By Phil Stacey
It is 1,453 miles west from his previous location in Canada that Cory Schneider will be taking his hockey talents this upcoming season.
Not that there was anything wrong with that previous spot; Schneider spent three very productive, enjoyable years in Winnipeg playing goal for the Manitoba Moose and, aside from the region's brutally cold winters, doesn't have a bad thing to say about it.
But now the Marblehead native is ready to take the next step in his pro hockey journey — for good.
Schneider arrived in Vancouver on Friday to get ready for the start of the Canucks' training camp that begins next week. The 24-year-old is ready to stick with the National Hockey League organization that drafted him the first round (26th overall) six years ago.
"It's my fourth year (at training camp); no surprises or excuses now," said Schneider, who is expected to make Vancouver's roster and serve as the backup goaltender to all-star Roberto Luongo for the 2010-11 season.
"I know what I'm up against and what I have to do: Lock that spot down and don't leave any doubt."
There is security for Schneider that he hasn't had in the past in the form of a one-way contract, meaning he can't be sent down to the Canucks' AHL franchise in Manitoba if he doesn't make the big-league team. (In that unlikely scenario, Vancouver would have to place Schneider on waivers and risk losing him to another NHL team while getting nothing in return.)
As a restricted free agent at the end of last season, where he won 35 games with the Manitoba Moose with a 2.51 goals-against average and .919 save percentage, Schneider and the Canucks were able to work out a deal quickly to keep the keeper in the organization for another two years, where he'll bank $900,000 per season.
Having spent last week skating with other pros in Minnesota at a camp run by his agency, Octagon, Schneider is ready for the challenge that lies ahead of him in Vancouver.
"The contract is nice and a vote of confidence that the team wants me here, but I still have to perform," Schneider said. "There's a little more comfort and a little bit of security, but nothing's a given. I still have to prove I belong and earn myself some playing time."
Helping when needed
After losing in the Western Conference semifinals to the Chicago Blackhawks in each of the past two seasons, the Canucks have taken the steps they feel are necessary to rise above that and, hopefully, win the organization its first-ever Stanley Cup this season.
The two-time defending Northwest Division champions got grittier on defense with the additions of Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, and have a bevy of scoring talent upfront, including the NHL's reigning Hart Trophy winner, Henrik Sedin; his twin brother, Daniel; and other stalwarts such as Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson.
Many feel that part of the reason for Vancouver flaming out in the postseason is that Luongo, the team's captain who almost never sits out a regular season game, is gassed come the rigors of playoff hockey. The club is hoping that Schneider can lessen Luongo's load by playing 20-25 games, thus keeping their franchise netminder fresh come April.
"Last year, 'Louie' played (68) regular season games, plus the Olympics for Team Canada and all of the playoffs," said Schneider, who will wear a new mask adorned with various Canucks logos from throughout the organization's 41-year history. "I know they want to limit his games played this season — and that's where I come in.
"It's a different dynamic, being a backup when you're accustomed to playing a lot of games," added the former Phillips Andover and Boston College star. "It's a learning process for me, playing once a week or every five to six games. But that's my job, and I have to win those games that I play. I can't blame rust or lack of action for any poor showings."
With only 10 games of NHL experience over the past two seasons, Schneider realizes this is all part of the learning process and his getting comfortable at the world's highest level of hockey. Rather than join the team on an emergency basis after an injury to Luongo (as happened the last two years) or coming up to join the Canucks as a "Black Ace" practice player during the playoffs, a good training camp will cement Schneider's spot as a major leaguer and thus make him that much more comfortable at that level.
"Making the team and going to practice every day, getting accustomed to the NHL lifestyle, and earning the trust of my teammates, coaches and management goes a long way toward helping my confidence," Schneider said. "It's time for me to take that step."
With his short, bright red hair and beginnings of a beard, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Schneider could pass for one of the Sedin twins. But while the low-key keeper is recognized virtually everywhere he goes in hockey-mad Canada, it's not quite at that level when he's back home.
It was a low-key summer for Schneider, who worked on his golf game at such local layouts as Tedesco Country Club, Beverly Golf & Tennis, The Meadow at Peabody and Gannon in Lynn. He also took his final two classes at BC to earn all of his credits and should be getting his degree in finance any day now. He also relaxed with friends and family (his parents recently moved across town lines to Swampscott) and continues to pick away at his guitar.
To stay sharp, Schneider also got onto the ice beginning in mid-June and worked with his goalie coach, the renowned Brian Daccord, to hone his game. He also faced live shots in shootarounds and scrimmages while facing local pros in preparing for this coming season.
He realizes that signing his team with the Canucks early (June 2) was good for both him and the team. As someone who follows the comings and goings of his fellow goaltenders with a keen eye, Schneider is aware that players with more grandiose NHL pedigrees than he — Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi, for example, or former NHL MVP Jose Theodore — are still without jobs.
"I'm familiar with the organization, and they're familiar with me. I'm glad I signed early and didn't have to play the waiting game," he said. "Now I've got the chance to play behind a great team and learn from one of the world's best in Roberto. With only 60 (NHL) jobs available, I'm happy with the deal I got and the position that I'm in."
His goals for this upcoming season are simple. "Obviously, I want to make the team," Schneider said, "and establish myself in the league by playing well enough that I can be a National Hockey League player.
"I'd also like to help us win a Stanley Cup. This team has positioned itself to be in a very good spot this year; I feel we've gotten stronger while some other top teams like Chicago and San Jose have lost guys. If I can play 20 games and help them by winning 12-15 of them, or if I have to carry the mail if Roberto goes out, I'm ready to do that."