Wild goalie Kuemper gets critical start in place his career started
By Chad Graff St. Paul Pioneer Press SASKATOON, SK -- During elementary and middle school, Darcy Kuemper and his classmates in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, walked to a nearby frozen pond with their hockey sticks during recess. They played in their sh...
By Chad Graff
St. Paul Pioneer Press
SASKATOON, SK - During elementary and middle school, Darcy Kuemper and his classmates in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, walked to a nearby frozen pond with their hockey sticks during recess. They played in their shoes because with only 15 minutes, changing into skates would have been a waste of time.
After school, Kuemper would walk - this time with hockey gear in tow - the 10 minutes to the frozen pond near his house and play there. Sometimes his friends would be there, sometimes it’d be kids he didn’t know. But it hardly mattered.
“Everyone would throw their sticks in the middle and separate them, and those were your teams,” Kuemper said.
Now 25 and coming off a roller-coaster season with the Wild, Kuemper is returning to Saskatoon, a city with a population about 50,000 less than St. Paul, for a Saturday exhibition against the Edmonton Oilers at SaskTel Centre - where he played often while growing up in the central Saskatchewan city about five hours east of Edmonton.
He expects to see upwards of 50 friends, family, former teammates and teachers in a group that grows with each text message from a distant friend sending a picture of their ticket for the game.
It’s a rare chance for a Canadian from a smaller city to return home with his NHL team.
“Pretty cool,” he said, quickly pointing out that it’s a work-first trip, likely his final preseason start before what’s going to be an important season in the trajectory of his career.
Last season, Kuemper was the surprise starter out of training camp, beating out Niklas Backstrom and overtaking Josh Harding when the veteran broke his foot in an off-ice incident. He opened the season with shutouts in consecutive games but lost his starting job after inconsistencies and injury, and the team eventually shored up its goaltending by trading for Devan Dubnyk in January.
Dubnyk started 39 consecutive games, helping vault the Wild from 12th in the Western Conference to the top wild-card seed. Kuemper watched the team’s incredible run to the playoffs from the bench.
“It was a bittersweet fun,” Kuemper said. “It was obviously a ton of fun to be a part of a winning environment like that. I learned so much, and it’s fun watching anyone go on a roll like that, but especially with what he had gone through previously. I was super excited for him.
“But at the same time, you want to be out there. So that was the bittersweet part of it.”
It sets up an intriguing season for Kuemper.
How will he handle being the No. 2 goalie? Will he still develop as backup? Does he still have the potential to become a No. 1 goalie?
“This is going to be a really great chance to prove himself,” coach Mike Yeo said. “This will be his first year where he’s not forced into a situation that I would say he probably wasn’t ready for. I really feel confident that he’s ready to come in and push to be a backup and push for some starting minutes.”
Kuemper is entering his final season under contract with the Wild after holding out for one day last season, ultimately landing the one-way contract he wanted.
He is 6 feet 5 and has shown the ability to be an elite goalie, opening last season with 164 minutes, 4 seconds of shutout hockey. But he also has shown the inconsistencies that can hold a goaltender back.
“I think he still has the talent and the size and the make-up to be a No. 1 goalie in this league,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “This is a young man that has had some great stretches in the NHL at a young age. … I think we’re all very confident he’s going to have a strong season for us. As we’ve seen, you never know what to expect with goaltending.”
Before the questions are answered this season, though, Kuemper gets a homecoming in the city he just left a few weeks ago after spending all summer there. He went fishing with friends and family and got his own condo.
His parents - dad is a police officer in Saskatoon, his mother an accountant - still live in the same house from Kuemper’s high school days.
“It’s kind of nostalgic,” Kuemper said of going back home.
It’s a hockey-mad city that helped mold the goalie and now takes pride in producing him. And now, for the first time, they get to watch the local product play an NHL game in their city.
“Hockey definitely trumps everything else there,” Kuemper said. “It was a good environment to grow up in, and I have a lot of good memories. “
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service