Chris Driedger: Behind the Mask

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Written by Judd Spicer

From his perch between the pipes, Firebirds’ netminder Chris Driedger has an ice vantage both macro and micro; such a view affords the seasoned goalkeeper perspective on where he’s been, and where he hopes to go.

A veteran of 68 NHL games and 162 AHL contests, Driedger’s path to the desert has proven a narrative in which the 29-year-old sees chapters yet unwritten.

“I’ve been blessed. It’s year 10 (in pro hockey) for me, so I’ve definitely been around, and it took me awhile to find my footing,” Driedger. “It’s been a blast, but it’s also been a rollercoaster, with some up-and-down seasons and also my injury.”

Selected by Seattle from the Florida Panthers in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, Driedger (after inking a 3-year/$10.5 million deal with the Kraken), would go on to start 24 games amid the team’s inaugural season, earning nine wins along the way. Following the debut campaign, he served (and starred) in net for Team Canada at the 2022 IIHF World Championships before suffering a substantial ACL injury during Canada’s title game loss to host county Finland.

Following a nine-month recovery, Driedger made his CV debut on February 27 of last year, eventually spelling Joey Daccord on 14 occasions. Despite his NHL resume — which included a stellar, ’22 season with the Panthers where he authored a 14-6 mark — Driedger recognized the baby steps of his AHL return.

“Nine months (away) is no joke, so there was definitely some rust to shake off,” he says. “But this is a great place to do it. The guys scored a lot of goals and that gives some more breathing room, which is great. But, yeah, it took me a little bit to get my footing.”

Across the final two months of the regular season, said footing was indeed found. To wit: In his first seven games for the ‘Birds last year, Driedger allowed 23 goals. In his last seven? He gave up just a dozen.

“I felt like I was competing at a very high level – and that’s the standard,” the goalie continues. “And this season has been a good start, though there’s still some things to clean up. But all-in-all, I’m feeling like myself in there.”

Feelings of competitive familiarity have seen the Winipeg, Manitoba-native more than aptly fill the Firebirds’ starting net gig left open with the ever-popular Daccord’s graduation to the Kraken backup job. Preceding the ‘Birds’ 5-4 loss to Henderson on November 15, Driedger’s line included a 5-3 record between the pipes, with just 15 goals allowed and a four-game win streak from October 28 – November 8.

While Driedger sees positives in the start to CV’s sophomore season (referencing a shooting edge vs. opponents, and time in the opponent’s zone), the veteran candidly eyes ample room for improvement.

“I think there’s a lot of good in our first 10 games, but at the end of the day, we want to be better than 6-4,” said Driedger before the Henderson game. “We want to be dominating the standings. I don’t think this is a good enough record for the team that we have. So, I think we need to have some conversations and maybe up-the-bar a little bit in our habits. The best teams in the league don’t lose two in-a-row.”

Akin to many in the organization, the goalie recognizes the lofty expectations set by the Firebirds’ magical run to the Calder Cup Finals last season.

“When you go all the way to the final game of the season in your first year, the bar is set high,” he says. “Anything less than that (level) is coming up short. And I think we have the team to exceed those expectations this year, but I don’t think we can go into it with the idea that it’s going to be easy, that because we did it once we can do it again. And I don’t think that’s necessarily going on our room, but it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of this league.”

Driedger’s own estimations of his tradecraft have long been aided by the recognition that success between the pipes often begins with clarity between the ears.

Dating back to when he was 17-years-old and starring for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, Driedger has employed the use of a sports psychologist.

“I’ve always found it really helpful, and I was fortunate to have a great sports psychologist early in my career,” he explains.  “And that continues today, as I talk to a sports psychologist about every-other-week; and we talk about a lot of the same stuff, but it’s just good to revisit it. The goaltending position . . . it’s the mental game that separates the guys who stay in the American League and who move on to the NHL.”

Delving into the esoteric, Driedger continues:

“One of them (mental techniques) is basically a process after letting in a goal; what you should be doing in your head,” he details. “It’s called the ‘Five R’s,’ which are: Release, Relax, Review, Regroup and Refocus. You basically go through those in your head, and then move on to the next save. It’s a huge part of goaltending; you’re going to get scored on, so it’s about how you react to that.”

Further psychological study involves a meld of mind and body.

“You might not feel good going into every game, and you have to accept that,” Driedger explains. “Sometimes you’ll feel okay, sometimes you’ll feel like junk and a few times you’ll feel just great. But how do you play well when you don’t feel good? The great goalies and great players might go into a game feeling like junk, but they still find a way to get the job done. It’s an interesting way to look at it; once ‘feeling good’ and ‘playing good’ are de-coupled, you make a few saves and then you start feeling good; it’s funny how that works.”

With this year’s version of the Firebirds entering the meat of their season, the starting netminder believes that both the ‘Birds, and his own career arc, are perched and primed to take full flight.

“I’d like to think that I’ve just scratched the surface,” Driedger concludes. “My goal from Day 1 has always been to be a starting (NHL) goalie, dominate the league and win a Stanley Cup. That goal is never going to change, and obviously I’ve got some work to do before that becomes a possibility again. Until I’m in the net and the buzzer goes and I’m hoisting the Stabley Cup – that remains the goal, and always will be. I’d like to think that my story has a lot more to tell.”