could go any way with who’s going to play and who’s going to start, especially with the team we have. I just want to play my game, play the way that I know that I can, and have fun with it.”
So, where did this breakthrough come from? The 6-foot-4, 202lbs. netminder credits a few difference-makers: a good summer of training, a 25-pound weight loss, and a lot of dedication. He also admits suiting up as a starting goaltender has made it made it easier to find his groove.
“Knowing you’re going to play every single weekend makes things a little bit easier,” he explained. “You don’t have to stress about not getting games. I’m just having a lot of fun this year.”
Among the other accolades he’s earned as a result of his stellar season are a spot on Team OHL at the Canada Russia series in Kitchener, as well as invite to the upcoming Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January.
Though deserving of his place atop the league and international stages, Daws can’t help but continue to surprise himself.
“I wanted to be a proven starter in this league, but I definitely didn’t know I could take it this far,” Daws admitted. “And I’m going to keep trying to take it as far as I can.”
He may not have imagined he’d live out a childhood dream on Canada’s World Junior roster at the start of the year, but if you ask him today about whether or not he’s confident he belongs on this roster, he’ll nod.
“I thought I’ve been a good goalie my whole life, and this year, I’ve really been able to show it.”