From an open tryout into the great wide open of a possible NHL career.
Very few can say for certainty who among the much-ballyhooed goalies in the NHL draft class of 2012 will pan out, but none have had the arc of Anthony Stolarz over the past 10 months. Last summer, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound native of Jackson, N.J., was searching frantically for a place to play goal. The Jersey kid ended up getting it down near the Gulf of Mexico with the North American Hockey League's Corpus Christi IceRays.
"From last summer until now, it's been a complete 180," says Stolarz, who was NHL Central Scouting's fourth-ranked North American goalie in April after being ranked 21st at midseason. "I'm so grateful for it, a lot has changed in a year. I just have to attribute that to hard work."
Stolarz could not have pictured this a year ago.
"Last summer, I was still searching for a team — I was cut from two Eastern Junior Hockey League teams," he says. "I got recommended by my summer coaches to Corpus Christi. Went to an open camp in Albany, New York. Anyone could come. Got invited to the main camp, made the team from there. I got an opportunity to play and got noticed."
Stolarz ended up playing 50 games for the IceRays, posting a 2.84 average and .920 save percentage while logging a heavy workload for a draft-year goalie. His potential is self-evident. He's from a family of tall people ("it's something I was blessed with"), where his dad John is 6-foot-4 and mom Karol is 5-11. He's also more solidly built, almost like a football tight end or wide receiver, than many string-bean teen puck-stoppers.
"The kid's huge, the kid's huge," says Al Jensen, NHL Central Scouting's goaltending scout. "And he's got that drive and determination. He's aggressive, great athleticism and quickness. He's got the tools that could someday get him there. He's already got some of that stuff. Maybe four or five or six years down the road, the kid might be something."
So why did it take the 18-year-old Stolarz, who's hoping the improve his quickness and recovery speed next season with the NCAA's Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, so long to get noticed?
Stolarz, who's had some major junior interest in Canada, theorizes that he took a road less travelled. He played for a Junior B team as a 17-year-old rather than remain in AAA youth hockey.
"It could have been that I really wasn't exposed as much as other players," he says. "I played in the Empire Junior B Hockey League last year. A lot of players played Triple-A right until their age-18 year. I took the Junior B route instead of the midget route and maybe with it being the Junior B league, maybe I got overlooked."
'Fire in his eyes'
Plus he was largely self-taught. One of the most endearing background bits with Stolarz is that his goalie mentor has largely been his older brother, Todd Stolarz.
"He was a big part of it. I could never afford to have an actual goalie coach. This year, he and my dad watched FASThockey [a webcasting company] all the time to help me out."
It took time for many observers to notice Stolarz this season since he was on a team based about 350 km south of Houston, not exactly a prime destination for scouts who prefer to see several games during one trip. Jensen was sold after he watched Stolarz bear down under pressure in a NAHL showcase event in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
"He's got fire in his eyes," Jensen says. "There's just huge upside to this kid."
After he and his family's wait for an opportunity, Stolarz wasn't about to let a chance slip away. He knows better than most how it can be fleeting.
"My mental toughness is what I pride myself on. I think I get that from my parents. They kept encouraging me to keep working hard and never give up. Last season I could have folded it in and said I couldn't find a place to play and stayed home."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.