By Kelly Friesen
Dustin Tokarski took the road less travelled on his way to the National Hockey League. It’s not as if the Watson native wanted to, though; he didn’t have any other option than to travel down a path full of adversity.
It all started at the 2004 Western Hockey League bantam draft. There were 223 14-year-olds selected in the draft across Western Canada and some parts of the United States, but Tokarski wasn’t one of them.
“It was a disappointing time,” said Tokarski, who played minor hockey in Humboldt. “That was a tough day because like most kids, I wanted to get drafted.”
Unfortunately for Tokarski, more tough days followed. He couldn’t crack a midget ‘AAA’ team in his first year of eligibility.
“It was one of those things where I just had to keep on truckin’ after not making a ‘AAA’ team,” he said. “It was a time when I questioned whether things would work out, but I have really supportive parents and family, so they helped me get through that.”
Nonetheless, Tokarski’s fate quickly took a turn for the better. The 5-foot-11, 198-pound goaltender cracked the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League’s Prince Albert Mintos the following year. He didn’t just hold his own as a rookie, he led his club to a Telus Cup victory.
“Everything kind of got going with Prince Albert,” said Tokarski, who turns 25 in September. “We had a great team and went all the way. Everything just seemed to fall into place there.”
Suddenly, major junior teams started knocking on Tokarski’s door. The Spokane Chiefs listed him and more importantly gave him a roster spot following his first WHL camp.
“I feel very fortunate to have gotten the chance to play for the Chiefs,” said Tokarski. “They’re a great organization and I’m really happy they gave me that opportunity.”
Two years later, following leading the Chiefs to a MasterCard Memorial Cup victory, the Tampa Bay Lightning invested a fifth-round pick on Tokarski in the 2008 NHL entry draft. Tokarski suddenly went from ‘AAA’ midget to the WHL to a possible career in The Show.
“It did all happen pretty fast,” said Tokarski. “One day you’re trying to just make ‘AAA’, and then you’re getting drafted into the NHL like two or three years later.”
Tokarski didn’t take his foot off the gas the following season. In fact, he elevated his game to an even higher level. The proof is in the pudding in how he led Team Canada’s world junior championship team to gold in Ottawa.
“That was an amazing year,” said Tokarski. “To get to play in tournaments like that, that was just a great experience. It definitely taught me a lot about what it takes to win.”
A Telus Cup, Memorial Cup and gold medal later, Tokarski had nothing left to prove in the junior ranks. He moved on to the pros in 2010 where he spent his first two years with the Lightning’s farm team, the Norfolk Admirals. The netminder’s winning reputation only grew at the AHL level, as he helped the Admirals capture the 2012 Calder Cup.
“Like in Spokane and Prince Albert, I was fortunate to be on a winning team that year,” said Tokarski. “I think that showed in the final when we swept the (Toronto) Marlies. We had a great group of guys.”
In the midst of the 2012-13 season, Tokarski was dealt from the Lightning to the Montreal Canadiens. Little did he know at the time that this trade would lead to the biggest test yet of his NHL career.
“It was one of those things where I was never traded before, so I didn’t know what to think,” said Tokarski. “But I knew the Canadiens were a great organization and I was excited to get an opportunity with them.”
Game 1 of the Canadiens’ third-round series with the New York Rangers, star goaltender Carey Price went down to injury. Tokarski was shortly after called up to The Show. He wasn’t going to backup Montreal’s No. 2 regular-season goaltender Peter Budaj, though. He was given the nod to start.
“It was a very exciting time for me,” he said. “I found out I was starting in the warm-ups and was pretty excited. I was nervous, but they were good nerves. I tried to just stay focused by doing my regular routine with a pre-game meal and everything else.”
The Canadien’s decision to start Tokarski over Budaj, who posted a 2.51 average and .909 save percentage in 24 games during the year, was a boost of confidence.
“It was nice to see the organization has confidence in me,” said Tokarski. “Peter played well during the year. It was definitely a good feeling to hear that I was going to start.”
Even though the Canadiens fell to the Rangers in six games, Tokarski stood tall in between the pipes. He maintained a .260 average and .916 save percentage in five contests.
From here, Tokarski hopes to earn a regular NHL puck-stopping job next year.
“The goal is to be full-time in the NHL,” said Tokarski, who has two years remaining on his contract with the Habs at $562,500 per season. “Everyone wants to be the starter and I hope to one day be there.”