By Bill Hoppe
Greater Niagara Newspapers
Yeah, Nathan Lieuwen thought the worst. The Buffalo Sabres goalie prospect is only human, you know. He knew the two scary concussions that had derailed his promising junior hockey career could potentially force him to retire as teenager.
“It crossed my mind,” Lieuwen, the 167th pick by the Sabres in June, acknowledged earlier this month at the team’s development camp at Dwyer Arena. “When you’re injured that much and that stuff is going on, you think, ‘Well?’”
Well, Lieuwen finally stayed healthy last season and played dynamically. He sizzled during the Western Hockey League playoffs, backstopping the underdog Kootenay Ice to a championship and a Memorial Cup berth.
“He’s the backbone of our team,” said Sabres defense prospect Brayden McNabb, Lieuwen’s Ice teammate.
In becoming arguably the league’s best goalie and a legitimate prospect again, Lieuwen, who had been bypassed in the last two drafts, starting getting noticed by NHL scouts.
When the Sabres called to inform him they had selected him in the sixth round, it was an emotional moment the 19-year-old once believed he might never experience.
“Getting that phone call was special for me,” Lieuwen said. “To go through all that I’ve been through and make it through, this is what I always wanted, right? To finally be here is exciting.”
An undisclosed injury kept Lieuwen from participating in drills at camp. That hasn’t spoiled his first small taste of NHL life, however.
“Everything that’s gone on, I’ve definitely wanted and worked hard to get here,” Lieuwen said. “I learned a lot along the way, and I think that only made me better.”
Lieuwen’s troubles began as a rookie 2007-08, when he was concussed in a one-car accident. Once he recovered, he lost his backup job and was demoted. He played only three WHL games.
A year later, after starting the first half of the season, Lieuwen sustained a concussion in January and missed the rest of the year.
“I couldn’t really be frustrated at anything except for the fact I was hurt or whatever,” Lieuwen said. “In my mind, there are no excuses. That’s just the way it went.”
Still, Lieuwen suffered. In addition to headaches, the constant uncertainty dogged him.
“I wanted to break out of it more than anything,” Lieuwen said. “You just wonder what life has in store for you.”
It turned out life had another scare for him.
Lieuwen, 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds, was hit again when he returned in 2009-10, suffered a neck sprain and sat a month. His doctor told him that if it had been a concussion, he should’ve considered retirement.
“The doctors were worried that it was another concussion, and in that case, if it was, there would be more cause for concern,” Lieuwen said. “It turned out it wasn’t so I came back. But I had already lost my job.”
Lieuwen got it back, though. He started all last season, going 33-16-4 with a 2.79 goals-against average and .903 save percentage in 55 games.
“I feel back to normal,” Lieuwen said. “I honestly feel like I’ve healed up pretty good. I’ve been knocked around pretty good a few times. I got knocked out this year and feel fine.”
Then Lieuwen’s incredible postseason — 16-2-1, 2.24, .923, three shutouts — really put him on the map.
“If he wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have won,” McNabb said. “He was phenomenal. He bailed us out numerous times. You can’t say enough about his play.”
Was Lieuwen in the zone during the playoffs?
“That’s exactly the way I would put it,” he said.
Kevin Devine, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting, said Lieuwen’s MVP performance in the WHL final against the Portland Winterhawks caught the team’s eye.
Rob Niedermayer, a Sabre forward last season, is a co-owner of the Ice, and he also recommended Lieuwen to general manager Darcy Regier.
“We thought we’d take a chance on him in the sixth round,” Devine said.
Lieuwen’s concussion history doesn’t worry Devine.
“With a player playing the goalie position, it’s really a fluke,” Devine said. “You don’t see too many happen with goaltenders. That wasn’t really a consideration there. We just thought that he’s probably a little bit undervalued in the sixth round.”
Lieuwen, who turns 20 years old next month, can play in the AHL in 2011-12, although he’ll likely return to junior for his overage season. Despite being in the WHL parts of five years, he’s only played 122 regular-season games.
“He could use probably one more year back there,” Devine said. “That’s probably our plan for him right now unless he knocks our socks off in training camp.”
Another year in junior will allow Lieuwen to get back some of what he missed earlier.
“Taking those extra years is fine,” Lieuwen said, “as long as I’m ready to go when it’s time.”