Abbotsford Pilots coach Jim Cowden can't help but marvel at how Aaron Oakley, his No. 1 goalie, continues to improve year after year.
"He's focused, he wants to win, and he always strives to get better," Cowden enthused. "Even this season over last season, his puckhandling ability has improved tremendously.
"He's the backbone of our team."
Talk to Oakley about what fuels his continual quest for self-betterment, and he discloses a lofty ambition.
"The big-picture goal is to make the NHL," the Richmond native said. "So the next step would be to get a (NCAA) scholarship out of junior B, or go pro, whichever is the better route.
"Every chance I go out on the ice is a chance for me to improve. I make sure I work hard, and I try to do it with a smile, too."
Frankly, it's unusual to hear a 20-year-old junior B player speaking in such optimistic tones about the NHL, but it's refreshing.
Oakley notes that goalies tend to take longer to mature than forwards or defencemen. The 5'10" netminder draws inspiration from Tim Thomas, a smaller keeper himself at 5'11" who didn't make his NHL debut until the age of 28 and didn't establish himself as a starter with the Boston Bruins until age 32.
Oakley had hoped to make the jump to junior A this season, but he didn't make the cut in tryouts with the Whitecourt (Alta.) Wolverines and the Weyburn (Sask.) Red Wings. The Wolverines, he said, didn't want to take on a 20-year-old goalie, while the Red Wings weren't sure about his height.
But that feedback hardly deterred him, and he came back to Abbotsford on a mission.
Oakley's 1.79 goals against average is tops in the Pacific Junior Hockey League, edging out Payton Lee of the Richmond Sockeyes (1.81), a top prospect of the WHL's Vancouver Giants. The Abby goalie's save percentage of .932 also leads the league, and he boasts a 9-4-0 record with one shutout.
Cowden said Oakley is also a positive locker-room presence with the Pilots, and he believes that contributes to the goalie's success.
"He's loved by his teammates, and they work pretty hard for him," Cowden said. "Sometimes kids don't work for certain goalies. If they don't have the character, it's not a good mix. But they love him, and he's a huge part of our team."
Oakley helped the Pilots win the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial title and the Keystone Cup Western Canadian championship in 2011-12, and he's determined to make another deep post-season run this season.
"I really believe we can do it again," he said. "Our whole lineup is strong, and we've got great character in the room. Everybody wants it."
• Oakley and the Pilots are back in action at MSA Arena on Friday, hosting the Aldergrove Kodiaks (7:30 p.m. start).