Silvertips goaltender Dustin Wolf skates backward as he trains with his goalie coach, James Jensen, at the Lynnwood Ice Center on July 18, 2019 in Lynnwood. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Silvertips goaltender Dustin Wolf skates backward as he trains with his goalie coach, James Jensen, at the Lynnwood Ice Center on July 18, 2019 in Lynnwood. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Everett Silvertips star and NHL draft pick born to play goalie

A childhood centered around hockey turned into a day to remember at the NHL draft for Dustin Wolf.

It’s a clear, sunny Thursday morning in July, but Dustin Wolf is not outside. He’s where he’s most comfortable — inside the Lynnwood Ice Center, deflecting slap shots as his longtime coach, James Jensen, looks on.

It’s the only time Wolf has to sneak in a workout before a public skate begins around noon. He has physical therapy later in the day and a call with his mental skills coach, Walter Aguilar. Wolf’s schedule is always filled with something, whether it’s hockey related or not, even in the slowest part of his summer.

For most 18-year-olds, the summer is a chance to unwind and commiserate with friends before college starts.

That does not apply to the Everett Silvertips goaltender, but it’s not out of the ordinary for Wolf. His summers have never reflected that of a typical teenager — nor for that matter have his falls, winters and springs.

Since he was 3 or 4 years old, Wolf has focused his life around hockey — and more specifically goaltending. Countless hours were spent in the family car traveling to and from practices. Countless weekends were spent far away from home at tournaments and camps.

Those roads eventually brought Wolf to Everett, where he’s poised to be the Silvertips’ No. 1 goaltender for a second consecutive season. You’d be reaching deep to nitpick Wolf’s debut season as the Silvertips’ starting goaltender. He led the Western Hockey League with a 1.69 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage in 2018-2019.

The gaudy stats and the success in Everett tell one story, but his standing in the hockey world offers another. Wolf has been an afterthought to some because of his perceived lack of height — Wolf stands 6-foot when the preferred stature for an NHL goaltender is believed by many to be 6-2 or better — and he’s followed a legendary goaltender, Carter Hart, on a team known for tremendous goaltending.

Wolf is confident he’s not just a short goaltender who’s destined for an illustrious junior career and nothing more. He isn’t driven by the need to prove others wrong, he said, but rather by the drive to succeed in his present environment.

If he happens to prove some doubters wrong along the way, so be it.

Dustin Wolf, 5, poses with a trophy after a tournament championship. (Photo courtesy of the Wolf family)

Dustin Wolf, 5, poses with a trophy after a tournament championship. (Photo courtesy of the Wolf family)

Upbringing

The Wolf family story begins in Silicon Valley, long before the region blossomed into a high-tech metropolis.

Mike and Michelle Wolf, Dustin’s parents, both grew up on acreage around Morgan Hill, California, just south of San Jose.

Eventually, Michelle began work at a veterinarian clinic in Morgan Hill where Mike’s mother worked. Mike started his career as a software engineer. Mike would frequent the clinic to work on the computers and the two eventually grew fond of each other.

Mike and Michelle married in 1996 and Michelle gave birth to their only child, Dustin, in 2001.

From the time he was born, young Dustin attended San Jose Sharks games on the lap of either Mike and Michelle, who were season-ticket holders.

Mike and Michelle started putting Dustin on skates when he was 3 or 4 and Dustin started to focus on goaltending around 5 or 6. It’s uncommon for one child to dominate the time in goal at an early age — teams typically rotate youngsters between the pipes — but Dustin was so gung-ho about being in the crease he’d race the other kids to cement his spot.

“For some reason,” Wolf said, “I was the kid that was just nuts and wanted to sit in front of the net.”

From there, a hectic youth hockey schedule began. The family’s 2006 Cadillac Escalade racked up a couple hundred thousand miles getting Dustin to and from practices and training sessions.

And as Dustin started to rise up the ranks in the American youth hockey scene, he was invited to play with teams throughout the continent. There was one year, Mike remembered, that the Wolf family spent five weeks during a month-and-a-half stretch in Toronto for various hockey tournaments.

Mike and Michelle received the questions, and at time judgments from other people: Don’t you think he should try to play other sports? Don’t you think you’re pushing him too hard?

But this is what Dustin wanted to do — well, other than his desire to be a dolphin trainer when he was 9 or 10 — and they wanted to do whatever they could to assist him.

“When you have a kid that has found what he wants to do at such a young age, you make sacrifices when you can to help put him in the places he needs to be and building upon it (to) get to the next level,” Michelle said. “It’s not an easy road by any means.”

The Wolfs moved to Hermosa Beach in Southern California and Dustin began playing for the Los Angeles Junior Kings program in 2011. The family relocated not too far away to Tustin in Orange County in 2014.

The price of it all is staggering, and the Wolfs are still paying off youth hockey, Michelle said. But anonymous donations for gear and scholarships, and helpful gestures along the way have helped Dustin stay on course.

Dustin’s success and happiness has made it all worth it.

Dustin Wolf (right) poses with NHL No. 1 overall 2019 draft pick Jack Hughes (left) and and incoming Quinnipiac freshman Nick Kent (center) after being named All-Stars during a 2014 tournament in Vancouver. (Photo courtesy of the Wolf family)

Dustin Wolf (right) poses with NHL No. 1 overall 2019 draft pick Jack Hughes (left) and and incoming Quinnipiac freshman Nick Kent (center) after being named All-Stars during a 2014 tournament in Vancouver. (Photo courtesy of the Wolf family)

Becoming a Silvertip

For most U.S. born hockey players, the college route is prioritized from an early age. At camps and with teams, college is glorified and the major junior route is nitpicked.

There’s some instances that may seem like fate that Dustin eventually landed in Everett.

The first was fairly innocuous. Livermore, California, native Tyler Parker, who played for the Silvertips in 2008-2009, attended the same training sessions as Dustin growing up. After his first training camp with Everett, he brought back a Silvertips hat for the young goaltender.

“We were like, what team is this?” Mike said. “We don’t even know who this team is.”

But really, it was Silvertips general manager Garry Davidson and his relationship with Dustin’s longtime goalie coach, Jensen (who was hired as Everett’s goaltending coach last season) that set the wheels in motion.

When Davidson founded the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League, Jensen’s mother was living in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, and the two eventually linked up. As both progressed through their careers, they stayed connected.

Leading up to the 2015 bantam draft, Jensen tipped off Davidson to Wolf, who he thought had a chance to be something special. After watching him perform at some tournaments and showcases, Davidson and his scouting staff agreed.

From that point, Davidson started to gauge the Wolf family’s interest in the WHL. While the Wolfs were apprehensive at first, Davidson’s pitched Dustin that if he signed, he could spend a year waiting in the wings under Hart, the eventual two-time Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the year and Philadelphia Flyers super prospect, and then take the reins as a 17-year-old.

“Every single time we talked to him, it was the same identical pitch,” Michelle said. “We just trusted him because of the consistency.”

Other WHL teams checked in with the Wolfs, but they were told Dustin was keeping his options open — the polite way of saying “We’re not sure we want to commit to your team.”

But the Wolfs’ relationship with Davidson and the Silvertips was strong enough for Everett to nab him in the fifth round of the 2015 bantam draft. Dustin eventually signed in 2016.

The Wolf family relocated to Lake Stevens in 2017 as Wolf began his first WHL season in Everett.

The Wolf family from left to right posing during Parent’s weekend at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett: Aunt Starr, Uncle Ken, cousin Shea, father Mike, Dustin, mother Michelle and cousin Erin. (Photo courtesy of the Wolf family)

The Wolf family from left to right posing during Parent’s weekend at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett: Aunt Starr, Uncle Ken, cousin Shea, father Mike, Dustin, mother Michelle and cousin Erin. (Photo courtesy of the Wolf family)

Leaving the shadow

Dustin is so used to this question from media members that he’s just about memorized his answer.

“What did you learn from playing under Carter Hart?”

Wolf’s impressive campaign in 2018-2019 cemented him as the next in line in what has been a stellar run of Silvertips goaltenders.

The guy before him was a tough act to follow, but Wolf made the transition look seamless.

While it wasn’t evident to outsiders, Wolf earned a lot of trust within the organization as a 16-year-old rookie backing up Hart in 2016-2017, not just because of his more-than-respectable 2.25 GAA and .928 save percentage, but because Wolf was up for the challenge of playing with such a talented net-minder.

“You didn’t look at him at that time as a 16-year-old goalie out there,” Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams said before the season. “From our standpoint, we have 110 percent confidence with him in net, and he showed us last year what he can do, and I’ve seen it through the preseason. One thing you’re going to find with him is he competes. He doesn’t get off the ice in practice. If he can be on the ice to stop a puck, he’ll be out there. He’s a very good goalie.”

During a preseason meeting in 2017, Wolf told Williams: “Sure, Carter is incredible. But my goal is to replace him as the starter.”

That’s what you call chutzpah. Wolf was confident in his abilities, and Williams knew it. So when it was time for the reins to be passed, Williams and Davidson didn’t bat an eye.

Williams played Dustin in a league-high 61 games last season. Even at the start of the season, there was no trepidation in asking a 17-year-old to shoulder such a massive workload because of what Wolf demonstrated while he was waiting his turn behind Hart.

For fans, it took a couple months into the season before they stopped asking questions about Wolf’s ability to replace Hart. For the Silvertips front office, coaches and players, that was never a question.

“It’s like we’ve never missed a beat in that area,” Davidson said. “What solid goaltending does is it gives you the chance to win every night. (Wolf) has been really, really good. (He’s) very focused, very mature, very committed. He takes a pro approach to the game, and we saw that all the way back when he was a 16-year-old.”

A four-year-old Dustin Wolf is scooped up by San Jose Sharks mascot “S.J. Sharkie” during a fan skate. (Photo courtesy of the Wolf family)

A four-year-old Dustin Wolf is scooped up by San Jose Sharks mascot “S.J. Sharkie” during a fan skate. (Photo courtesy of the Wolf family)

Draft day

Dustin, Mike, Michelle, and a host of other family members who made the trek up from California, were situated in section 105 of Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, for Day 2 of the 2019 NHL Draft in June.

Stationed right next to Dustin was Aguilar, who asked before each round how Wolf was feeling. Through rounds two through six, Wolf remained optimistic that his name would be called soon.

By the time the sixth round passed, all Wolf could muster for a response was, “sucks.”

It’s hard to blame Wolf, who was one of the best statistical goaltenders in the draft, for feeling downtrodden. By pick No. 208, 21 other goaltenders had been selected and, worse yet, it appeared his lifelong goals might not be realized.

With tensions at their highest and spirits at their lowest, the tenor in section 113 suddenly changed in the seventh round when the Calgary Flames came up at pick No. 214. Wolf and his family erupted when his name popped up on the screen on stage.

There were tears shed by many, including Dustin, who is not one for outward displays of emotion. A percentage of those tears were a release of frustration, but the majority traced back to joy.

“I think for him, it was validation,” Aguilar said, “that everything that he’d done, that one NHL team thought he was worthy to be picked. And that was the one time I’ve ever really saw him get emotional.

“I think one of his talents is that he’s really good at managing his emotions. It makes him so relaxed and calm out there (on the ice). But to have this moment, feel like it’s not going to happen, and then it happens, it’s just amazing.”

The seventh and final round of the NHL draft doesn’t typically provide much, if any, intrigue. Team general managers are unwinding from a long day of cycling through papers, cross-checking with scouts and making trade calls. Newspaper writers are putting the final touches on their stories and network talking heads are putting a bow on the day’s coverage as fans cycle out of the arena.

Now, Dustin is the underdog story: The small goaltender who toiled through countless hours of draft picks before soaking in his big moment.

The height question is something Dustin understood, but only to a certain degree. After all, his goaltending idols growing up, Evgeni Nabakov of the Sharks and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, were not tall guys by any means — Nabakov was 6-foot, the same height as Wolf, and Quick is listed at 6-foot-1.

It doesn’t bother Dustin as much as it may have in the past — he’s learned to “control the controllables” better than ever this past year, Aguilar said.

Entering the draft, it’s possible about half of the teams that crossed Wolf off their lists entirely did so because of his height.

One NHL scout told the Daily Herald leading up to the draft that they thought Dustin was good enough to play professionally for a long time — whether in the American Hockey League or the NHL wound hinge on his development. Another simply said Wolf was too small to succeed.

Even in the public scouting community, Wolf’s status was all over the board. He was the 12th-ranked North American goaltender by NHL Central Scouting, while Corey Pronman, The Athletic’s prospect writer, ranked Wolf the fifth-best goaltender in the entire class.

It’s a product of misinformed group think, Jensen said.

“It’s a really interesting subject, and it depends on who you talk to,” Jensen said. “The goalie coaching community is pretty small, especially at the high level, and we all talk to each other. And we all agree that you don’t have to be 6-foot-3 to play goalie in the NHL anymore.

“But you talk to general managers, coaches — the non-goalie world — and they think geometry: you’re going to get hit more (with pucks) if you’re bigger. And on the surface, that makes total sense. But if you have a smaller goalie that tracks well, is positionally really strong and is a good mover and a good skater, I think a guy like that — and Dustin is one of those guys — can play further out of the net and be smarter with how he plays. Dustin’s hockey IQ is probably the best I’ve seen, in that he can read what’s going on … around him in real time and make plays and he can predict what can happen out there before it happens.”

Wolf also has a plus-skill that differentiates him from many others — his stick handling, which Williams called “unbelievable” and was on display throughout the season.

It’s something Jensen made sure was emphasized in Wolf’s development from an early age.

“That’s something, when he was young, the way the NHL was changing, you could see the goalies were becoming more and more active,” Jensen said. “Having a puck-handling goaltender, it adds to the arsenal of any team. We just knew that it was a skill that we knew needed to be developed and we worked on it.”

Moving on

Despite the whirlwind of emotions on draft night, Wolf doesn’t hold 30 grudges.

“It’s over now. It doesn’t matter that he was the last goalie picked,” Jensen said. “He was the only goalie picked by Calgary, so the way he and I look at it, he’s the best goalie Calgary picked.

“I don’t think it’s fuel. I think it’s knowing that he has a home and now everything he does is for Calgary and earning a contract and a permanent spot in their organization.”

Yet there are still a few carrots at the end of the stick for him to pursue.

Although he’s a Flames draft pick, NHL teams aren’t required to sign their selections to contracts, so Wolf still needs to convince Calgary’s brass he’s worth an entry-level deal. Wolf is vying to make the roster for the United States’ World Junior team for the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships, which start the day after Christmas in the Czech Republic.

And of course, there’s the upcoming season with the Silvertips. Everett’s roster undoubtedly will be different, with a host of organization stalwarts and impactful veterans moving on.

This time around, Everett’s only true certainty is No. 32 between the pipes.

He’s not Carter Hart. He’s just 6-foot tall.

And that’s just fine.

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