By Jamie Neugebauer, for Athol Murray College of Notre Dame
Photos: Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff
Around 15 percent of those who played a game in the National Hockey League this past season were undrafted free-agent signings, and in the salary-cap era, that number is only going up.
Four-year Hound Austin Elliott, a 2022 Notre Dame (ND) graduate, looked to take a big step in that direction this July by attending the Toronto Maple Leafs development camp, along with 19 of their draft picks, and several premium undrafted prospects.
It was an experience the long-time Maple Leafs fan and 2004-born goaltender will never forget.
“Yeah, it was super cool,” Elliott says.
“It was a huge honour to go to an ‘Original Six’ team’s development camp, and from when you get there, you can tell that everything they do is first class. I just went into it thinking, ‘everyone is in the same boat, you’re there with your peers and we’re all playing the same sport.’ I knew I was there for a reason, I didn’t feel out of place at all and I think it all went well.”
Elliott was one of four Hounds to participate in NHL development camps so far this summer, as fellow goaltender Bryan Thomson went to the Dallas Stars’ camp, defenceman and ND 2018 Telus Cup champion Quinn Schmiemann was at Vancouver Canucks’ camp, and forward Cam Recchi, who won the 2019 Saskatchewan U18AAA league with the Hounds, attended New Jersey Devils camp.
The common refrain in the classic ND pre-game prayer ‘for Hounds and Hounds everywhere’ rings extra true to the likes of Elliott, as he faced Hounds numerous times throughout his outstanding WHL campaign last year.
There are indeed Hounds everywhere.
“You definitely know when you’re playing other Hounds,” he says.
“I always point out (Notre Dame) guys to my teammates, so there are obviously lots of Hounds playing high-level hockey, and it is always cool to see other guys with the same experience at the college as me succeeding.”
Elliott, a native of Strathmore, AB, began in Wilcox in Grade 9 for the 2018-19 school year, and excelled in the four levels he performed at throughout his full ND career.
Upon completion of his brilliant-yet-brief stint as a full member of the U18AAA Hounds during the 20-21 Covid-19-shortened campaign, wherein he went 4-2 with a 2.23 goals-against-average and a sparkling .933 save percentage, he had hoped to jump directly to the Saskatoon Blades, the WHL team who had drafted him after his U15 prep season in 2019.
It was not to be, though, and Austin returned to the Duncan McNeill Arena to serve as No. 1a goaltender (beside veteran 1b net minder Ryley Osland) for the Junior Hounds during the 2021-22 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season.
That Austin did well (18 wins, 3.44 GAA, a plus-.900 save percentage, and a playoff spot) did not come as much of a surprise to Brett Pilkington, his head coach that year, even though it is relatively rare for a 17-year-old rookie to play often and thrive in net in the veteran-laden SJHL.
“Austin’s development really started to take off when he stepped foot on the campus at Notre Dame,” Brett says.
“From then, each and every year he has made huge strides to become the goalie he is today, and I think moving forward he is going to keep taking those big strides until he gets to where he wants to be…it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s in the NHL. It is a testament to the character he is as a person and the competitive levels he has running through his blood that gives him the success he has.”
Elliott went on to earn Canadian Hockey League All-Rookie team and WHL East Second All-Star Team honours in 22-23, and his numbers more than justify those selections. His 2.20 goals-against average and .911 save percentage, as well as his 25 victories, were all best among WHL Rookie goaltenders, and while he was passed over in the NHL Draft, the fact that he was invited to both the Leafs, and a later camp this fall set up by the Nashville Predators, proves that the highest levels of the game are paying close attention.
That the level-headed, highly competitive now 19-year-old did not need too much time to adjust to the level on and off the ice in Saskatoon can be attributed to several factors. His time at ND is certainly one he holds close to his heart.
“I just think there are a lot of good habits you get when you go to Notre Dame that are critical when you get to junior and pro hockey,” he says.
“Every day you’re at the rink, every day you’re with your teammates, so you get into the professional mindset like that. There are always lots of eyes and lots of pressure on you all the time when you’re at ND, so I took a lot of lessons of development and habits from my time there.”
According to Austin, the Leafs’ camp went very well, where the NHL clubs’ brass watched him in goalie-specific drills, team drills, and in a scrimmage with the likes of first-rounder Easton Cowan, and second-round picks Fraser Minten, and Roni Hirvonen.
He attended not as a pick, he was passed in drafts, and there were likely few in the greater hockey world who knew who the 6-foot-1, 165-pounder was before he arrived at the camp, but that was all par for the course for the man used to having to prove himself wherever he goes.
“Not getting drafted probably adds to a bit of a chip on my shoulder…it’s just another thing on the same path (of my career) that has definitely not been a straight line,” he says.
“I didn’t let any of it bother me though, I just wanted to go there, make a good impression, and show what I’m about. All that stuff keeps me hungry, keeps me pushing harder each day to try and pass people, and show them I’m just as good as anyone out there.”
Austin is someone very much used to the ‘Struggle’ part of the ND motto: he left home as an undersized 14-year-old, he only played in eight ‘AAA’ Hounds games due to Covid, was sent back to his Junior A team despite his high hopes of playing for the Blades, and was passed up in the NHL draft despite a magnificent WHL campaign.
Yet he kept his head down, kept working, kept competing, and is a brilliant example that the ‘Emerge’ part can happen when you go about it the right way.
“(My path) ended up working out so well in the end,” he says.
“Of course, I was disappointed to be cut from my WHL team to play for the Junior Hounds, but I embraced it too and (my goalie coach in Saskatoon) and Brett constantly reminded me that it would be good for my development to just play a lot more hockey, as opposed to just backing up and getting what I was going to learn out of practice.”
“Looking back on it all, playing for the Hounds for four full years really helped me. I definitely learned a lot through it all, and I would not have changed a thing.”