Kootenay Ice goalies Nathan Lieuwen (left) and Mackenzie Skapski both hail from Abbotsford.

Kootenay Ice goalies Nathan Lieuwen (left) and Mackenzie Skapski both hail from Abbotsford.

Mirror images: Abby goalies share Kootenay Ice crease, and a history of overcoming adversity

The forces that have shaped Nathan Lieuwen and Mackenzie Skapski's hockey careers are strikingly similar.

Examining the forces that have shaped Nathan Lieuwen and Mackenzie Skapski in their hockey careers, it’s tempting to wonder if they’re not living the exact same life, only three years apart.

Both players grew up in Abbotsford, gravitated to the goalie position, and backstopped the Abbotsford bantam Tier 1 Hawks to a provincial title (Lieuwen in 2006, Skapski in 2009). Both were picked high in the Western Hockey League bantam draft by the Kootenay Ice, and these days, they form the netminding tandem for the Cranbrook squad.

Heck, they even look a little bit alike, at least in terms of body type. Both are tall, lanky gentlemen – Lieuwen checking in at 6’5″, and Skapski, still growing, at 6’3″.

Perhaps the most striking similarity, though, is that both players have had to overcome significant adversity triggered by a vehicle crash.

In September of 2007, Lieuwen was the passenger in a single-vehicle rollover and sustained a concussion. He battled the dreaded head injury for the better part of three seasons, punctuated by another concussion in January 2009, and was passed over twice in the NHL entry draft due to health concerns.

Last season, though, Lieuwen stayed symptom-free, and he authored a memorable campaign. He backstopped the Ice to a league title and a third-place finish at the Memorial Cup, and picked up WHL playoff MVP honours along the way. Last June, he finally heard his name called in the NHL draft, as the Buffalo Sabres picked him in the sixth round.

Skapski, in many ways, can relate. On Dec. 11, 2009, he was on the bus with the Fraser Valley Bruins major midget squad when in hit some black ice just south of Williams Lake, skidded off the highway and landed on its side.

Skapski suffered the most serious injuries of anyone on the team. He sustained a broken nose and a fractured orbital bone, and had surgery to place a couple of plates in his cheek and to remove a blood clot beside his brain. During his convalescence, he lost 30 pounds, dropping from 155 to 125.

But Skapski battled back, and by December 2010, he was representing Team Pacific at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. Last fall, he cracked the Ice roster, where he serves as backup to Lieuwen, his predecessor in so many ways.

“We see each other every day, and we don’t think anything of it,” Skapski mused. “But it’s kind of scary when you really look into it, how similar our career paths have been.

“To be honest, it’s great to have a guy like that in front of me. Coming into a league with high demands and high pressure, he can kind of understand where I’m coming from. He helps me out.”

Listening to Skapski, 17, talk about Lieuwen, it’s clear he looks up to his 20-year-old crease counterpart. And as role models go, he couldn’t do much better.

Lieuwen has picked up right where he left off last season – he’s leading the WHL in goals-against average (2.28) and save percentage (.922), to go with a sparkling 24-13-4-2 record and three shutouts.

“I wanted to take what I learned in the playoffs last year and apply it to my game this season, and so far it’s been working,” he said.

“First and foremost, I think confidence is a huge thing . . . Once you have that confidence in your mind, you can occupy it with other things. And the more experience you gain, the more things you’re aware of that can happen on the ice, and that helps.”

Lieuwen, playing out his final season of junior hockey eligibility, has relished taking on a mentoring role with Skapski. The soft-spoken veteran tries to lead by example, and his actions aren’t lost on the younger goalie.

“It’s really cool to see his intensity before a game, and his mental preparation,” Skapski said. “I sit beside him in the room, and you can really see the desire in his eyes. And that builds a desire in me, too.

“Every practice, I go out and hope to push Nathan on the ice, and he helps to push me. We really build each other’s game.”

Skapski has seen limited action behind the workhorse Lieuwen, posting a 7-5-0-2 record with a 3.12 goals-against average and an .889 save percentage. But NHL scouts believe he has potential – he was ranked No. 14 among North American goalies in the Central Scouting midterm rankings released in January.

“After the journey I’ve been through, it’s definitely rewarding,” Skapski said. “Ultimately, it’s just a number at the end of the day. I’ve got to be focused on improving my game every day, and the rest of it will shape up.”

Kootenay Ice goalie Mackenzie Skapski gets his paddle down to stop Graham Hood of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. (Chris Pullen / chris@cranbrookphoto.com)