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Firebirds' Driedger takes nothing for granted |

Patrick Features Writer

It was May 29, 2022. Tampere, Finland. The IIHF World Championship gold medal game pits two hockey heavyweights, Canada and Finland, in front of a roaring crowd at Nokia Arena. TSN and the NHL Network brought the game back to viewers in North America.

“Finland fans, they come to play,” he said Chris DriedgerCanada that night.

Driedger has come a long way to earn this opportunity, at this stage. The Winnipeg native was a third-round pick by the Ottawa Senators and spent four seasons in the organization playing for four ECHL teams and two AHL clubs (Binghamton, Belleville) – in addition to three NHL appearances with the big club.

“Ottawa taught me a lot, and I made a lot of progress in that organization,” said Driedger, “but it ended up being unintended.”

He began the 2018–19 season on an AHL contract with the Springfield Thunderbirds, spending most of the first part of the season returning to the ECHL.

“I took the scenic route,” he laughed. “My habits weren't where they needed to be to get me to the NHL.”

On Dec. 29, 2018, Florida traded Thunderbirds goaltender Michael Hutchinson to Toronto. Driedger was also called by Springfield to share the crease with him Sam Montembeault, and by late February he had secured an NHL contract with the Panthers. At the end of the season Driedger signed a two-year extension with the Panthers, and returned to the NHL in 2019-20, going 7-2-1 with a 2.05 GAA and a .938 save percentage in 12 appearances. He spent the entire 2020-21 campaign with Florida, making two starts in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Driedger caught the attention of the Seattle Kraken, who selected him in the 2021 summer expansion program, and Hockey Canada, who named him to the national team for the World Championships in 2022.

“It was very special,” Driedger said. “This was my first chance to wear the maple leaf and represent Canada, so it was a dream come true.”

And on that May night in Tampere, he had a chance to win a gold medal.

Canada had taken a 1-0 lead into the third period, but now Finland was starting a 5-on-3 power play. When they faced each other inside the Canadian zone, a powerful shot from the right missed the net and went off the boards to Mikael Granlund below the left circle. From a sharp angle, Granlund hit a loose puck as Driedger moved to move his 6-foot-4 frame to the crease. As Driedger did, he went for a near perfect breakup as Granlund's shot just eluded his extended right blocker.

Driedger's right knee took a lot of force. As Finland celebrated, Driedger was prone on the ice before limping to the bench.

“That was the moment I heard the fans going bananas,” recalls Driedger, “and I said, 'What's going on with my knee right now?'”

Driedger's night is over. He could only watch as Finland built a 3-1 lead, as Canada scored two goals in his place Matt Tomkins an extra attacker was ejected to force overtime, and in the end as the Finns won the gold on another power play goal in OT.

A week later came the surgery. The Kraken have issued an announcement: It will take a long time to recover. Seven to nine months.

But the goalkeeper coach Steve Brierewho had joined the Seattle organization shortly after Driedger's injury, immediately offered some advice.

“'You don't really get a chance to rest [from] hockey,'” Driedger remembers Briere saying. “'It's nine months of recovery. Maybe take the first two months off and do other things.'”

So did Driedger.

“It was an opportunity to take a step back and refocus,” Driedger said. “That was good. It was a good time to read, focus on other things, get outside, and take deep breaths. When I was ready to start swinging again, I missed a bit.

“It was a good exercise… I don't think many players will do it [it] because our season is very long. I took some time, watched a lot of video, and was lucky enough to have a lot of time with Steve in Seattle just working on little tweaks and getting myself back to where I needed to be. It was a great opportunity to look at things from a different perspective and get mentally clear and just sharpen my game. “

Driedger finally returned to game action on Feb. 27, 2023. It was a long way from Finland; it was a regular season and expansion game for the Coachella Valley Firebirds, Seattle's new AHL affiliate in the southern desert of California. He stopped 30 shots in a 4-3 overtime win over the San Jose Barracuda.

Driedger would look good (9-4-0, 2.61, .908) over his 14 regular-season appearances before backing up Joey Daccord through the Firebirds newsletter run to the Calder Cup Finals. And with Daccord emerging as the Kraken's starting goaltender this season, Driedger returned to the Coachella Valley and led them to a Pacific Division title — and now another trip to the Western Conference Finals.

As the Firebirds struggled early in the 2023-24 season, Driedger held them in games until the rest of the lineup found its form. And the biggest payoff for all that rebuilding work, pressure and uncertainty came on Dec. 27, 2023, when the Kraken visited Calgary — where Driedger played three seasons of junior hockey and still spends his free time. That morning he found out that the Seattle net was his for the night.

Driedger's coins from his WHL days were at the Scotiabank Saddledome that night to see his first NHL appearance since May 1, 2022. He made 37 saves to lead the Kraken past the Flames to a 2-game victory. -1.

“It was very special,” Driedger said. “I know that building. I have played many games in that building. That was a really special day. My confidence was good, and I came back. To come in, play well, and help the team win was a great feeling.”

The following week he dressed as the Kraken to host the NHL Winter Classic. He started again on Jan. 16, at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. But Driedger's season has been largely spent with the Firebirds where he's shown he can handle a tough post-injury workload, playing in 39 games and going 24-7-7 with four shutouts, finishing fourth in the AHL with a 2.26 GAA and a .917 save percentage. .

Coachella Valley is a club with serious Calder Cup programs. After reaching the championship game last year, they matched their 103-point output in the regular season and went 6-1 in eliminating Calgary and Ontario in their first two rounds. Driedger has a 2.39 GAA and a .921 save percentage in the postseason, including a shutout of the Wranglers on May 10.

Where all this may go remains to be seen. But the Firebirds are now four wins into their second straight conference championship, and eight wins apart from the Calder Cup that eluded them last year. And it already means a lot of desert sun and time together for a tight-knit group of teammates. For Driedger, who has faced the hardships that hockey can throw at a player, he does not ignore the importance of these moments.

Driedger would have turned 30 on Saturday. This is his 10th season. He doesn't take it for granted.

I always tell the boys, 'Boys, if you look back at the good times, we're in them now.' features writer Patrick Williams has covered the American Hockey League for nearly two decades at outlets including, Sportsnet, TSN, Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM ! Sports, and most recently was the host of The Hockey News On The 'A' podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL's James H. Ellery Memorial Award for the league's top scorer in 2016.

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