When the Topeka RoadRunners brought in 20-year-old goalie P.J. Bridges for the 2013-14 season, coach and general manager Scott Langer was at first reluctant to start him.
“When he came to our camp in the summer, he was really good,” Langer said. But the coach decided to forego the advice of his scouts and left Bridges on the bench “because I didn’t want to go with a 20-year-old goalie.”
After a slow start, however, Langer changed course and put his chips on Bridges. A team that was 9-5-2 before Bridges made his debut was 30-10-4 after. Topeka finished with the third-best record in the 24-team North American Hockey League and then won the South Division playoff title by defeating the Amarillo Bulls, the defending Robertson Cup champions and regular-season division champions.
“Ever since we got him, our season turned around tremendously and we never looked back,” Langer, who had hoped to have a No. 1 goalie to develop for more than a season. “In the end, it was the wrong decision, because you need the best goaltender to win.
“There’s no question that was the wrong process and a learning experience for me as a coach.”
The revised decision worked well for both the team and player.
Bridges, who was beginning his third season playing in Canada, joined the RoadRunners and took the NAHL by storm, becoming that “best goaltender” the team needed to succeed. He tied a league record with 10 shutouts and was recently named Goaltender of the Year in voting by the league’s coaches.
“This was a dream come true for me from start to finish,” said Bridges, who said he “completely understood” the original thought process. “None of this would have been possible without the coaching staff, my great teammates and the style coach Langer coaches, which is a great team game.
“In a very solid defensive system with great players in front of you, it makes it easier.”
Bridges did more than put up numbers. “He’s constantly working on his game; his off-ice training is great, and he’s a great leader,” Langer said. “The rest of the team just wanted to play in front of him.
“It was fun to watch.”
The leadership also carried over to the team’s most trying time. In January, RoadRunners forward Peter Halash was killed in a traffic accident.
“P.J. and Peter were roommates,” Langer said. “It was so traumatic, so difficult for everybody. We went through a tough period. P.J. was our backbone. He stood up and said, ‘We’re going to play for Peter’. He’s the kid who could have been crushed, but he turned it around and led.”
Bridges said he always wanted to play in the NAHL. Now that the 20-year-old from Waterford, Mich. has had that chance, he is back in a familiar place, trying to finalize plans for his next stop.
With multiple visits planned, Bridges is hoping to work out where he will begin his college career in the fall. From experience, Langer can offer some advice to the college recruiters.
“Looking at his numbers, tying a league record and being named NAHL Goaltender of the Year, it’s a little frustrating that he’s not signed, sealed and delivered today,” Langer said. “As a coach and GM, that’s tough because if they got him in the locker room and could see what he provides in the locker room as well as on the ice, it’s a no-brainer.”
Langer appreciates having had the chance to see for himself.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.