Not that long ago, one of the major challenges for James Durham was coping with the disappointment of not being able to make final rosters of AAA teams.
This month, Durham’s task has been much different — dealing with the responsibility of handling all the goaltending duties in juniors for the top team in the North American Hockey League.
“When I was younger and not making teams, it was a little rattling,” said the 18-year-old Shreveport Mudbugs goalie from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “As soon as I got older and started talking to my coaches and mentors about how I should look at it, it was moreso motivating and seeing it that way.”
Durham, who made it to AAA for his 15U season with Belle Tire, kept from getting discouraged.
“There were some times when I made the spring team, but then just didn’t make it out of there,” Durham said. “I may have gotten an unlucky bounce here or there.
“It all panned out. I’m thankful for where I’ve been.”
Durham said there were times as a AA goalie that he was called on for about 60 games per season.
That helped when Gustavs Grigals left Shreveport temporarily to play for Latvia in the World Junior Championships.
Durham played every second of eight games in 16 days, posting back-to-back shutouts along the way and allowing just 12 goals total while keeping the Mudbugs from having to turn to a backup.
“James has been playing a string of games here in a row and, obviously, he deserves it,” Shreveport coach Karlis Zirnis said. “… He was already playing well before.
“He was trying to get in a groove and get adapted to junior hockey, but he had a great start to the season and he’s been consistent all year long.”
When Zirnis and Durham discussed the likelihood of a heavy workload, Durham was confident he could handle it.
“We had two good goalies who were going back and forth for the most part,” Zirnis said. “We had played [Grigals] a little bit more because we knew he was going to be gone for World Juniors.
“We knew James was going to be carrying the load in the month of December. We felt confident in him that he could carry it and he obviously showed it.”
Durham concentrated on being responsible off the ice to make sure he was as prepared as possible for the hectic stretch.
“I was definitely happy to have the chance,” said Durham, who described his relationship with Grigals as “best buddies,” who push each other to be better. “The coaches were a little bit leery of me playing that much, but I took a little better perspective on recovery after the games and after practices.
“I was eating right, and kind of becoming a bit more like a professional in that way, to make sure I felt right the next day.”
The South Division-leading Mudbugs have the NAHL’s best record at 22-5-2-2.
The combination of strong goaltending and veteran defense has been a big part of it.
Durham leads NAHL goalies with a 1.56 goals-against average and .942 save percentage while tying for the league lead with five shutouts and ranking tied for second with 12 wins.
Team captain Dominic Procopio and assistant captain Alex Spencer are part of a veteran defense that also includes Andrew Lane and Brendan Gysbers.
“All the guys on the team with 100-plus games have kind of taken us under their wings,” said Durham, who is experiencing junior hockey for the first time.
The team has clearly meshed well.
“It can be a calming effect; it does help a goalie when you have an older corps in front of you that can help you out a little bit more,” Zirnis said. “It’s like a chain. We each benefit from each other.
“The goalie benefits from the D and the D benefits from the good forwards that play a 200-foot game. It just goes in a circle with everybody committed to playing the game the right way and everybody benefitting from that.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.