Corbin Boes: Eye of the Tiger

Being a starting goalie in the AUS is a difficult job.

Just getting to the point where you can compete in the AUS often requires you to have major junior experience, or a terrific junior hockey resume at the very least. With only seven AUS programs in operation, universities are picky in choosing which overage goaltenders they’ll bring in on scholarship, and even then, you’re likely competing with one or even two talented goalies for starting minutes. Even with multiple seasons of success in the AUS, all it takes is one new recruit and two bad weeks to find yourself working the door, or even sitting in the stands. It’s bred a conference where goaltending jobs are fiercely competitive, difficult to maintain, and are always up for grabs for your average AUS goalie. But there’s average AUS goalies, and then there’s Corbin Boes

In a country where the limelight often falls on Jordon Cooke and Kevin Bailie in regards to the best goalies the university level has to offer, anyone who knows anything about the AUS knows that Boes deserves to be in that group.

The fact that Boes, a Saskatoon, SK native who came up through the Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association into a four year WHL career, would even wind up in Halifax with the Dalhousie Tigers is a small feat in itself. Tigers coach Chris Donnelly was well aware of who Boes was as a WHL goalie, but knew the odds of luring him away from the west coast and other Canada West programs weren’t stacked in his favour.

“I decided to take a trip out to Portland to meet with Corbin and go on from there to see the nationals which were in Saskatoon that year”, says Donnelly. “I’m sitting in the Chicago airport waiting for my transfer flight out west, and wondering what I was doing there. It could be a crazy wild goose chase, or it could turn out to be something great for our program”.

On the flip side, Boes was in the middle of a stretch run with the Portland Winterhawks where he was putting up some of the best numbers in his WHL career. Playing university hockey had come across Boes’ mind before, but the concept of moving out to the AUS had not.

“I had never been to the east coast, and I hadn’t heard of Dalhousie when I got an email from [Donnelly]”, says Boes. “When Chris flew down to Portland to meet me, I felt that was a good sign of how badly he wanted me to come to the east coast. So I took a chance and wanted to experience something new”.

Within a year, Boes went from being totally unaware of the very existence of Dalhousie University to suiting up as their varsity men’s hockey goaltender on September 17th, in exhibition action against the defending AUS champion Acadia Axemen in the small town of Berwick, Nova Scotia.

“I think I faced like 50 shots my first game, so yeah, I jumped right into it”, says Boes.

The barrage of shots from Acadia was a sign of things to come for Boes, who quickly realized the degree of difficulty of backstopping Dalhousie to success in the AUS. Boes would go on to see an average of 36.5 shots per game in his 2014-15 rookie season en route to earning 2015 AUS all-rookie team honours. From there, Boes made an appearance on the 2016 AUS first all-star team with an invitation to the CIS all-star team to play two exhibition games against Team Canada’s U20 World Junior squad. That season also saw Boes tie UNB’s Etienne Marcoux for the league’s best save percentage at .918, including one shutout and five 40+ save performances.

Having back-to-back seasons of improvement where he was also named team MVP of the Dalhousie Tigers led many to believe 2016-17 was set to be Boes’ best season to date.

They weren’t wrong.

Through the first month of the season, Boes posted a .938 SV% over eight games, which included two near ‘upset of the year’ performances against the defending national champion UNB Varsity Reds. Although wins were harder to come by for Dalhousie in the month of November, Boes continued to roll right along, most notably with a miraculous 49 save shutout performance against the reigning AUS champion StFX X-Men. In the process, Boes became the first Dalhousie goaltender to shutout StFX since former CIS all-Canadian Jean-Francois Perras did so twice during the regular season and playoffs in 2002-03.

Heading into the Christmas break Boes had the best save percentage in the AUS at .933, and second place wasn’t even close. For most goaltenders, seeing 40 shots in a game is an unusual circumstance, and requires an extraordinary effort to give their team a chance to win. For Boes, that’s just another day at the office. Last season Boes faced 38.5 shots per game, and saw 0.64 shots per minute, a higher rate than any other goalie (min. 10 GP) in the AUS.

“Going into a game, I’m not thinking about if I’m going to be facing a lot of shots”, says Boes. “I just think about how I’m going to make the first save and keep going from there, and at the end of the game, we’ll see how many shots were thrown at the net”.

But even for Boes, posting performances like his 49 save shutout require a number of factors to go right, both controllable and uncontrollable. But his approach to big games like those remains strikingly simple.

“You get into games like that, and you’re just having fun. I remember getting off the ice and I wasn’t even tired. You just go out there and have fun, and feel confident that you’re going to make the saves”, says Boes. “But there are definitely games where you can feel if the shots are mounting up”.

Craig Hillier has been working with Boes since he arrived at Dalhousie, and serves as his goalie coach throughout the year. A former 1st round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Hillier knows the rigours and pressures of high performance hockey. He suggests that the ability to relax and enjoy the moment has attributed to Boes’ on-ice success.

“The biggest thing for Corbin mentally was getting him to enjoy the game”, says Hillier of Boes’ development since joining Dalhousie. “We’re all competitive, but at the end of the day you have to go on the ice and have fun out there. A little bit of that was missing from Corbin’s game”.

For someone as competitive as Boes was during his WHL days, finding a better place mentally wasn’t as easy as flicking a switch. It’s taken serious development and has been a process for him to get to this point. Both Hillier and Boes see the ability to relax during gameplay and practice as the root of his improvement over the last three seasons.

“We talk about breathing, making sure that in between drills and in between plays he catches his breath and relaxes and then goes back to work”, says Hillier.

“I’m surprised by how much I’ve learned about being a goalie since I got to Dalhousie”, says Boes. “I think [my success] comes from a combination of learning my own game personally, and I’ve become more calm. I don’t have as much anxiety in how I perform”.

It’s not the first time a successful university goaltender has claimed to have taken their mental game to the next level. Both Jordon Cooke and Kevin Bailie credit mental development since attending university as the biggest factors in their success.

Just when it looked like Boes and the Tigers were putting together a season capable postseason aspirations (something they haven’t had since 2010-11), things took a turn for the worse over Christmas break. In an off-ice accident, Boes broke his ankle in early 2017, effectively ending his season at just 17 games.

“I was heartbroken for a very long time after the injury. Every time I went to the hospital for a check-up, I’d hope by chance that it was healing up ahead of schedule. To get the news that you still can’t come back and play is tough”.

The newfound fun that Boes had found in the game of hockey at Dalhousie was taken away in an instant. There would be no more 49 save shutouts, no more OT thrillers against UNB, and ultimately no playoffs for the Dalhousie Tigers. It’s easy to suggest Dalhousie’s playoff hopes were swept away with the loss of Boes for the season, but Donnelly still believes it was the goals his team was unable to score rather than the ones they conceded in the final months of the season that sealed their fate.

“As good as Corbin was for us, the wins and losses can’t really be laid at the feet of our goaltenders. It was more-so the fact we couldn’t score goals”, says Donnelly.

Offence was a struggle all season for the Tigers, who posted just 68 goals, dead last in the AUS. Even with offence being the biggest downfall for Dalhousie a season ago, it’s hard to imagine the confidence of the Tigers wasn’t shaken no longer having their all-star netminder behind them. But adversely, when Boes is between the pipes, Donnelly senses that no matter who they play, Dalhousie has a chance to win.

Just like any adversity and obstacles that Boes has overcome previously in his hockey career, he knows it’s time to move on and climb another mountain. The rehab process has been lengthy and strenuous throughout the spring and the summer, and has wound up testing Boes mentally in ways that actually being on the ice couldn’t.

“I was in a cast until mid-February before I was allowed to walk. Once you get the cast off you can start trying things like physiotherapy a couple times a week. In April I was getting some workouts in again, but couldn’t start running until May or June. The past couple months I’ve felt pretty normal. I still have some stiffness, but it’s fully healed”.

Boes believes the extended period of time away from the game has developed a chip on his shoulder, which he hopes to translate into another fantastic start to the season. Despite the AUS season not getting underway until October 6th for Dalhousie, nearly a full calendar year since Boes last played, he won’t have to wait much longer to play competitive hockey again. The Detroit Red Wings have taken notice of Boes’ performance, and have invited him to their training camp in September. It’s an opportunity Boes will relish, and provides even more motivation for him to come back stronger than ever for the 2017-18 season.

Topping his early season performance from a year ago is going to be incredibly difficult. But if there’s anyone in the AUS capable of recreating those numbers, it’s Corbin Boes. However, Boes is still keeping his expectation simple and realistic for the upcoming year.

“Going through my process I’ve realized it’s about doing the things day in and day out that you need to do to get better. So I expect myself to go out and work hard everyday and push the guys on our team to get better”.

The end is finally in sight for the longest offseason of Boes’ career. A clean slate, an opportunity to showcase himself to an NHL organization, and playing in an AUS conference where everyone is in playoff contention are all reasons to believe that on a cold winter’s eve, inside an antiquated AUS hockey facility, covered by a Martin Gerber-esque all black Bauer mask, you’ll find Dalhousie’s eye of the tiger.