Perseverance pays off for Rockets goalie

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 3:48 PM ET

RIMOUSKI, Que. – On Jan. 10, Mark Guggenberger turned 20 years old.

He was told to pack his bags.

It was trade deadline day in the Western Hockey League. The Swift Current Broncos already had veteran goalie Travis Yonkman to ride the rest of the season and didn’t need a veteran backup.

So off went Guggenberger to the Kelowna Rockets for a fifth-round pick.

“It was a hell of a birthday gift,” the six-foot-two, 208-pound puckstopper said.

Tomorrow afternoon, he will be standing in the Kelowna crease at the Rimouski Colisee playing for a Memorial Cup title.

Three years ago, Guggenberger went from high school hockey to the Portland Winterhawks rather than test the U.S. college route.

“I’d rather ride the bus than go to school,” he said.

He barely played in Portland and was sent home to Richfield, Minn., near Minneapolis.

“I’m a big Twins fan,” Guggenberger said. “When I grew up, the North Stars had left and the Minnesota Wild hadn’t really come in yet. My dad was a goalie. He played in high school. He had those old brown pads. I was kind of a chip off the old block.”

He ended up in Swift Current last year. He didn’t get many more minutes than he did in Portland.

But Guggenberger clearly had potential. He was invited to the NHL combine, where top prospects are annually put through the ringer and under the microscope.

Then he never got picked.

“I knew when I went to Kelowna I was going to a contender and that they were looking at me for the starter’s job,” Guggenberger said. “It was my first chance to be a starter. I just tried to take advantage of it. This has been a great team be part of. It gives you a lot of confidence.

“The NHL is full of goalies who played in the Memorial Cup.”

The Cup has often been a stage for the under-appreciated and overlooked – especially in goal.

Drummondville’s Marco Cousineau (Anaheim, third round) was the only one of the tournament’s four starting goalies to be drafted. Guggenberger can come back for another year but he’s in the same boat as Windsor over-ager Andrew Engelage.

This is his best chance to prove himself.

“Mark’s a battler,” Kelowna head coach Ryan Huska said. “He fights for every puck. What we saw in him was that in any game he played, he either won or kept his team in it and gave them a chance to win.

“For what we were willing to give up, he was the guy we went after. He went against some very good goalies in our league playoffs and (before the last three rounds), the edge in goal was always given to the other guy.”

Guggenberger went 17-6 down the regular-season stretch drive.

In the second round of the WHL playoffs, he battled former Canadian Hockey League goalie of the year Chet Pickard, a Nashville first rounder.

In the third, he played opposite San Jose third-rounder Tyson Sexsmith of the Vancouver Giants.

In the league final, he traded saves with Los Angeles prospect Martin Jones.

The guy they call the Guggenburglar is the last man standing.

In Games 4 and 5 of the WHL final against Calgary, the Hitmen were really pouring pucks at Guggenberger. They scored 12 goals in both contests.

Huska never yanked him.

“They really came hard and it was getting to be a bit much,” Huska said, “so after the second period (of Game 5), we asked Mark if he wanted to come out and he said, ‘No way.’ He’s never going to quit on his team and they’re never going to quit on him.”

Resolve, confidence, stubbornness and opportunity.

These things pave the path to Memorial Cups.

Follow Ryan Pyette at the Memorial Cup on Twitter at www.twitter.com/slamsports


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