Kootenay Ice goalie Nathan Lieuwen

Kootenay Ice goalie Nathan Lieuwen

Abbotsford goalie Lieuwen signs with Sabres

Abbotsford-born goalie Nathan Lieuwen celebrated a major milestone in his hockey career on Saturday.

Abbotsford-born goalie Nathan Lieuwen celebrated a major milestone in his hockey career on Saturday, when he signed his first NHL contract with the Buffalo Sabres.

“It’s exciting to be able to move on to the pro ranks,” said Lieuwen, who inked a three-year, two-way pact with the Sabres which will likely see him start his career with one of Buffalo’s minor-pro affiliates – the Rochester Americans (AHL) or the Gwinnett Gladiators (ECHL).

“To become a professional athlete is obviously something every kid dreams of, and to be starting that journey now is pretty exciting.”

Lieuwen, age 20, is closing the book on a fascinating junior hockey career with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League. His early tenure with the Ice was marred by multiple concussions that affected him for the better part of three seasons, and he was passed over twice in the NHL draft.

He finally shook the symptoms prior to the 2010-11 campaign, and staged a breakout, earning WHL playoff MVP honours after leading the Ice to a league title and a third-place finish at the Memorial Cup.

The Sabres took notice, picking the 6’5″ netminder in the sixth round (167th overall) of the entry draft last June. After Lieuwen fashioned another stellar season in 2011-12 (27-20-8 record, 2.50 goals against average, .914 save percentage), Buffalo deemed him worthy of a contract.

Lieuwen expects the transition to pro hockey will be a challenge, but he’s not daunted by it.

“Of course I understand it’s going to be a step up – better players and better shooters and everything,” he said. “But you also get to play with better players.

“My kind of mentality is, you’re always learning. The learning curve my change every once in a while, but you’re still learning and going in the same direction.”