Jaillet wins Mike Richter Award, completing hat trick of individual honors for Denver

Denver’s Tanner Jaillet was presented with the Mike Richter Award by the award’s namesake (photo: Melissa Wade).

CHICAGO — In front of an enthusiastic throng of family, friends and fans packed into Kitty O’Sheas inside the Chicago Hilton, Denver goaltender Tanner Jaillet was announced the winner of the Mike Richter Award on Friday.

The award, given annually to the top Division I netminder, marked the third major award earned by a member of the Pioneers, following coach Jim Montgomery’s selection as the Spencer T. Penrose Coach of the Year and Pioneers defenseman Will Butcher’s winning of the Hobey Baker Award.

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“This guy stands as an exceptional player in my eyes,” Richter said. “Consistency is the mark of a champion and in 27 of the games this guy played, he held the other team to two or less goals. That’s called giving your team a chance to win.”

Jaillet certainly did that. He compiled a 27-5-4 record and backstopped the Pioneers to the top defensive ranking in the country, 1.81 goals against per game.

Unlike those goaltenders who spent considerable time in youth hockey playing outside the crease, Jaillet was instantly attracted to the position and moved to it exclusively as soon as he could.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “Maybe it was the gear and the helmets, I don’t know. All I remember is that I wanted to be a goaltender.”

He idolized Patrick Roy, especially enjoying the Colorado Avalanche goalie going toe-to-toe with New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur.

Jaillet was somewhat of a natural, but though he was very good, he wasn’t selected for every team he desired. There were times teammates moved on to loftier teams and left him behind. Those setbacks fueled his drive to improve.

“I always had the love for the game, but if you see your friends that you played with go to the next level and you stay back, it makes you push harder so you can get better and play with them,” he said. “You just set a level of work ethic and dedication.”

No matter what, he hated to sit, which was often his lot since teams he played for stuck with goalie rotations.

But he kept at it and eventually he was being recruited to play at a number of schools. Ironically, his choice came down to the two schools that will play on Saturday night for the national championship, Denver and Minnesota Duluth.

“It’s pretty ironic, two awesome programs,” he said, leaving it at that, the title match presumably too close on the horizon to add more.

The summer before his freshman season, he arrived on the Denver campus and skated with a few of his new teammates. What he saw was eye-opening.

“I thought, Holy smokes, these guys are good,” he said. “They can shoot the puck.

“So I was a little nervous, but I got an opportunity to play some games and just played the best I could. I had a great team in front of me, and it just went on from there.”

He earned more than 50 percent of the playing time, an achievement for a freshman, but just like when he was a kid, he hated to sit.

“You see your teammates out there working and trying to win a game, so it’s hard because you feel like you’re not really contributing,” he Jaillet said. “But I’ve learned that’s not the case. You can be communicating, helping them, and building them up positively.

“You still contribute to the team even when you’re not playing, but it’s definitely a lot more fun being in the net, making saves.”

Which is something he’s continued to do more and more of each year, modeling his game after Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.

“I’ve watched him a lot,” Jaillet said. “I see how he approaches the game, how calm he is, how focused he is. Obviously, he’s a lot better at it than I am, but that’s the approach I have. Just try to be calm and show that composure for your teammates so when they look back there they see that you’re on your game, you’re focused, nothing rattles you and they can just play.”

Which all led to this evening, surrounding by a sea of supporters, including his parents, Gwen and Mike, and his sister, Nicole, not to mention a hearty representation of other relatives and friends from Red Deer, Alberta.

“My family is everything,” he said. “I wouldn’t be playing hockey without them. They’ve given me every opportunity to succeed and to play hockey. I owe them everything.”

Now, the Denver Pioneers, loaded down with all the individual honors of the past week, have one more piece of hardware to collect.

“Our focus is on the game tomorrow and getting ready for that,” Jaillet said.

As a kid, Jaillet, like any other young goaltender, dreamed of making the big save late in the third period of a championship game. If he does exactly that on Saturday, no one should be surprised.