NA3HL Hockey: Fry answers the question in net
Chris Blaisuis had a sense of organizational calm entering this hockey season that's rare for a team heading into its second year.
There were plenty of returning players from last year's squad and Blaisuis felt better suited as the boss of the bench after learning from some mistakes of his own in his rookie year.
But the Willmar WarHawks head coach and director of hockey operations had one big question mark that he couldn't quite shake: who was going to be the man between the pipes?
Through 12 games the answer has been resounding. It's Luke Fry.
Fry has taken the job by storm with a 6-2-0 record, a 1.56 goals allowed average and a .947 save percentage. Of qualified goalies, he sports the fourth-best GAA and third-best save percentage in the entire North American Tier III Hockey League.
Those numbers have continued to improve over the last five games during which the Indiana native has allowed only one goal in each of the five games. The WarHawks have won four of those five games, including a pair of 2-1 victories over West Division-leading Granite City and Saturday's 2-1 win over the Wisconsin Whalers.
Though he's still searching for his first shutout, the Willmar netminder has been happy with the results.
"You always think of the shutout a bit but that's not what matters to me," Fry said. "So long as we get the win, I'm happy. I knew that the job was always there, so I just kept working at it. If I keep playing the way I'm playing then I'll keep it, I just need to keep working at it."
The WarHawks currently have four goaltenders on the roster, not including Alex Cathcart who is currently on the injured reserve and could return to Willmar when he recovers from a concussion.
Brady Anderson is the only other WarHawk netminder to play in multiple games, posting a 1-1-1 record in four games played with a 3.83 GAA and .890 save percentage. Drake Voell played just more than one period and stopped all 18 shots he faced in a Sept. 30 game in Rochester. He entered in relief for Logan Larock, who allowed four goals on 12 shots he faced.
At the beginning of the year it appeared the WarHawks may have a similar situation to last year when there were new faces in net every night. Though Cathcart and Alex Weissenborn were good during various stretches throughout the year, both missed extended time due to injury. Combined with ineffectiveness from other backups, Blaisuis was forced to dress nine goaltenders over the course of the season, including one whose regular job was driving the Zamboni at the Willmar Civic Center.
Fry has brought the one thing to the crease that the WarHawks haven't had since moving to Willmar last year: stability.
"Luke took something that was a question mark at the start of the year and took control," Blaisuis said. "I knew he'd be steady but I didn't expect this. He's taken the job, no doubt. I haven't seen Luke give up a goal where I thought, 'You know, he really should have that.' He's given us stability and balance. He battles in game and the guys rally behind that."
His steadiness has permeated throughout the team. Not only has his effectiveness helped the defense and forwards, but Voell, a rookie from Leesburg, Virginia, has worked his way up the depth chart, dressing as the second goaltender four of the last five games behind Fry.
Blaisuis says it's Fry's hard work ethic that has rubbed off not only on Voell but the rest of the team as well.
"Luke works hard at practice, but so do most of the other guys," Blaisuis said. "His work comes behind the scenes. He works hard at the gym, he's constantly learning and always getting better."
Fry is in his second year in the NA3HL after playing a year with the Evansville Junior Thunderbolts during the 2016-2017 season.
Evansville, like the WarHawks, finished in fifth place in their division and just one spot out of a playoffs. Unlike Willmar, however, the Thunderbolts had a season to forget, finishing with a 14-31-1-1 record for 30 points. They allowed 238 goals, 105 of which were credited to Fry.
Not only did Fry face plenty of even-strength shots, he also faced a high number of shots on the penalty kill. Evansville led the entire league last season with 1,947 penalty minutes, 381 more minutes than the next closest team. Of the 238 goals the Thunderbolts allowed, 68 came on the penalty kill.
Last year's experience was almost enough for Fry to hang up his skates for good. It took some convincing, but it wasn't long before Fry signed with the WarHawks and committed to the 2017-2018 season.
Fry knew Blaisuis well before their days in Willmar. Blaisuis' eldest son, Brendan, is also a goaltender and it was Chuck Fry, Luke's father, who was Brendan's first goalie coach.
Chuck Fry's knowledge has certainly been passed down to Luke, who says he feels like he's in a groove after starting the last five games.
"Every game I go in thinking I just need to make the first save," Fry said. "Once I get that, it settles the nerves a bit. After playing Granite City (in the home opener on Oct. 14) I started stringing these saves together and the team has played really well in front of me. It's been a good stretch."
At this point in the season, Fry says his time with the WarHawks is better in nearly every way from Evansville.
"The team is so much more complete here," Fry said. "We have an ability to play together that is really important to playing good hockey. Part of why I decided to play another year and came here is to win the Silver Cup and I think this team has the ability to do that."