By Bryan Fongers –
Every young man growing up in life needs a mentor to rely upon when things get into dire straits; someone who can pick them up when they’re down but also provide a little bit of “tough love” when the occasion arises. Like Mr. Miyagi was to Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid movie series, the relationship between Lumberjacks goaltending coach Manny Legace and his goaltending duo of Kevin Lindskoug and Jordan Uhelski has featured a father-son type of bond that stresses one important factor – keeping everyone’s best interests in mind.
Legace was hired into the Muskegon Lumberjacks organization just before Thanksgiving and had the opportunity to meet both goaltenders personally along with critiquing their technical aspects. As Legace explains, the relationship between him and his two “students” grew immensely as they were willing to take in as much information from him as possible.
“I was fortunate to come into a situation where both guys are very coachable and willing to listen to anything that I needed to talk to them about,” Legace said. “Both guys have no attitude problems and express a will to get better (in practice) every day of the week, and that’s the best possible coaching situation to be in.”
Kevin Lindskoug, a native of Trelleborg, Sweden, came over to the Lumberjacks this season after playing four years in the Rögle BK organization that included playing the last three seasons in the Swedish SuperElit league, the top junior league in Sweden. Lindskoug says that the addition of Legace to the coaching staff made him excited in the sense that he has someone who can relate to him in terms of being a smaller-sized netminder.
“It was an awesome feeling when I heard that Manny (Legace) was going to be our new goaltending coach because he could relate to playing the position at my size,” said Lindskoug. “Coach Legace is an inspiration to me because he played big for his size and had a great career in the NHL that included winning the Stanley Cup. That’s where I want to be someday down the road.”
Legace says that Lindskoug presents a cool, calm, and collected customer that has the mental toughness of a warrior when playing on game nights, but is still trying to adjust to playing on a smaller American rink when comparing it to the bigger Olympic-sized rinks in Europe.
“Kevin (Lindskoug) and I have been working hard on getting rid of the tendencies he had when playing on the bigger rinks overseas in terms of getting to the pucks quicker in the corners and getting your head up to see where you are going with the puck next,” said Legace. “Kevin possesses good hand-eye coordination and plays very big for his size. He is an absolute ‘gamer’ that continues to play well excluding the fact that he has already played in more games during one season than he had played in Sweden his entire junior career.”
Lindskoug echoed the sentiments of his coach as he explains that while he continues to work on the faster pace of the game around him, the adjustment from the bigger European rink to the smaller American rink has been smooth.
“I have been working hard on turning my head quicker when I go for the puck (behind the net) along with being more controlled in terms of not giving up easy rebounds to the opposition,” said Lindskoug. “The adjustment to the smaller rink has been a good one as I continue work on my movement side-to-side in the crease to try and adjust to the faster pace around the net with screen shots being fired at every direction constantly.”
Jordan Uhelski, a Flint native, arrived to the Muskegon Lumberjacks after spending the previous two seasons with the Belle Tire Under-18 Midget Major hockey team. Being a Michigan-born product, Uhelski was very familiar with the former Red Wings’ netminder.
“I was very excited when I heard the news of Manny (Legace) being hired as our new goaltending coach as he was someone I looked up to growing up watching him play for the Red Wings,” said Uhelski. “It was a surreal experience getting to meet him for the first time as he is very personable and down-to-earth with both Kevin and I.”
Legace says that Uhelski has come a long way in his development in the sense that he has been able to slow down his thought process and become more relaxed when positioned between the pipes during game situations.
“When I first got to see Jordan play, I loved his energy, but he was approaching the game way too fast as he was going over 100 miles an hour while trying to stop a 10 mile-per-hour puck,” said Legace. “However, he has been able to reduce the amount of energy put into the games and has been able to use his size to his advantage. Jordan (Uhelski) is a big goaltender that uses his athleticism and agility well and competes with the best of them. His game has evolved at an astounding rate from four months ago.”
Uhelski admits that he sometimes gets too amped up when he gets the nod between the pipes on game nights, but explains that he has toned it down a bit from the beginning of the season. Uhelski also gives credit to Legace for helping him stay looser and not putting so much pressure on himself when things don’t go his way.
“I have learned to control and harness my speed while staying relaxed throughout the game,” said Uhelski. “Manny has informed me to just be myself through any game situation because things do change throughout the course of the game. He’s also told me to stay comfortable with what I do best and continue to get better every time I take to the ice.”
Lumberjacks head coach Jim McKenzie has also been very impressed with how Legace has been able to keep both goaltenders on a level plain and has let him help in the decision-making of when Lindskoug and Uhelski should play on given nights.
“The addition of Manny (Legace) to the coaching staff has been absolutely enormous in the sense of how he has been able to keep both guys mentally focused on a day-in, day-out basis has really been a key aspect to Kevin and Jordan having solid seasons so far,” said McKenzie. “I have been very open in the communication with Manny and letting him help me with the decision of who gets to play on a certain night.”
Legace agrees with the assessment of keeping an open dialogue with McKenzie and offers an opinion on who deserves to play, but as he states it ultimately comes down to the decision of the head man in charge of the team. However, Legace also says that the communication between the two has been nothing but rock solid.
“Jim (McKenzie) and I see eye-to-eye on everything that is discussed about our two goaltenders, and that makes a world of difference because we can communicate effectively with one another,” said Legace. “It’s all about finding that consistent level with both guys, and for Jim to take my opinions to heart in his decision-making of who gets the nod on a particular night really shows that he values and trusts my instincts.”
This season, Lindskoug and Uhelski have bonded together to become one of the best goaltending duos in the USHL as they have accumulated a combined ten shutouts with Lindskoug claiming eight of them to lead the league. Also, both goaltenders are posting sub-three goals-against averages along with save percentages of over .900. As Legace explains, he says that with Lindskoug’s consistency and Uhelski’s drastic improvements, both goaltenders deserve a chance to play and each gives the team a chance to win.
“Any hockey team at any level knows that they need two solid goaltenders in order to make a deep run at a championship,” said Legace. “Kevin can’t play them all and Jordan needs to play, so it’s all about finding the right times and situations for the guys to play. Kevin will be our work horse down the stretch, but Jordan needs that game experience under his belt in case a dire situation takes place.”
In today’s NHL, scouts and executives have been leaning towards the bigger goaltender in the sense that they want the taller net minder that is able to cover a large portion of the net. For Lindskoug, height has always been an issue, but he says that Manny has helped provide a more positive spin on being a smaller goaltender.
“Manny has inspired me a lot on the mental side of things in terms of being one step ahead of the offensive player,” said Lindskoug. “He has also informed me to keep playing my game along with playing bigger for my size and my shot will come down the road if I keep staying focused on the task at hand.”
Being a back-up goaltender is not an easy position to be in at any hockey level, but for Uhelski, that’s something that he has embraced this season as he continues to learn the speed and nuances of the USHL level.
“My rookie season in the USHL has had its good and bad moments as I continue to make my adjustments to this level,” said Uhelski. “Manny has told me to keep working hard (in practice) every day because you never know when your time is going to come. During games, Manny has also advised me to not get too much into them when I am not playing and just enjoy it like a fan would normally do so I stay relaxed and calm.”
Even though the season is still a long way from being decided, Lindskoug and Uhelski have both enjoyed the success each one is having and hope that it is a sign of great things to come the rest of the way. As Lindskoug explains, the amount of work they have put in has also affected their relationship in a positive way.
“Our hard work is really starting to pay off as we are getting into a good grove with our defensemen and our confidence continues to grow,” said Lindskoug. “Jordan and I have the perfect relationship in the sense that we are both good people that will practice hard to push each other to the limits.”
Uhelski is also thankful that the time spent with Legace is paying off, but is also cautious as to not get too thick-headed as there is much more work to be done.
“The success that Kevin and I are having so far this season is a big reminder that the time we are putting in is starting to take shape, and I am appreciative of that,” said Uhelski. “We are happy with the results, but not satisfied as the bigger picture still remains in chasing that Clark Cup Championship.”
What does the future have in store for these two teammates you say? For Manny Legace, he believes that both have what it takes to pursue their ultimate dreams. As Legace recalls, it wasn’t an easy journey for him to make into the “big show” of the National Hockey League.
“Due to my size, it took me seven years to get into the National Hockey League even though I was shattering records in the American Hockey League along with being named ‘Goaltender of the Year’ in the Ontario Hockey League before then,” said Legace. “Both guys have what it takes to make it to the NHL as long as they embrace the journey and continue their great work habits.”
Ultimately, the relationship that Legace wants to have with his two protégés is one of an open-door policy where they can come to him with any issues they have or if they just want to talk after a game. Legace says that the communication tactics remain the same just like when he was being instructed by Red Wings goaltending consultant Jim Bedard, be a friend to them, but don’t be afraid to provide a little “tough love” when such an occasion arises.
“We usually keep in constant touch almost every day, and the boys always call or text me after every game,” said Legace. “When I was playing with Red Wings, Jimmy was always there for me when I needed guidance, but always wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind if I needed to get a talking-to. You may not have liked what he said, but he said it to keep everyone’s best interests in mind.”
Uhelski felt the same way when asked about his relationship with Legace as he finds his coach very easy-going and approachable to talk to.
“The thing I like the most about coach Manny is that he is very approachable, and you can talk to him about anything,” said Uhelski. “He is an honest coach with you, but is also a friend that cares about your life on and off the ice. It is like a father-son relationship to a point.”
Whether or not it “feels” like a father-son relationship, Legace says that he gets those same butterflies in his stomach just like when he watches his own children play on the ice.
“I feel like a proud father right now with all the success both guys are having, and I hope that they continue to keep it up the rest of the season,” said Legace. “It’s almost like you’re watching your own kids out there while trying to keep your emotions in check as the game goes along.”
Bryan Fongers is the lead broadcaster for the Muskegon Lumberjacks. For more information on Muskegon’s USHL team, visit MuskegonLumberjacks.com.