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'FRIENDLY BATTLE,' WINNING FORMULA

Thursday, March 7th
'FRIENDLY BATTLE,' WINNING FORMULA

'FRIENDLY BATTLE,' WINNING FORMULA

How Hunter Vorva and Jonathan Lemieux’s friendship is writing the next chapter of Kalamazoo’s rich goaltender history.

By Miles Regan for K-Wings.com

KALAMAZOO, MI – Hockey is known for creating lifelong friendships between teammates. Yet, given the competition and sense of isolation inherent to the goaltender position though, “Best Friends Forever!” isn’t always the case for netminders.

With Kalamazoo’s Jonathan Lemieux and Hunter Vorva however, something just clicks. 

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Lemieux (left) and Vorva (right) after practice in Newfoundland (Photo Credit: Chris Cadeau / K-Wings)

“Feel like where one goes, the other goes,” said Kalamazoo Equipment Manager Austin Dykstra, speaking on the Joey and Chandler-esque relationship between the two. 

Together they make up one of the best batteries in the ECHL and have the K-Wings primed to fight for their first postseason appearance since 2018-19.

THE TALE OF THE TAPE

Like any legendary duo, the pair’s complementary differences are what set them apart. Their roads to Wings Event Center were distinct. 

First, there’s second-year K-Wing, and Kalamazoo native, Hunter Vorva. 

Vorva, 28, made the team on a tryout in 2022 and is settling in nicely in his second pro season. 

“Last year, especially the first half, I came to the rink nervous,” said Vorva. “There was always the chance that I didn’t know if I was going to be sticking around. This year, I know I can be here. Whether that’s playing or chit-chatting with the guys, I can just be myself.”

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Vorva in the ready during a game in Fort. Wayne (Photo Credit: Kimberly Moss / K-Wings)

Hunter being Hunter is paying dividends in 2023-24. At 14-7-0-0 on the year, “Vorvs” ranks fourth in the ECHL in save percentage (.923) and fifth in goals-against average (2.38). 

No. 79 also entered March riding a career-long win streak of 7 games and extended it to 8 with a 17-save shutout of Newfoundland on March 1. Vorva and South Carolina’s Mitchell Gibson are the only ECHL goaltenders with three clean sheets this season.

Then there’s the rook, Jonathan Lemieux. Born in 2001 in Quebec, the 22-year-old is the youngest player on Kalamazoo’s roster and is already making an impact in his first professional season.

“Johnny”, an apt name for the ‘New Kid in Town,’ earned the nod in 29 of Kalamazoo’s first 50 games and is surrendering just 2.89 goals-against per contest. He leads all rookies in saves (874) and now ranks fifth in the ECHL in that category. 

Lemieux also tossed a 39-stop gem in his last outing, securing a 6-3 win on March 3.

Although they possess similarly strong stat lines, the two ‘tenders get it done in different ways. 

“Vorvs is a little unorthodox, but I think that’s what makes him special,” said K-Wings video coach Logan Thorne, when asked about what makes the 5-11, blue catcher’s mitt donner unique. 

“He uses his chest really well and uses his hands a little differently than most goalies.”

Lemieux, an Abbotsford (AHL) product, stands 6-1 and uses his frame to cut down on shooters’ angles. The rookie uses athleticism and posture to stack dazzling saves. 

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Lemieux guarding the crease in Toledo (Photo Credit: Scott Grau / Toledo Walleye)

“Johnny is super athletic and plays big and has got super big posture,” said Thorne.

Each goalie has strengths that the other picks up on. Vorva cites Lemieux’s ability to track the puck while Johnny compliments Hunter’s consistency. During practice, they push each other to get better.

“If I see him having a good day I’ll push myself a little bit more,” Vorva said. “If he can tell I’m having a good day he’ll push himself more. It’s a friendly battle.”

The battle ends when practice does. During games, they backstop a Kalamazoo defense that ranks fourth in the league in goals-against per game (2.77). The K-Wings have given up more than three goals just four times since New Year’s.

The club is 15-7-2-0 in that span thanks to the keepers’ combined efforts, and the two became the only pair of teammates to win ECHL Goaltender of the Week in the same month this season in January.

“They each have their own style and their own habits that work for them,” said Thorne. “They’re both playing really well for us right now.”

UNE LANGUE PARTAGÉE (A SHARED TONGUE)

Johnny and Vorvs are bonded through the shared (by few) experience of willingly standing in front of frozen rubber slung at speeds upward of 100 mph… but also through language.

Lemieux, a native of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, grew up speaking French and is still working his way towards English fluency. 

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Vorva and Lemieux training together after practice (Photo Credit: Chris Cadeau / K-Wings)

Chanceux pour lui (French for ‘lucky for him’), Vorva’s wife, Delphine, is French and the two converse whenever Johnny stops by the house, which is seemingly every day as of late.

“We have a little thing going now where he comes over and we play NHL (video game) a lot, I beat him a lot, and my wife will make us dinner,” Vorva said. “We do a lot of stuff like that. He calls us mom and dad so it’s really fun.”

When hearing this, Lemieux nods assuringly to confirm that he does see Hunter and Delphine as another set of parents. Their relationship has made Johnny’s adjustment to the pro game much easier. 

GEARHEADS, THE LOT OF ‘EM

In addition to video games, the two bond over their shared love of all things goalie gear. That’s where Ritchie Peterson comes in.

Peterson is a longtime K-Wings season ticket holder and does mechanic work on the side. The K-Wings have been sending players with car trouble to Peterson’s for a few years now.

Peterson, a former goalie in his own right, especially likes helping out current K-Wings stoppers.

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Ritchie Peterson, daughter and Joel Martin after jersey auction (Photo Credit: K-Wings)

From second-year head coach and 2021 ECHL Hall of Fame inductee Joel Martin to 2019 Stanley Cup Champion Jordan Binnington to Columbus Blue Jackets up-and-comer Jet Greaves, Ritchie knows Kalamazoo’s rich goaltender history and loves to talk shop with the ‘tendys. 

“It’s great to see ‘em and see how they progress and go places,” said Peterson. “Even Joel retiring (and becoming head coach), it’s just awesome to watch him fulfill dreams and then I fulfill my dreams by watching hockey.”

Whenever a netminder drops by, they are treated to a tour of Peterson’s massive equipment collection. 

For a couple of gearheads like Johnny and Vorvs, it’s almost heaven.

“I’ve had some issues with my car,” Lemieux said. “So, we kind of had to go there at some point and Ritchie’s been great to us. 

“I thought I loved goalie gear, then I met this weirdo (Vorva) and Ritchie… and oh my god those two… it’s fun. Just to hear everything they have to say about goalie gear. Austin (Dykstra) might not be too happy but at least we think it’s funny.” 

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Vorva breaking in gear (Photo Credit: Kimberly Moss / K-Wings)

Much to Dykstra’s chagrin, Lemieux’s 2012 Mazda M3 continues to “have problems”, and the equipment room continues to fill with gear the rookie brings back from Peterson’s.

The legitimacy of the car issues aside, the relationship between Lemieux and Vorva is genuine and forged through a shared vocation, language, love of gear, and love of the game.

Their bond is something that Kalamazoo may need to rely on as the team preps for a playoff push. Given Lemieux and Vorva’s tandem, the K-Wings can place immense trust in the crease... no matter who mans it. 

“They’re just great guys,” said Peterson. “Two teammates that play for each other and support each other.”

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‘Mascot Madness’ takes over Wings Event Center on Sunday, March 10! It’s that time of year, again, as Slappy, the K-Wings' iconic mascot, is inviting his friends for “Mascot Madness”! Don’t miss Mascot broomball, as it’s primed to be a must-see during the intermission. And to make the game more special for Slappy, stick around afterward for a post-game skate with Slappy and the players (*$5 skate rentals available).

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The Kalamazoo Wings are a professional hockey team located in southwest Michigan that has been a staple in the Kalamazoo, MI professional sports landscape since 1974. The K-Wings compete in the ECHL and are the AA affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks and the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Canucks. Kalamazoo plays their 36 regular season home games at Wings Event Center from October through April.

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