At first glance, Eric Comrie doesn’t look old enough to play in the Western Hockey League.
But for those who have faced the young goaltender as he protects the net for the Tri-City Americans, they know he’s talented beyond his years.
Comrie, 17, will start in net tonight against the Spokane Chiefs at Toyota Center as the Americans open their 25th season in the WHL and raise their fourth U.S. Division banner in five years.
“I’m nervous and excited,” Comrie said. “We have the best fans in the league, and we are raising a banner — which is exciting — and we are playing our biggest rival. We are excited to get it started on the right foot.”
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The Americans have won their last 11 home openers dating back to 2001, including six wins against the Chiefs. They will finish the weekend with a home game Sunday against the Portland Winterhawks.
Comrie, entering his second season with the Americans, was 19-6-1-1 during his rookie season with a 2.67 goals against average, .900 save percentage and three shutouts sharing time with veteran Ty Rimmer.
This season, Comrie is the veteran, while Brenden Fiebelkorn will warm the bench.
“I’m really excited.” Comrie said. “It will be a big year for our team. It’s our 25th year, with hopefully a lot more to come. But, it’s just another season. You can’t look at it as a 72-game season. We have to take it one game at a time. There will be bumps in the road, we just have to keep them to a minimum.”
The Americans lost a lot of firepower up front with the graduation of Brendan Shinnimin (58 goals) and Adam Hughesman (50), and Tri-City may need to lean a bit more on Comrie to make the big saves until the offense gets on track.
“I hope we don’t have to do that,” said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, who is entering his fourth year with team. “We played great defense last year and Eric played in 31 of those games. Eric was great in those games last year. The way we play in front of him, he will be great again.”
Comrie is just the third Tri-City goalie to earn a starting gig at 17. Tyler Weiman (2000-04) and Carey Price (2003-07) are the other two.
“Starting at 17 is a lot of responsibility, but you look at Price and now Eric, they both had a lot of experience that set them up for big seasons at 17,” Hiller said. “If ever there was a young guy ready for this, it’s Eric. We have been working toward this for a while. The defense is the defense, that didn’t change. We are going to have to find a way to score deeper throughout the lineup. This year we are going to need that more.”
Comrie won his first start last year against Portland, but his second — Spokane’s home opener — was a more humbling experience. He gave up five goals on 16 shots in a 7-2 loss.
“I was new to the league,” Comrie explained. “The speed of the game, the size of the players and where the shots come from was different. It’s all about experience. When you read things as a goalie, things happen at a different pace than they do in juniors.”
Comrie no longer is a fresh-faced rookie, and he’s put in the time and effort needed to earn the starting job.
During the summer, Comrie spent time on the ice, in the weight room, watching video and working on hand-eye coordination. He also worked with an eye doctor on his peripheral vision and depth perception, and did cerebellum training, which helps with his timing, rhythm and attention.
“When you dedicate 7 to 8 hours a day to hockey, you are going to get better,” Comrie said. “It’s not the normal life of a kid.”
The three hours a day he spent watching videos had nothing to do with the new releases on Netflix. He was watching game film.
“I know how teams attack and run their power plays,” he said. “It’s part of being more aware of the game.”
Comrie also spent a considerable amount of time with Americans goalie coach Lyle Mast.
“Lyle and I did a lot of work together this summer,” Comrie said. “I credit him a lot. He’s the best.”
It was Mast who noticed that Comrie was having trouble tracking the puck from a distance.
“He said I should see an eye doctor,” Comrie said.
The doctors at Alberta Sports Vision Institute in Edmonton told Comrie he was nearsighted.
“My vision was not that good,” Comrie said. “I had to get contacts and that’s helped a lot. Now, I see the puck a lot longer. I can see the puck dump in from further out and I can see the puck coming in to me. It looks a lot bigger.”
That’s not good news for the opposition.
Notes: The Americans released forward Brendan Persley on Friday, bringing the roster down to 26 (15 forwards, 9 defensemen, 2 goalies). ... Not available tonight are F Tyson Dallman (concussion) and D Brodie Clowes (shoulder).