Hockey’s small world, Dugas’ gamble pays off

The hockey community is a small world and I was reminded of that Wednesday at Bemidji State hockey practice.

I was out there filming my weekly video report on the team. This week the Beavers travel to rival Alabama-Huntsville with an undefeated record and you can watch the video preview below.

The Beavers talk about last weekend’s tie and shutout win at Northern Michigan, traveling to Huntsville and freshman goalie Mathieu Dugas talks about earning a shutout in his first collegiate start.

I wanted to talk to Dugas about his shutout at Northern Michigan and while I never heard of him before, he knew who I was.

Dugas played junior hockey last season in the North American Hockey League for the Wenatchee (Washington) Wild.

A former colleague of mine works for the newspaper in that city : The Wenatchee World.

Corey Voegele was the former Sports Editor of the Faribault Daily News and when I was working in Owatonna, I frequently visited the city to cover sporting events. When I covered the Southern Minnesota Express in the North American Hockey League from 2005-07, the playoff games were held at Shattuck St. Mary’s.

“You know Corey, right?,” Dugas asked. “He told me to say hello to you when I got here.”

Small world.

Dugas has an interesting hockey story and at 21 years old, he already sounds like a hockey journeyman.

He grew up in a suburb of Montreal and initially played junior hockey in the Maritime League (MJAHL), a Candadian League with teams based in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

It is one of the minor junior leagues in Canada. The MJAHL is filled with players who can’t quite make the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and other juniors who are just looking for a place to keep playing. Dugas said some of the games can get rowdy. The way he described some games seemed like a Slap Shot cliché of fighting and brawling.

He ended up leaving Canada to join expansion franchise Wenatchee last season and had some interest in finding his way to a college hockey program.

“I didn’t know what to expect at all,” he said. “I was just hoping to play.”

He admitted his own fortune landing in Wenatchee, which as an expansion franchise reached the NAHL Robertson Cup National Tournament last spring. The Wild lost in the championship game to St. Louis.

He posted solid numbers playing before big junior hockey crowds in Wenatchee (average of 2,714 per game at Town Toyota Center, pictured at right).

He earned the majority of starts in a two-goalie system and had 17 wins in 36 games. He finished with a goals against average of 3.05 and a .904 save percentage.

He played under head coach Paul Baxter, who played eight seasons in the NHL for Quebec, Pittsburgh and Calgary. He went on to be an assistant coach from 1989-2003 in Calgary, Chicago, San Jose and Florida.

On Baxter’s coaching staff is Ryan McKelvie, who played WCHA hockey at Mankato from 2003-06 and served as a graduate assistant at BSU before joining the coaching staff in Wenatchee last season.

McKelvie’s brother Chris is Bemidji State’s captain this season.

Small world.

Seeing how Dugas landed in Bemidji State is not so much a surprise after looking at those connections.

Baxter has got an eye for talent as four of the 13 NAHL players on the NHL scouting watch list for 2010 currently play for the Wild.

When I covered Southern Minnesota those two seasons, I remember only two players finding their way onto that list. Current Gopher defenseman Brian Schack was one of those players…the other name escapes me at this time.

Early indications are that Bemidji State may have found a good sleeper goalie in Dugas, perhaps one who was overlooked by other college programs.

He played on Olympic ice regularly in Quebec, which is probably what helped land him a start last week against Nortern Michigan.

Right now he’s the backup behind Dan Bakala. A pair of good goalies is a good problem for the Beavers to have.

After losing Matt Dalton to the NHL over the summer, I’m sure the BSU coaching staff is happy to see two capable goalies start the season strong.

Dugas feels the NAHL and college hockey playing styles are similar, so the technical transition is not a major challenge. He felt that the biggest adjustment is in the speed of the game and added he was surprised with how fast the collegiate game is.

He followed BSU’s run to the Frozen Four last year on television.

“I was watching those games and I couldn’t believe that I was going to be joining that team next year, it was really incredible,” he said.

With BSU’s transition into the WCHA next year, Dugas said he feels “lucky’” to have found a home in Bemidji.

And it all started by taking a gamble on an expansion franchise in western Washington.