It’s been quite a ride for Carsen Chubak the last couple of years.
In less than two years, the Prince Albert goaltender has gone from being the freshman starter for the NCAA’s Niagara University Purple Eagles, to enduring two surgeries and falling to fourth on the depth chart, to winning back his job and leading the nation in goals against and save percentage.
"The comeback from that was just huge for myself,” Chubak says. “All the guys on the team recognize that as well. They've been very positive to me so it's been like heaven right now. I can't complain about anything.
“It really helps you appreciate when you haven't been playing and now you're playing again.”
Purple Eagles coach David Burkholder says it’s an amazing story.
“I had a team doctor tell me that ‘I don’t think he’s not going to come back from these two surgeries’ … For him to come back a year later and do what he’s doing is exceptional.”
But long before Chubak joined the team based in Niagara Falls, N.Y., he was a member of the Crescent Heights Stars in Prince Albert. He began playing goal in novice B.
After playing with the midget AA Devils, he finally made the Mintos in his final year of eligibility.
It was worth the wait.
He and his teammates won the Telus Cup in 2007, repeating what the team had done the year before. Chubak was named the top goaltender in the tournament as the team went 7-0.
"We still keep in touch because we won a championship," he says. "You always have that under your belt; nobody can take that away on you. It was very nice. Those are pretty much the best days that I can remember."
Chubak, now 23, graduated to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League with the Flin Flon Bombers, where he split time with another goaltender. He asked for a trade and went to the Powell River Kings of the British Columbia Hockey League.
He won the top job, and was named to the league's all-star team as the Kings lost in the league final.
He then moved on to the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League for his final season of junior, joining coach Drew Schoneck — a Saskatchewan native — as the team's top goaltender. That led him to Niagara University.
Chubak earned the starting job as a freshman, playing in seven of the first nine games.
But then disaster struck.
He was playing at home against Colgate on Nov. 23, 2010 when a player fell on him and his skate got caught in the post. With nothing to give, his knee popped.
He tore his ACL and needed reconstructive surgery, which was done a couple weeks later in Buffalo.
It took him about six months before he could play again and another six months after that in a brace.
"It felt a little sketchy for a while but now it's really good. The process is ongoing. You have your good days and bad days but you just have to work extra hard on your good days, I guess."
After a strong off-season, a doctor discovered that Chubak also needed hip surgery.
Chubak was able to start the first game of his second season but played poorly and plunged down the depth chart. He ended up having the hip surgery as well.
When senior goaltender Chris Noonan stepped up and led the nation in goals against and save percentage, the pressure was off Chubak.
"Of course you want to be playing but at the same time to see the team has someone to rely on gives you the extra time,” he says. “I had the extra summer to complete the recovery process which was excellent."
Burkholder made it clear that the No. 1 job was open after Noonan graduated. Chubak made his decision easy.
“From the first day of camp, he was our best goalie,” Burkholder said. “His quickness, his body language, work ethic in practice is second to none. He works at his game. He’s a real pleasure to coach.”
While the team went 2-2-3 in October, Chubak was outstanding. He stopped 194 of 204 shots, posted a 1.64 goals against average and had a .951 save percentage.
He recorded his first career shutout on Oct. 26 as he stopped 44 shots against Clarkson.
The gaudy numbers led to him being named the Atlantic Hockey goaltender of the month.
The best was yet to come.
Last weekend, he had back-to-back shutouts against the University of Connecticut, making a combined 56 saves. He now sports a save percentage of .962 and a goals against average of 1.23, both tops among NCAA netminders.
He credits his older team for his success.
"We play great defence; we have a veteran defensive corps,” he says. “It's been pretty easy on myself. You just kind of get rolling and everything falls into place."
His coach gives him a little more credit.
“He has a phenomenal work ethic, almost bordering on doing too much,” Burkholder says. “Sometimes he tires himself out but as a coach that’s a great problem to have … He’s a role model for our guys in that area.”
The Purple Eagles now lead the 12-team Atlantic Hockey with a conference record of 3-0 and an overall record of 4-2-3.
While hockey is obviously important to Chubak, he’s not squandering the education opportunity that the sport has provided.
He's earning a sports management degree, a program some of his teammates are also pursuing. That's helping Chubak because they usually study together.
In a perfect world, Chubak would eventually become the general manager of a franchise in the WHL or OHL.
"It's something that I'm interested in and have obviously been involved in my whole life," he says. "It will be a nice degree for me to have."
But first he wants to try to play pro, likely after graduating in 2014.
"That's the No. 1 goal," he says. "And then after whatever happens there, we'll decide from there. Pro hockey always looks good on a resume if you're applying for a sports job so it's the best of both worlds there."
He makes it back to Prince Albert for about a month every summer, but returns to school to train with his teammates for the rest of the summer.
So what has the wild ride over the last couple of seasons taught him?
"Just for people not to stop working at it," he says. "You'll never succeed if you quit, of course. You just have to keep working."