October 20, 2005

LeNeveu '05 Gets His Shot

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This was the moment that David LeNeveu ’05 has been waiting for.

As the 13,734 fans in Glendale Arena came to their feet a week ago, after witnessing a 4-4 tie going into an overtime shootout, LeNeveu stood in the familiar confines of his crease. Already turning two Nashville Predators away, he stared at the looming challenge of Paul Kariya – a NHL player who is definitely not unfamiliar with finding the back of the net, scoring 313 goals in his career. Saving another penalty shot would give LeNeveu’s Phoenix Coyotes the chance to win the game, while a Kariya goal could hand the Coyotes a loss. With that in mind, Kariya starts skating towards the former Cornell goaltender.

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It was a more than two years ago when LeNeveu, after helping Cornell to its first Frozen Four in 23 years, chose to forego his last two years in college to sign with Phoenix, an NHL team which selected him in the second round, 46th overall, after his freshman year.

Back then, it was extremely tough to see LeNeveu go, especially with the departure of so many key members of the graduating class. After earning an 11-2-1 record during his freshman year, LeNeveu had arguably one of the greatest seasons ever for a college goaltender. A Hat Trick finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in just his sophomore year, LeNeveu’s 1.20 goals against average in the 2002-03 season was the best GAA ever recorded in NCAA history, as the Red was the top-ranked team in the country heading into the national tournament.

Even with the fact that he has earned a place on an NHL team and is making more money than many would dream of, LeNeveu, who said he wishes that he could have taken the Red to a national title, said that in retrospect, leaving Lynah Rink, his teammates, the fans, was still one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make.

“Every day, I woke up wondering what to do,” LeNeveu said over the phone on Monday, while his team was in Calgary to face the Flames. “But in the end, making the decision to leave was the right one because it was time to move on. These opportunities only come once.”

LeNeveu knew that even after the team’s heartbreaking 3-2 loss to UNH in the national tournament’s semifinals, staying in school might have dented his chances of getting a stronger offer from the Coyotes with the threat of an impending lockout on the horizon. It was, as he said at the time, “an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

The goaltender has always been confident in his chances to make it into the big time, but unlike Lynah Rink, where he would’ve been assured the starting job, LeNeveu has been fighting for playing time the past two-plus years. After going to rookie camp during the summer of 2003, LeNeveu was sent to the Springfield Falcons, an AHL team. LeNeveu played 38 games with the Falcons in that season, earning a 16-19-3 record. While LeNeveu was able to get playing time, he said that every day was a challenge to keep his spot.

“There’s definitely a lot of competition,” LeNeveu said. “In Springfield, you’re battling all year to get [to the NHL]. You’re waiting by the phone for that call.”

But it wasn’t meant to be, and in the next year, the NHL entered into a lockout. The phones were indefinitely silent. For many young stars like LeNeveu, who went to AHL’s Utah Grizzlies during the 2004-05 season, waiting for their chance was discouraging without the NHL at the end of the rainbow.

“Last year in Utah, life was a lot more difficult because that opportunity [to play in the NHL] wasn’t there anymore. [The AHL] wasn’t the NHL and that definitely put a damper on the season. No longer did you have that goal of the NHL ahead of you,” he said.

LeNeveu said that throughout this time and his young career thus far, his ability to focus mentally and compete every day in practice has helped him more than any physical talents that he possesses. His competitiveness could be traced back even to his Cornell days according to LeNeveu, when he battled Matt Underhill ’02 for the starting role. And when there was talk that the NHL was going to be reinstated, LeNeveu worked even harder to impress scouts and general managers sitting in the stands all season long.

“You have to do all of the little things each and every day,” LeNeveu said. “Your physical abilities will only take you so far and one of the main things that separate those from the AHL level and the NHL is the mental ability. You have to be able to thrive under the pressure.”

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LeNeveu currently lives in a hotel in Phoenix. The goaltender from Fernie, British Columbia is unsure of his future, but he’s enjoying every moment of being in the NHL, despite the fact that snow or cold weather are unknown phenomena in Phoenix. One day in the middle of September, it was again over 90 degrees, when LeNeveu’s parents called. There was a snow storm back at home.

LeNeveu said that the veteran players all treat him very well. As a rookie, he has to buy the team dinner one night in the future and has to pick up pucks in practice on occasion. His locker is located next to defenseman Sean O’Donnell’s and he’s right across from starting goaltender Curtis Joseph. On a team full of veterans, LeNeveu tries not to step on any toes and intently listens to them, and his coach, Wayne Gretzky, one of the greatest players to step onto the ice. But, the little fan and kid inside of LeNeveu – he’s still only 22 by the way – is now covered in determination.

“When you first come into camp in August and September, you can feel in awe of those around you,” LeNeveu said. “But once day one of camp begins, they are the ones you’re competing with and competing against. If you are in awe of them, you think that they are better than you.”

Because of his attitude and work ethic, LeNeveu impressed his teammates and coaches during the preseason. He kept on playing hard, was impressive in exhibition games, and the call for him to be sent back down to the AHL never came. Backup goaltender and five-year NHL veteran Brian Boucher, the owner of the longest-ever consecutive shutout record, went down with a groin injury and LeNeveu knew that he was going to be on the roster. It hit him during the team’s first game of the season, on the road to Vancouver – having his friends, family and others watching in the stands, while he was the one sitting below on the bench, soaking in his first NHL game as a player, and not as a fan.

“I [wasn’t] going to be watching in the stands. I was going to be a part of it,” LeNeveu said.

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Truth be told, it was a great surprise that LeNeveu made his first start of the season a night later in Los Angeles, after Joseph injured his groin.

LeNeveu said that he tried his hardest to stay focused that night, forgetting the magnitude of the moment for his career. Still, he fondly remembers his first save – a power play one-timer from Jeremy Roenick which deflected off his blocker. He remembers the first goal he gave up, a top shelf shot by Luc Robitaille.

“I was inches off and he made me pay for it,” LeNeveu said.

After the Coyotes lost that game, 3-2, and he made 25 saves, LeNeveu and Phoenix suffered a 3-2 loss at the hands of Dallas five days later, in which the former Cornellian stopped 11 shots in the first period.

But, even with his lack of NHL experience, even Gretzky is touting LeNeveu as the goalie of the future.

“I see him as an everyday NHL goalie right now,” Gretzky said to The Arizona Republic. “No question about it.”

And while he has the utmost respect for Joseph, who has returned to the starting role, and Boucher, LeNeveu has given his coaches and management a headache in deciding what to do when Boucher comes back.

“I want to be the number one goaltender for Phoenix and I have to think that nothing is going to stop me from that,” LeNeveu said. “I’ve been given the opportunity to prove that and I’m trying to make a very hard decision for the coaches in the future. – Given the opportunity, I have to take advantage of it and so far, I have.”

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Until then, LeNeveu still has to continue proving himself, and his opportunity against
Kariya was another shot. LeNeveu admitted that if the game went into overtime, he knew the shootout was his time to shine and show the league what he can do.

As the Predator skated towards him, LeNeveu reviewed his mental notes – Kariya likes to go high glove or deke to the other side. Kariya did neither – he hit a wrister in-between LeNeveu’s legs for the eventual game-winner.

“With that shot, it’s just another learning experience,” LeNeveu said. “It shows how good some of those guys are.”

And even in the young netminder’s early career – a career marked by three games, no wins and another Kariya game winning goal – one thing is crystal clear:

These are the moments that David LeNeveu has been waiting for.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao