I remember the bus driver’s face.
He didn’t even have to say it.
“Boys ... this bus — she ain’t going anywhere today.”
This was the winter of 2018 in Brampton, Ontario. And look, I get it. Buses break down. That’s just part of life in the ECHL, or as we called it: the Coast. But this was our third bus to break down in my first four road trips with the team. I had been drafted by the Senators six years earlier, and at that point, sitting on that bus … it hit me.
I had as many bus breakdowns in the Coast as I did games played in the NHL.
I wasn’t a rookie anymore. This wasn’t my first rodeo in the Coast. I had been going up and down and up and down and up and down more times than you’d even believe. I was an elite luggage packer.
There’s something about the league that has always felt so far away from me.Chris Driedger
But as far as the NHL goes ... I had been up for a couple of cups of coffee, but I hadn’t been able to make it stick. There’s something about the league that has always felt so far away from me. I grew up in Winnipeg, and we didn’t have the Jets back then, so the NHL was almost foreign, in a way. Even when I had been drafted in the third round in 2012, I never really thought I’d make it. I don’t know if that’s a weird attitude to have for a professional athlete, and it’s not like I didn't believe in myself. I just … every time I looked at a depth chart, there were four or five goalies ahead of me. And when you’re riding buses in the Coast, dreaming about the NHL is a good way to make the bus move as slowly as possible.
Being down there, two levels away from the league ... it might seem close if you’re just looking at a glance, but, man — it doesn’t feel like that.
You know that place Leo DiCaprio goes to at the end of Inception? Like the fourth layer of the dream or whatever? Where you can spend thousands of years?
That’s the Coast.
Once you’re down there, anything can happen.
But here’s the thing: Some of my best friends, some of my favorite memories ever — they happened there. I’m thankful to so many of my coaches and teammates that I met on those teams.
What I didn’t tell you about that bus breaking down was that, after the bus driver told us we weren’t going anywhere, all of us cracked up and we just made a day of it. We eventually got where we were going, I’m sure. And I mean, we still got to play hockey for money, you know? Who cares about a bus?
These past few months, since I signed in Seattle, I’ve been thinking about the Coast quite a bit. Thinking about everything it’s taken to get here. I feel so fortunate to be a member of the Kraken, and to get to experience all of this — the building of the franchise — with the great city of Seattle. It’s just a blessing.
From the moment I got here, I’ve seen how badly this city has wanted hockey — had been waiting for hockey. Even during our preseason games, I can just feel it in the air. This is a great sports town. I know what it means to be a hockey-obsessed kid in a city without an NHL team.
And for me?
I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for the Kraken, too.
At the end of the 2018 season, after all the bus breakdowns, I didn’t know what was next for me.
My time with the Senators was over. I had been through just about every level of their farm system, and there was no path forward there. I started to think about Europe, about what could be ahead for me. I’m one of those people who sort of plans for the worst and hopes for the best. I’d invested in some rental properties, hoping that they could be a secondary source of income. I’d had them for a little while at that point, so at the same time that I was riding buses in the minors, I was also a landlord. It was a bit of a weird thing to balance, to be honest. But it was important, because I didn’t know how much longer my hockey career would last.
That summer, I signed a less-than-ideal one-year contract to play for the Panthers’ AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachussetts, slotting in at goalie No. 5 on the depth chart. If you do some math — two goalies in the NHL, two in the AHL — that meant that when everyone was healthy it’d be a one-way ticket back to the Coast.
If you’re a minor league hockey player, and you sign a deal with an organization that didn’t draft you, there’s something that they don’t include in the fine print — but it’s real and it’s important.
You aren’t their guy.
In Ottawa, I was somebody’s guy.
Even when I was in the Coast, I was still Ottawa’s guy.
If I didn’t work out, it was no sweat off of anyone’s back. I wasn’t a black mark on the draft record of the GM.Chris Driedger
They had drafted me, developed me. They’d given me opportunities that I maybe hadn’t always deserved. They’d really wanted me to succeed. And that had almost lured me into this … lackadaisical attitude. I thought I was working hard. But I also knew I wasn’t the hardest working guy. When things wouldn’t go my way, my first response wasn’t to grind even harder. I’d skip voluntary workouts, I’d spend too many nights out with the guys. You can be told to work hard, but you still have to learn to do it, if that makes sense. I didn’t take my career for granted. I just got lost in it, almost.
But with the Panthers, I was just another guy. Nothing was given to me. It’s not that they didn’t treat me well. I have nothing but good things to say about everyone in Springfield, Manchester and Sunrise. But if I didn’t work out, it was no sweat off of anyone’s back. I wasn’t a black mark on the draft record of the GM, or some scout. I was just another prospect who didn’t make it. And trust me when I say that I really felt that.
I knew, deep down, that this was my last chance. And that put me into a mindset I hadn’t been able to find before. I finally realized I had no option but to put my head down, quit complaining and work. I finally found some stillness.
If I was going to get anywhere with the Panthers, I was going to earn it.
In Springfield, I had a really great relationship with my goalie coach, Leo Luongo. (Yep, Lou’s brother.) And I basically told him right off the bat, “Hey, man. Sometimes I get lazy. You need call me out on that right away. Don’t hesitate.” He held me accountable, and that allowed me to do the same with myself. I owe him a lot because he’s one of those guys where you can go out and make 40 saves, but if you let the 41st one in, he’ll go in-depth on how you can stop that one next time. An attitude of always improving — no matter what — was something I hadn’t quite grasped before I started working with Leo.
It was exactly what I needed at that point of my career. Because I ended up getting a bunch of starts toward the end of the 2019 AHL season and I played really well. Leo kept me so focused on just getting better that I didn’t really have a chance to pick up my head and see what I was doing. But next thing I knew I was signing a two-way NHL contract with Florida and … man, the dream was back on. Full-time landlord was going to have to wait.
A few months earlier I had been riding my millionth bus in the Coast, and now I was going to have the chance to challenge for an NHL job next season.
I started the 2019–20 season in Springfield and picked up right where I left off — with a strong start. The Panthers noticed. I got called up in November of 2019 and never looked back.
After three years without a sniff, I was back in the NHL.
All of a sudden, I get to learn from a legend: Sergei Bobrovsky.
Bob is the best. And the guy is also the ultimate pro.
He’s upside down on a yoga mat, he’s on the treadmill, he’s stretching in ways I’ve literally never seen before.Chris Driedger
I remember when I got called up, I’d revamped my daily warmup routine to something much more thorough than what I had been doing previously. I was thinking, I’m going to do all this stretching and be the most prepared goalie in the league.
So I get to the rink, and I’ve got that swagger, you know?
I walk in the locker room, and Bob is deep in his process. He’s been there for what looks like two hours, he’s upside down on a yoga mat, he’s on the treadmill, he’s stretching in ways I’ve literally never seen before. He’s grinding. I couldn’t believe it. I mean … I guess I could. Two Vezinas. But still. And when I finished my routine, he was still going.
That’s Bob. He’s just on another level. The care he has for his craft … that’s what I learned from him.
I ended up getting a few starts and playing pretty well, and I remember him coming up to me after one of them, grabbing me on the shoulder, “You know, Chris, you’re pretty fun to watch. Keep it up man.”
That meant a lot because I was taking his starts, and some goalies can get weird about that. But he was right there for me, cheering me on. It takes a lot of confidence, a lot of maturity to act like that when you’re in his shoes. I’ll carry that with me.
I’ll forever be thankful to him, to Leo — to everyone in the Panthers’ organization.
You guys gave me the chance to do this.
To do it for real.
But I knew it was going to come to an end. My agent informed me I’d be getting some sort of raise next season when I become a UFA. Eyeing up the Panthers goaltending budget, it didn’t seem like there was a whole lot of wiggle room for excess spending. Fair enough.
I had been hearing rumblings about Seattle’s interest throughout the season. It seemed they had their eye on me.
One day the bus is breaking down in Brampton, then I blink and I’m on the phone with Ron Francis negotiating a dealChris Driedger
But my situation was a little weird. I didn’t have a contract for the 2021–22 season, so Seattle traded for the right to negotiate with me on a deal. That negotiation was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of.
One day the bus is breaking down in Brampton, then I blink and I’m on the phone with Ron Francis negotiating a deal with numbers I still can’t wrap my head around.
It sounded like if we waited until free agency I’d have some other options, but we reached agreement on financials and term. And seriously. Given the opportunity to be part of a brand new NHL team in an incredible city ... how could I say no?
This was all before the draft had taken place, so a lot of things were unknown about the Kraken.
And by a lot I mean ... everything.
In the past, when my agent and I would talk about offers — well, actually … let me be honest with you all: If we got an offer in the past … we were signing that thing pretty quick. But hypothetically, if my agent and I had to go over an offer, we might look at things like the average annual value, the length of the contract, the city — all that stuff. And so we’re looking at the offer from Seattle, and we get to the depth-chart portion of our talk, and we pause for a second. He looks at me.
“Ah, well ... you’d be the only player on the team.”
Risky, but what the hell. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Time for a leap of faith.
Chris Driedger, goalie for the SEATTLE KRAKEN.
But, honestly, signing that deal … it meant so much to me. It’s hard for me to put into words what it was like to see my name at the bottom of a three-year NHL contract.
I thought of my parents, Cindy and Kelly. I remember my dad, who didn’t know much about playing goalie, taking notes from the stands at my camps when I was 10 years old so he could be better able to coach me during practice.
I thought of my buddy Liam, who shot tennis balls on me in his driveway when I was six ... my first experience as a goaltender.
I thought about all the goalie coaches over the years, from the WHL to the NHL, who didn’t give up on me. I get choked up thinking about how many people have put so much effort into getting me to where I am.
I’m so grateful, man.
It’s my name on the contract, but it’s really all of ours.
I’m only here because of all the people around me.
The journey took some time, but I believe every step of it was worth it.
And so when I hear people in Seattle say they’ve been waiting years for the Kraken?
I nod my head. I get it.
The organization has been world class. Everyone is all-in on making sure we hit the ground running, and that we’ll be a team that this city can be proud of. We’ve got a great group and I think we’re going to surprise some people this year. I really do. I thought there might be some growing pains, but everything has been incredible so far.
I can’t wait for opening night.
I can’t wait to see you show out, Seattle. It almost feels like Christmas morning, right?
Let’s drop the puck.