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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Through Hil and High Water

Tuesday, June 15th
BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Through Hil and High Water

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW:  Through Hil and High Water

Blog #40 – June 15, 2021

By: John Peterson

The hockey world is very, very small. How small? Take Jake Hildebrand for example.

Last week, the 27-year-old goaltender won the Warrior Hockey/ECHL Goaltender of the Year Award. The week prior, he was selected to the All-ECHL First Team.

One year ago, Hildebrand re-signed with the Kalamazoo Wings for a third season with the club. Coming off back-to-back seasons where he led the team in minutes, saves and wins, Hildebrand was ready to build off of some of his successes and take the next step in his career.

We had Hildebrand on our ninth episode of “Just Wingin’ It” back in June 2020 and I asked him how much longer he wanted to play.

“I try to take it year by year,” said Hildebrand. “I try not to say that I want to play for five more years and then have that mindset. Do I still love it? Obviously I do right now. Can my body still do it? I think the answer is yes.”

The results agree.

When Kalamazoo opted out of the 2020-21 season, all the players who had signed with the K-Wings became free agents. Opportunities were hard to come by, especially for goaltenders in a league with 12 fewer teams than usual.

Eventually the Florida Everblades came calling. The perennial power in the South Division had a sudden need for an experienced goalie and reached out to Hildebrand on Jan. 12.

The rest is history. The Butler, Pennsylvania native went 23-10-5, tied for the league-lead in wins, finished third with a .923 save percentage and fourth with a 2.40 goals-against average.

Determined in a vote by ECHL coaches, broadcasters, media relations directors and media members, Hildebrand received the league’s top honor for goaltenders last week.

The storybook season, however, didn’t end in a championship as the Everblades were stunned by the South Carolina Stingrays in a deciding game five of their first round series Monday.

But what made this season so impressive is how he got here. His career hasn’t been all puppies and roses and unicorns. He’s been on a few teams that missed the playoffs, suffered some occasional injuries, and once or twice heard boos from his own team’s fans. Those things come with the position.

To get a better idea for how small the hockey world is, here’s how I got to know the man behind the mask. I always knew he could do it.

HIGHLIGHTS AND HARDWARE

The first time I saw Jake Hildebrand play was Feb. 26, 2015. The irony is, I actually went to the game to see another goaltender start in net for my hometown team.

That year I was broadcasting for the Austin (Minn.) Bruins of the North American Hockey League, the team Jake Kielly backstopped to the finals. One of the Bruins’ alumni, Nick Lehr was scheduled to start in net for the Minnesota Golden Gophers against the Michigan State Spartans at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. I just happened to have tickets to the game.

I grew up going to Gophers games. A friend of my dad’s had season tickets and that meant I’d get to attend a handful of games every year. It was a different perspective watching the freshman Lehr, who led Austin to the finals the previous year, attempt to win his first college game at Minnesota.

Across the way was Hildebrand, a long-haired, athletic junior tasked with slowing down a high-powered Gophers attack. The Spartans weren’t very good that season. MSU was coming off two straight losing seasons and was in danger of making it a third.

Michigan State jumped out to a 3-1 first period lead, but the Gophers prevailed 5-3 at the final horn. Hildebrand saw 42 shots and turned away 37. Having never heard of him before then, based on that performance alone, I could tell he was good.

Hildebrand, a four-year starter in East Lansing, finished his best collegiate season that year 17-16-2 with a .930 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average. Really good numbers for a team that narrowly avoided another losing season. The junior goalie played in all 35 games.

The next time I saw him play, I was broadcasting the game. Hildebrand had just finished his senior season at MSU and signed his first pro contract with the ECHL’s Allen Americans late in 2015-16. I traveled to Allen during the final week of the season as the voice of the Evansville IceMen.

Hildebrand started twice that week for the playoff-bound Americans, backstopping a 7-4 win on April 6, 2016 and a 3-2 shootout win over the IceMen in the season finale April 9.

Two months later, Hildebrand and the Americans celebrated Allen’s second straight Kelly Cup championship. How about that for a start to your pro career?

That summer I left Evansville for Tulsa. The IceMen suspended operations ahead of the 2016-17 season (eventually relocating to Jacksonville) and I looked for an opportunity to continue broadcasting without a gap.

Hildebrand signed an AHL contract with the Rockford IceHogs that summer and eventually found his way to their ECHL affiliate, the Indy Fuel. The Oilers traveled to Indianapolis in October for an early-season battle against the Fuel. Hildebrand and Tulsa’s Jamie Phillips (a Michigan Tech alum) went toe-to-toe in one of the better goaltending duels of the season.

The Oilers won the game, but both teams struggled through the course of the season. Tulsa had all kinds of injury problems, shuffling through a goaltending carousel that never had answer, and fell into an early off-season. Hildebrand appeared in a career-best 47 games for a subpar Fuel team that also missed the postseason. Had it not been for his 18-21-5 record and .899 save percentage that year, things could have been much uglier for Indy in 2016-17.

The following summer, Hildebrand signed with the Oilers as a free agent to become Tulsa’s starter. The first time I met him was day one of training camp. Now we were part of the same team.

TWICE TEAMMATES

The 2017-18 season had its challenges, to say the least.

Hildebrand had his ups and downs on the ice in 44 appearances. He’d be the first to tell you that. But statistically, he posted the best full-season save percentage and goals-against average of his pro career (until the 2021-22 season in Florida, that is).

The second-year goaltender split time in net with talented rookie Devin Williams. The two thrived off of each other and led the Oilers from the division cellar to an outside chance at a playoff spot entering the final weekend of the season.

That team rallied around great leadership in the locker room and bonded over things completely out of their control, such as a litany of travel issues that soured the mood early and often.

One memory that sticks out from that season is a mammoth road trip that spanned three weeks, hitting five cities for nine games without touching home base. The last leg of the trip took us to Boise, Idaho on a rickety old bus for three games against the Steelheads. Hildebrand stopped 40 of 43 shots in the first game of the series, a 4-3 loss.

Two nights later, he put together one of the greatest goaltending performances I’ve witnessed first-hand. Hildebrand turned away 46 of 47 Steelheads shots in a raucous environment, including five or six ridiculous, highlight-reel saves, leading Tulsa to a 4-1 win.

However, as the season went on and he showed any signs of weakness, some of the fans appeared to give Hildebrand the “unappreciated starter” treatment and Williams the “backup quarterback” treatment. This isn’t the fault of either goalie. Both are class-acts, tremendous people, and played well enough to share the net. But as an observer, at least to the rowdier section of the crowd, Williams was the fan-favorite.

During a game late in the season, Hildebrand was pulled after allowing three goals. He received boos from the home crowd seemingly from the get-go, but when the hook was made and Williams came into the game, the response was more of a mock cheer. I even expressed my disappointment about the reaction on that night’s broadcast.

Following the season, Tulsa traded Hildebrand’s rights to Kalamazoo for scrappy forward Scott Henegar. The trade seemed to work out for both players and teams, as the K-Wings and Oilers qualified for the playoffs the next year.

While he’s cautious to ever say anything negative about any team or situation, it is clear Hildebrand was happy to be back in Michigan where he played his college hockey. He has always talked glowingly about the K-Wings organization and coaching staff, including in our aforementioned “Just Wingin’ It” conversation, which you can watch in full here.

During the 2018-19 campaign, Hildebrand started 46 games for Kalamazoo en route to the Kelly Cup Playoffs, where the K-Wings gave a powerhouse Cincinnati Cyclones team everything they could handle in the first round. One of the highlights from that series was Hildebrand’s shutout in game two at U.S. Bank Arena.

I even had a chance to catch up with him at the BOK Center in April when Kalamazoo visited Tulsa during the final week of the season. He had only good things to say about his new home.

That summer, I decided to make a change. Newly married and looking to move closer to our families in the Midwest, I explored my options. The K-Wings needed a new broadcaster and some of my peers filled me in on the Kalamazoo’s many qualities, including the organization, the town, the coaching staff and the fans. It was a no-brainer.

Weeks before the news was made public, I received this random text:

“Is a congrats in order?”

It was Hildebrand. I didn’t even know he had re-signed for a second season in Kalamazoo, but it sure looked like we were a part of the same team again. Ironically enough, it ended up being a tandem of goalie reunions in 2019-20. Vancouver prospect Jake Kielly, who starred on that Austin junior team five years earlier was also assigned to the K-Wings.

The hockey world is very, very small.

POSSIBLE RETURN?

Although Florida’s playoff run ended earlier than they would have liked, nobody will be able to take away what Hildebrand accomplished in 2020-21 down in southwest Florida.

The veteran goaltender, who turns 28 this Saturday, joined a team desperate for goaltending help one month into the regular season and led the Everblades to the Brabham Cup, posting career-best numbers in the process.

He deservedly won ECHL Goaltender of the Week honors multiple times during the year and also took home the Goaltender of the Year award.

That leads me to the upcoming off-season.

As voted on by the ECHL’s Board of Governors, the playing rights of all players who had signed a contract with a team that eventually opted out of the 2020-21 season will revert back to the original team.

Since Hildebrand signed on for a third season in Kalamazoo last summer, the K-Wings can include him on their initial protected list and season-ending roster. Assuming the coaching staff decides to issue the goaltender one of their eight qualifying offers, Kalamazoo will also have the negotiating rights to re-sign Hildebrand for the 2021-22 season.

Here’s where things could get interesting. According to league rules, all veteran players (260 regular season games played at the ECHL level or higher) and veteran goalies (180 regular season games at the ECHL level or higher) are eligible to become restricted free agents by a certain deadline date (TBD).

Those veteran players and goalies are restricted free agents for two weeks. If they sign a contract with any other ECHL team in that time frame, the original team with the player’s rights has one week to match the offer. If the player or goalie does not sign an offer sheet in that two-week window, they become an unrestricted free agent and can play anywhere. This means the qualifying offer is essentially meaningless for veterans if they decide to wait it out.

The reason I bring this up is to point out that Kalamazoo will regain Hildebrand’s rights at the end of the playoffs and will be able to negotiate a contract at that time. If he remains unsigned by July 16, the team can use one of their eight qualifying offers to buy some time, but since he’s a veteran goalie, Hildebrand ultimately will be able to decide where he plays next season.

Knowing Jake like I do, he’s genuine when he says he loves Kalamazoo, the organization, the coaching staff and the fans. He was excited and ready to return for a third season in a K-Wings uniform last summer. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he comes back to southwest Michigan.

But he may want to finish what he started in Florida or explore other opportunities, and that’s okay. As a veteran goalie, he deserves to take some time to weigh his options.

It would be fun to welcome the reigning Goaltender of the Year back to Wings Event Center if he’s back in the K-Wings crease next season.

Wherever Hildebrand ends up, I’m sure we’ll see a more of those familiar saves on the highlight reel. Maybe we’ll see some in person. Who knows? The hockey world is small.

--

Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to jpeterson@kwings.com. Enjoy!

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