Perseverance pays off, as Lieuwen picked in NHL draft

If the wattage of a smile could be harnessed, Nathan Lieuwen could have powered the Las Vegas Strip on Saturday.

Nathan Lieuwen

Nathan Lieuwen

If the wattage of a smile could be harnessed, Nathan Lieuwen could have powered the Las Vegas Strip on Saturday.

After twice being passed over in the NHL entry draft, the 19-year-old goalie from Abbotsford finally had his name called. The Buffalo Sabres picked him in the sixth round, 167th overall.

“To go through this process twice before and not have my name show up, it makes it extra special,” enthused Lieuwen, who plays for the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League. “I definitely have a different perspective on this draft than most others.”

In a perfect world, Lieuwen would have been drafted in 2009, the first year he was eligible. That’s certainly how it looked like it would play out – he was the WHL’s top-rated draft-eligible goalie in November of 2008, after backstopping Team Canada to gold at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka under-18 World Championship the previous summer.

But in January of 2009, Lieuwen’s career hit a major roadblock after a Calgary Hitmen forward ran him over and drove his head on the goalpost. He sustained a concussion – his second in 16 months – and was passed over in the NHL’s talent lottery.

The 6’5″ keeper was overlooked once again in 2010, as the concussion symptoms lingered.

Last fall, Lieuwen came into training camp symptom-free, and put together a dream season. He backstopped the Ice to a WHL title, earning playoff MVP honours after posting off-the-charts stats. He led all WHL goalies in goals-against average (2.24) and shutouts (3) in the post-season, while compiling a gaudy 16-3 record. Lieuwen and the Ice went on to finish third at the Memorial Cup.

That Lieuwen was suffering from two hernias throughout the playoffs cast his performance in an even more flattering light.

“You don’t feel the pain in the playoffs,” said Lieuwen, who underwent surgery two weeks ago to repair the hernias. “That kind of run is pretty special, and just being able to be involved was awesome.”

As his third crack at the NHL draft approached, Lieuwen was confident he’d have some opportunities in free agency if his name wasn’t called. When it happened, it was a rewarding moment for a prospect who had been written off, but persevered.

“There’s no easy steps, especially with the ride that I’ve been on,” he said. “Everything’s been worked for, and I’ve had to be patient. I think I’m better because of it.”

Lieuwen was pleased to go to the Sabres. There are some familiar faces in the Buffalo organization – previous draftees include Kootenay defenceman Brayden McNabb and former Abbotsford minor hockey teammate Riley Boychuk.

Because he’s two years older than most other players drafted on the weekend, Lieuwen is eligible to turn pro right away and play for Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. The Sabres could also elect to send him back to Kootenay for his overage season of junior hockey.

“Of course it would be nice to turn pro – to go to the AHL, that would be an amazing opportunity,” he said. “But if that doesn’t work out, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I had to play in Cranbrook again.”