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Jets goalie Eric Comrie out to prove he’s finally ready for backup role

WINNIPEG — As much as Eric Comrie appreciates the show of faith, he also knows the score.

When you’ve lived the type of nomadic existence Comrie has over the past two seasons, perspective isn’t hard to find.

He’s been part of four different NHL organizations, been traded once and claimed off waivers on four separate occasions, but all roads eventually led back to Winnipeg and his emotional journey has him on the precipice of what he truly believes can be the best chapter yet.

The one where he shows he can finally be the Winnipeg Jets backup goalie behind workhorse and 2020 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck.

“It doesn’t matter how good of a person you are, you’ve still got to deliver results,” Comrie said. “At the end of the day, that’s the position we’re in. We’re here to win games. They’re going to put the guy in who’s winning games and I understand that.

“It’s still a tryout for me. It’s still competing for a job. It’s not like they said, ‘Oh, congratulations. The job is yours.’ I’m not Connor Hellebuyck, guaranteed the No.1 spot. I’m coming in to earn a spot, I’m coming in to play the best I can in those games, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Chosen by the Jets in the second round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, this is the first time Comrie enters camp as the front-runner for the No. 2 job, thanks in part to the departure of Laurent Brossoit to the Vegas Golden Knights.

“For myself, I’m not looking at it that way. I’m looking at taking the same approach as any other camp,” said Comrie, whose primary competition for the job is fourth-year pro and 2016 sixth-round pick Mikhail Berdin. “It’s just about building every single day, just getting better and better. You can’t look too far into the future or else you stop worrying about your day and then it gets derailed from there.

“I’m going to trust my off-season, I’m going to trust what I’ve been doing, I’m going to believe in myself and I’m going to have some fun.”

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Limited to only five games last season — one with the New Jersey Devils and another four with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League — Comrie hired a nutritionist and a sports psychologist in addition to ramping up his training.

Comrie conceded he was guilty of trying too hard and over-thinking earlier in his career and that impacted his ability to make the jump to the NHL.

That’s part of the reason he spent so much time working on the mental side of the game.

“It was honestly watching a lot of golf this summer and listening to those guys. Every single one of them has a sports psychologist. You don’t realize that they all use someone, they have someone to talk to, they all use it during their pre-shot routine,” said Comrie. “I know golf is a lot different than hockey, but you can look at it the same way, in that it’s a mental game the same way goaltending is. It’s not going to be perfect all the time but if you can give yourself the best opportunity and get into that frame of mind, you can get closer to that zone.

“It’s funny because goaltending is a part of the game where there are bounces you can’t control. But you can control certain things, your work ethic, your attitude, the stuff you do before the game, and that’s something I take pride in – controlling my controlables, and I’m going out there before every single game and make sure I control my pre-game routine, make sure that’s all checked off, and I’m in the right mindframe to perform at the highest that I can.”

Comrie has been able to enjoy success at every other level he’s played at, even if it hasn’t happened overnight.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve put up success, I’ve done the right things, it just takes me a little time to get used to it,” said Comrie. “It’s almost, ‘Calm down and maybe not try as hard, per se.’ You go out there and it’s, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be perfect. I’ve got to be right there and be perfect, right now, right now.’ You press too hard and you grip it a little bit too tight, and sometimes that doesn’t always work out to the best of your advantage.”

Because of his age (26) and limited NHL action, Comrie was set to become an unrestricted free agent this past off-season, but the Jets signed him to a one-year, one-way deal for the league minimum of $750,000 on July 27.

Despite the bouncing around he did, Comrie saw no need to test the market or search for a fresh start in another organization.

“You don’t really know. It came down to the last day, so I wasn’t really sure,” said Comrie, asked about how he was viewing the off-season prior to signing the deal. “This is a special place for myself and I take a lot of pride in being here. This is the place I want to be and win with. For myself, it’s the place I was drafted. It truly feels like home and I want to represent it the best I can and be the best I can for a city that I truly love.

“I love being in Winnipeg. The people are truly top-notch. You walk through the city and see the community and how strong it is, and just being part of that is special to myself.”

During a session with reporters earlier in the week, Hellebuyck himself threw his support behind Comrie, saying he was among those who championed his promotion.

“I’ve always been a big advocate for (Comrie) because he’s a great goalie and he works hard and he’s a great time guy,” said Hellebuyck. “He’ll lift spirits and when guys want a little extra, he’ll give that little extra out there. I know he doesn’t have a ton of NHL games but I believe in him and I think we’re going to have fun watching him.”

The evolution of the backup goalie position has been an interesting study and in an age where many organizations practice a form of load management as a way to keep the starter fresh for the stretch run and playoffs, the importance of getting quality starts from the No. 2 guy has never been higher.

Although Hellebuyck is still going to get the bulk of the work, Comrie will be counted on to supply 20-to-22 starts — with many of those coming under less than optimal conditions.

“A lot of times, the goaltender that’s in the backup role gets all of the worst starts,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “He gets the back-to-back and you get in at three in the morning and he’s going in there, you’ve got a bunch of injuries or you need to rest your No. 1 guy. They get all the bad starts, so they get lots of challenges.

“I would tell you that one of the most important things for what is a backup goaltender going in is the belief of the people in front of them. If they love that guy, they’ll block shots for him and they’ll rally around the fact that it’s his first year in the NHL and his first chance (to see regular duty) because they love him. Eric has earned (that love).”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

The reason Comrie is held in such high regard is easy to identify.

He’s a quality individual, a tireless worker and he’s not someone who leaves anything to chance.

“I’ve seen the exact same thing every day since the first day I met him. So, you get to know Eric and after a few hours, you’re thinking it’s not real. It can’t be that real. And then after two or three years, I’m just incredibly impressed by everything that he does,” said Maurice. “The way he approaches everything — because he has not had anything handed to him. He will have maxed out his talent and preparation and handling tough situations the right way. If you’re pulling for a guy who has done everything right to have success, you’re pulling for this guy.

“He’s going to give himself the best chance and we have faith in that. He’s looked good. But he’s got to stop pucks. That’s the bottom line. He’s stopping pucks now and he kind of starts that journey tomorrow of getting a chance.”

Comrie will start in goal on Sunday as the Jets play the first of six exhibition games.

This won’t serve as a referendum to determine whether or not he’s ready to handle the job, but it’s an opportunity for Comrie to start building a foundation he can carry into the regular season.

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Written by Sportsnet

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