A budding star, Kurtis Mucha plugs away despite Hawks' troubles
Goalie Kurtis Mucha could be pointing fingers and blaming others for the Portland Winter Hawks' dismal, losing season. But he takes his frustrations out on himself - literally.
After last week's 9-1 loss to Spokane in the Rose Garden, Mucha ran stairs and sprints and lifted weights at Memorial Coliseum until well past midnight. The next day, after the team's practice, Mucha put himself through another grueling conditioning skate.
It's the kind of dedication few junior players possess, says coach Mike Williamson, who, if hockey would allow goalies to carry the honor, would let Mucha be the captain.
Mucha doesn't take kindly to his own poor performances.
'I've got to hold myself accountable,' says Mucha, one of the few bright spots for the Winter Hawks, who are young and rebuilding this season. 'People react different ways. I was mad at myself. I hate letting in goals.'
Two nights after being shelled 9-1, he played phenomenally in backstopping the Winter Hawks in a surprising, 5-2 win at Everett. Two nights after that, a hot Seattle team peppered him with 42 shots, and the only puck that got by him went off one of Portland's defensemen in a 1-0 loss.
'There are no better performances in the league than that,' his agent, Gerry Johansen, says.
Mucha has been Portland's rock. Without him, the Hawks would be really, really awful. He leads the Western Hockey League in minutes played (3,354) and shots faced (1,862). In large part to poor team play, his statistics are among the worst in the league - a 16-38-1-1 record, 3.88 goals-against (WHL's highest) and .883 save percentage.
But Williamson and Johansen believe that Mucha will be selected during the seven rounds of the NHL draft in June. Williamson considers Mucha the best goaltender at his age (17) in the league, based on the kid's competitive spirit and work ethic.
'He's very demanding of himself,' Williamson says. 'No matter who gets Kurtis or where they take Kurtis in the draft, he'll make himself into an NHL player.'
Johansen, who represents Tri-City goalie Carey Price and former Hawk defensemen Braydon Coburn and Andrew Ference, agrees wholeheartedly.
'Being drafted is not the next step for him,' Johansen says. 'The next step is becoming a professional. He's well on his way down that road. If an NHL team is smart, they'll recognize that.
'He's been a warrior for that team. There's nothing wrong with him. He's on an advanced learning curve' with all his playing time.
Credit goes to former coach
Mucha, who hails from suburban Edmonton, Alberta, says the concept of a work ethic started to hit home during his Sherwood Park AAA Midget years. He credits former coach Paul Rai, 'who always pushed me to get the best out of myself. He's a big reason why I'm here today.'
The goalie had a similar season in 2004-05, facing a ton of shots with Sherwood Park. He had a better goals-against (3.29) and save percentage (.917), and the experience of facing so many shots helped him this year.
Last year, the Winter Hawks nearly sent Mucha home. They had older goalies Dustin Butler and Luke Shier, and Mucha found himself on the bench most of the time.
But his tenacity and ability to rebound from bad performances made him popular with the team's veterans. He took over between the pipes when the other two disappointed, helped the Hawks beat Seattle in the playoffs and shut out high-powered Vancouver 1-0 in the first game of the second round.
At the end of Game 5, in which the Giants pummeled Mucha with shots and scored only twice, the Vancouver crowd gave the opposing goalie a standing ovation.
This year's been a drain
This year, the Winter Hawks have not been good defensively, and their young players have been outmuscled at times. Mucha has faced an average of 33 shots per game, and the Hawks rarely outshoot the other team.
Mucha admits to being tired; he also attends Sunset High, although he needs only two online class credits to graduate in June.
'Mentally, it's been draining for him,' Williamson says.
Chuckling, Mucha says every part of his body has been hit by the puck.
'I even got hit in the back of the legs, and it bounced off and scored,' he says.
To wit, trainer Innes Mackie jokes: 'He's taken a few off that nose.'
Mucha has good height (6-2), but he needs to put on muscle and weight; he weighs about 170, and 195 would be ideal. He needs to improve how he plays the puck and sometimes he doesn't challenge attackers as aggressively as he should.
'Scouts have mentioned him getting out of the net and cutting down angles more,' Williamson says.
But he has time to learn. Mucha, defenseman Bo Montgomery and forward Colton Sceviour appear to be the core players and leaders for the next two years, when Portland plans to be more competitive.
'Next year,' he says, 'I think we'll have a really good team.'