Will Gurski and Gage Alexander are the rawest of rookies, but when it comes to earning full-time work in the Western Hockey League, they have a distinct competitive edge.
Gurski, from Duncan, B.C., is 6-5.
Alexander, a 6-7 product of Okotoks, Alta., towers over most of his Winnipeg Ice teammates.
Big, shot-gobbling goalies, you may have noticed, are all the rage in the major-junior and pro ranks.
Gurski embraces his height advantage but insists he brings an overall game to the position.
"It really helps being a big goalie out there," Gurski said following a Tuesday morning practice at the Rink Training Centre. "As a goalie, I like to play a lot more positional. So with my size, it helps to use a lot less movement on the ice and stay more poised in the net."
Both newcomers are vying for a spot in the Ice’s crowded crease, where 18-year-old veteran Jesse Makaj (illness) and 19-year-old incumbent Duncan McGovern (upper-body injury) have yet to play in the pre-season and may still have weeks of recovery ahead.
Alexander is also on the mend, recuperating from an upper-body injury that kept him out of Winnipeg’s pre-season doubleheader weekend against the Brandon Wheat Kings. He returned to practice on Monday but hasn’t yet been cleared to play in the club’s Friday and Saturday games in Saskatoon. Daniel Hauser, 15, remains with the team on an emergency basis.
Gurski, meanwhile, played two periods of a 5-0 loss to the Wheat Kings on Friday night, allowing four goals in 27 shots. A night later, he went the distance with 22 saves in a 5-1 Ice triumph.
"I feel for Duncan and Gage, not being able to be at 100 per cent right now. But as a goalie trying to move up in the levels of hockey, I looked at this as an opportunity to show what I’ve got," said Gurski, who turns 17 on Oct. 23. "Starting last week, I thought I really showed that."
Does the unsolved goaltending situation give Ice head coach James Patrick added anxiety?
"No, because that’s not gonna help us," said Patrick, adding he was pleased with Gurski’s performance in his two outings. "I think you learn in this business you have players injured and you move on with who you have.
"You focus on who’s here. I mean, you care about your injured players and you want them to get healthy, but you have to focus on who’s here. We’re working with them to make them better and we’re getting ready for the season."
Alexander, 17, prefers to work on his own game and let the chips fall.
"It’s kind of tricky right now because we’ve got a few injuries and everyone’s trying to battle for those two spots," Alexander said. "I’m just going to focus on the things I can control and just play my game and (do a good job) as a teammate, on and off the ice."
Alexander overcame long odds to get this far. He was playing AA hockey when the Ice chose him in the seventh round of the 2017 WHL bantam draft.
"It was a surprise to get drafted because it was unheard of for something like that to happen, especially for a goalie," Alexander said. "I mean, they must’ve seen something that made me worth drafting. I’m very thankful for it. Just one step closer to the next level."
Alexander made major advances in his conditioning in the off-season, signing up with the same personal trainer who oversees the fitness work done by Ice captain Peyton Krebs and his brothers Dakota, a member of the Calgary Hitmen, and Dru, a Medicine Hat Tigers prospect.
The result? Alexander dropped 20 pounds to 202, he said, improving his agility and quickness.
Gurski, chosen in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, wasn’t about to be left behind. He dropped 15 pounds from 216.
"When I was drafted, I struggled a lot off ice — just fitness-wise," said Gurski, who believes his energy level and mental acuity increased with the weight loss. "I realized I wasn’t where I needed to be. This summer, especially, I put in a ton of work. Coach Patrick really wanted to see me work on my nutrition and stuff and lifestyle part of the game."
Ice general manager Matt Cockell was pleased with the depth he has to work with.
"We have no concern in the sense that we knew coming in we’d have lots to work through in this position," Cockell said. "We’d like to have Jesse here, he’s a big part of our team and he’s going to be a big part of our team moving forward.
"It’s time for (Alexander and Gurski) to show through exhibition season that they can play the Western Hockey League game and earn the trust of their teammates and coaching staff," Cockell said. "We think they’re both really good prospects and they’re ready to play and they have to go out and do it."
NOTEWORTHY: Matt Savoie, the celebrated No. 1 pick who debuted for the Ice with a two-point performance Saturday against Brandon, is already pencilled in to play in both of Winnipeg’s regular-season games Sept. 20 and 21 against Brandon. The club is considering the possibility of also having No. 2 pick Conor Geekie in the lineup for the home opener. Geekie, whose training camp was cut short by a bruised collarbone, was practising at full speed Monday.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Tuesday, September 10, 2019 at 8:00 PM CDT: Fixes typo.