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Goalie Danny Taylor's strong play with the Abbotsford Heat this season landed him an NHL contract from the Calgary Flames on Wednesday.
Amy Williams Photography

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Focus and family fuel Taylor's return to NHL

In a quiet post-practice moment on Monday afternoon, it was pointed out to Abbotsford Heat goalie Danny Taylor that this season was the first of his seven as a pro where he'd spent the entire campaign with one team.

The well-traveled netminder could only chuckle.

"Knock on wood – the year's not over yet," he noted with a grin.

If Taylor wasn't ready to relax, it's because the first six seasons of his pro hockey career had been defined by instability.

He suited up for 10 different teams during that time, crisscrossing the continent from California (the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors) to Texas (ECHL's Texas Wildcatters) to New Hampshire (AHL's Machester Monarchs) to Georgia (ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators), with pit stops in the NHL (one game with the Los Angeles Kings in 2007-08) and Germany (Hamburg Freezers in 2010-11).

But as it happens, Taylor's knock-on-wood instinct proved clairvoyant – in the best possible way.

On Tuesday evening, a lower-body injury knocked Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff out of a game vs. the Detroit Red Wings. With ex-Heat keeper and current Flames backup Leland Irving being the only other netminder in the organization under NHL contract, the Flames signed Taylor to a one-year, two-way deal on Wednesday morning. He promptly hopped on a flight to Columbus, where the Flames will play the Blue Jackets on Thursday.

*    *    *    *

The thing about Taylor that impresses Heat head coach Troy Ward the most is his mental approach.

"His mental game is far superior to most guys at this level," Ward said. "He has his unique style, but I think it's one of his biggest strengths.

"I tend to just leave the bastard alone. The more I talk to him, the more I screw him up."

In analyzing Taylor's focus level, there are hows and there are whys.

The hows, at least some of them, are plain to see.

During stoppages in play, Taylor skates out to the hashmarks, drops to one knee, and stares at the puck – located on one of the faceoff dots in preparation for the next draw.

It's a classic goalie quirk on the surface, but it's got a purpose.

"I see a lot of goalies go to their water bottles (during stoppages), or go to the bench to chat," explained Taylor, who has developed the habit since since joining the Heat in December of 2011. "I've done that in the past, and I think it's a distraction for me. I like to just be out there and do my thing, and try to be in the moment as best as possible.

"The periods are pretty long, so it's nice to give your legs a break. And the puck just happens to be there, so what better thing to look at than the puck?"

Taylor's perpetual staring contest with the puck is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his mental prep. He also does a minimum of 20 minutes of pre-game visualization, and he's a voracious consumer of video – Heat goalie coach Jordan Sigalet focuses a camera on the Heat net throughout the game, then produces clips of each time the netminder interacts with the puck.

Another of Taylor's tricks is putting himself in the skates of the goalie at the other end of the ice, and reading the play from his perspective.

"We're so good defensively, sometimes I won't see a shot for 10 minutes," he noted with a chuckle. "So I'll pretend to be the goalie in the other net . . . Sometimes I get so bored back there, it's the only way to stay in it."

*    *    *    *

The driving force behind Taylor's intense focus – the aforementioned whys – are named Danielle and Hudson.

He got engaged to Danielle in the summer of 2011 and married in the summer of 2012, and he points to the engagement as "the tipping point" in his career.

"I've traveled the world and seen a lot of places," noted Taylor, 26. "Once you start to have a family, that's when you really strive and work that much harder to have stability in your life.

"It was just that much more incentive to get a home and play that much better. It was the extra motivation I needed."

On New Year's Day 2013, Danny and Danielle welcomed their first child, son Hudson, into the world. While having a newborn in the house might prove a distraction for some players, it's had the opposite effect on Taylor – he won seven of his next 10 decisions, posting a 1.44 goals against average and a .940 save percentage along the way.

His sparkling play allowed him to wrest the Heat's No. 1 job back from Barry Brust, and he was in the pole position for an NHL contract when the Flames suddenly needed a goalie.

"With the new kid now, when I'm home, nothing else matters outside," Taylor said, pondering the effect of fatherhood on his play. "I think it's been the best thing that's ever happened to me. Just to come home and be home, rather than taking my work home with me, which I've kind of been guilty of in the past.

"It really puts things into perspective."

*    *    *    *

On Nov. 29, 2011, Taylor was released by the AHL's Springfield Falcons.

He was completely blindsided by the move. He'd played reasonably well in Springfield (5-3-0 record, 2.58 goals against average, .914 save percentage), but the Blue Jackets, the Falcons' NHL parent club, needed to make room for highly touted youngster Allen York.

It's fairly standard stuff in the pro hockey world – journeymen tend to be treated like stepchildren no matter how well they play.

Taylor landed an AHL contract with the Heat three days after being cut by Springfield, and he's thrived in what Flames general manager Jay Feaster likes to call "a merit-based organization."

That label was tested last spring as the Heat embarked on the Calder Cup playoffs. Taylor was in top form at the end of the regular season, while Irving – a former first-round pick – was struggling. But Ward tapped Taylor to carry the load in the post-season.

"That's when it really became a merit organization," the Heat bench boss said.

"They (the Flames) take people for who they are, they don't look into their past, and they give them a chance. Whether you want to talk about it from Danny's perspective or (Heat forward) Akim Aliu, they allow people to be who they are and they make judgments on people over time. That's been the door that's opened for Danny. At the same time, he's grabbed it.

"You want something in life? Earn it. And he's earned it."

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