Comfortable in the Crease

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Updated: November 18, 2016

On November 26th, 2013, freshman goaltender Mitch Gillam took the ice in front of Lynah Faithful for the first time in his collegiate career. Cornell’s star netminder, senior Andy Iles, received a well-deserved break by head coach Mike Schafer following 80 consecutive starts. In his place stood the six-foot tall, 180-pound, 21-year-old rookie from Peterborough, Ontario.

“It was a big deal for me just to hop in the net and play,” explained Gillam. “I was frustrated at the time because I hadn’t played in a while, and I was used to playing 50-60 games each year before coming to Cornell. I just wanted to give it my all.”

No one, not even Gillam, predicted the outcome of this debut. After compiling 24 saves in what appeared to be a 3-2 victory over the Purple Eagles with 8.6 seconds remaining in the third period, he accomplished a feat done by no other goalie in program history.

Niagara pulled its goaltender, hoping for a last-minute score to even the game. With the clock winding down, Cole Bardreau fanned the puck on a clearing attempt along the side of the boards in the Big Red zone. To the right of Gillam, an opposing forward seized the puck and fired a soft shot into his glove. He quickly dropped the puck to his left and skated away from the crease looking to clear it and secure the win.

“I just looked up and shot the puck right down the middle of the ice toward the net,” described Gillam. “Suddenly, I was watching it go into the net, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my god. This is actually happening. I did it.’ It was a blur. I blacked out for a second, but I remember immediately raising my hands in the air.”

In front of nearly 4,000 Cornell fans, Gillam registered one of the most memorable first games in college sports history. He became only the eighth-ever goalie in NCAA Division I hockey to score a goal, firing the puck 175 feet into the vacated opposing net. This heads-up play clinched the Big Red victory, making it 4-2.

“I think the Niagara coach was trying to give me a penalty just because I crossed the red line,” joked Gillam. “The ref was like, ‘I’m not giving him a penalty. Did you just see that?’ It was a great experience.”

All of Cornell Hockey Nation saw it – the team’s future starting goalie introducing himself in incredible fashion.

Now, beginning his senior season with the Big Red, Gillam posted a goals against average of 1.95, a save percentage of .931, and eight total shutouts in two years since that epic moment. He registered seven shutouts as a junior, which is tied for the third-most in one season in Cornell history, and recorded the third-longest program shutout streak at 213 minutes and 17 seconds. Gillam earned All-Ivy League Second Team honors in 2014-15 and received the Nicky Bawlf Award at last year’s season-ending banquet as the squad’s Most Valuable Player.

“It was exciting to get an MVP award, and, I know this sounds cliché, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” said Gillam. “They made some huge blocks in situations where I might have given up a goal because I’m out of position a little bit or the other team makes a great play. They bailed me out more than a couple times, so it’s great to get the hardware, but it’s a team effort.”

Gillam didn’t start his hockey career as a goalie. Instead, he began playing as a defenseman at six years old in Tykes. However, Gillam tried out for his first travel team in the minor hockey system at the AAA level, which represents the highest-caliber hockey at that age. In danger of getting cut, Gillam asked the coach if he could play a different position. Ultimately, he made the team as a goaltender and remained in the net ever since.

“I was too fat and too slow, so I decided to hop in the net,” stated Gillam. “I couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game. I would always hook people, and I was always in the box, so I switched to being a goalie.”

His older brother, Josh, also played an important role in Gillam’s development. Josh forced him into the net, so the forward could have someone to shoot on at home. Gillam’s brother was a highly touted prospect in Junior hockey and high school lacrosse, eventually committing to play both sports at Dartmouth. Following a successful career for the Big Green, Josh currently suits up for the Rochester Knighthawks in the National Lacrosse League and owns a gym – Hybrid Fitness Health Performance – in Peterborough, where Gillam works out during the summer.

“Josh and I have been best buds since day one, just going back and forth supporting each other,” discussed Gillam. “He’s been a big part of my success as a goalie. Even just from shooting in the driveway to now training me, it’s been a good ride for him and me.”

Gillam continued through the ranks as a standout netminder. He attended Berkshire Prep School for both his junior and senior years before joining the Chilliwack Chiefs of the British Columbia Hockey League. The Chiefs organization named Gillam Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Most Valuable Player in both 2011-12 and 2012-13. In his last year, he posted an overall record of 27-18-1, a goals against average of 2.53, and a save percentage of .928 to receive BCHL First Team All-Star honors and the Vern Dye Memorial Trophy for the Coastal Conference’s Most Valuable Player.

Former Big Red Assistant Coach Topher Scott and present Associate Head Coach Ben Syer recruited Gillam to Cornell. He first witnessed the power of academics in prep school and saw the appeal of NCAA Division I hockey. Although many great players in Canada decide to skip college in favor of pursuing a professional career by entering the Ontario Hockey League, Gillam dreamed of playing college hockey.

“When you come here, you understand that academics are a top priority for your future, so you might as well get both in one basket,” expressed Gillam. “The schooling is bar none and the atmosphere of the rink is amazing. Coming to an Ivy League school is a dream of mine since my brother went to Dartmouth.”

When Gillam arrived in Ithaca in August 2013, he was placed in an unfamiliar position – serving as a back-up. Iles entered his senior year after a brilliant three seasons with the Big Red. He eventually concluded his career as the Ivy League Player of the Year, ECAC Student-Athlete of the Year, a Senior CLASS Award First Team All-American, and an All-Ivy League First Team selection. Iles still holds the program’s all-time saves record and sits in Cornell’s top 10 for wins, shutouts, goals against average, and save percentage.

It didn’t appear so at the time, but this role provided Gillam with a unique opportunity. Iles acted as a mentor and taught him valuable lessons regarding work ethic and drive, which ultimately helped Gillam down the road in his hockey career.

“I think coming in, I was a little sloppy and just relied on flexibility rather than pure power – going left and right in the crease,” explained Gillam. “Andy taught me some fundamentals and little tricks of the trade. He was a great goalie partner, and I can’t thank him enough for the way he started my career here.”

Heading into his sophomore season, Gillam competed with freshman Hayden Stewart for the starting goaltender position. Initially, the two partners split time, but Gillam emerged as the number one goalie and hasn’t relinquished this spot since.

“I was a little bit nervous coming in because I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Gillam. “It was an open competition – that’s what coach had said to me. I had to earn my keep in the net and come out hot. In the end, I kind of took over a little bit more, as I wanted to make my mark as a starter for the school.”

As he begins his final year at Cornell, Gillam possesses valuable experience that already places him on the 2016-17 Mike Richter Award Watch List for college hockey’s most outstanding goalie. But, being a great tender requires some unique routines and superstitions to combat the pressure. For example, every Thursday night on a road trip before games on the weekend, he orders a medium BBQ chicken pizza from Domino’s to eat with whomever is hungry.

In addition, Gillam continually dresses his left side of his body first for each practice and game. He ties his left skate first, then his right skate. He puts on his left leg pad first, then his right pad. Gillam also expects his equipment to be moist and flexible during games. Therefore, he drenches his neck area with water during warm-ups.

While these tendencies might seem odd to non-goaltenders, they help Gillam to get in the zone, feel good, and solely focus on stopping the puck. Still, being the team’s last line of defense comes with plenty of stress.

“I like to take the pressure head on,” described Gillam. “I’m trying to take every shot right now as if it’s going to end my college career. The pressure of that excites me, so it makes me want to strive to stop the puck in any way, shape, or form that I can.”

A true competitor and a resilient goalie, Gillam enjoys every bit of stepping onto the ice each weekend.

“You get the shivers and get excited,” said Gillam. “It’s a great experience because college has one of the best atmospheres in the world for hockey. Hearing your name during the starting lineups, especially at Cornell, is really something special.”

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