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Justin Pogge chases storybook ending to his career

Matt Larkin
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Justin Pogge chases storybook ending to his career

Justin Pogge and wife Christina Heinzel Pogge at the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary this fall. Author: Courtesy of Justin Pogge

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Justin Pogge chases storybook ending to his career

Matt Larkin
By:

He was a World Junior Championship star and then a botched NHL experiment. A decade later, the goaltender's odyssey has him on the cusp of redemption.

Justin Pogge arrived in Atlanta to dizzying hype Dec. 22, 2008, as his Toronto Maple Leafs were set to face the Thrashers hours later in his NHL debut. Reporters swarmed him at the morning skate. He was big news. He was, after all, Toronto’s best goaltending prospect since Felix Potvin. And for one night, Pogge delivered on the mammoth expectations, stopping 19 of 21 shots in a 6-2 victory. His backup that night was Curtis Joseph, one of his childhood heroes.

The experience was surreal. Even more so when juxtaposed with Pogge’s debut four years later in a different league: Italy’s Serie A, with Ritten Sport, in a mountaintop village with a population of about 7,000. His backup this time around: a baker. That’s right. Pogge’s battery mate, Josef Niederstatter, had a delicious day job providing Ritten’s citizens with pastries from his family business.

Pogge, the man who led Canada to 2006 world junior gold, the man dubbed the Leafs’ next goaltending savior, the man deemed worth keeping over Tuukka Rask, had fallen so far down the rabbit hole, from NHL to AHL to ECHL, that he wound up trying his hand in the obscurity of an Italian crease.

At least, that’s how Pogge’s story appears if we merely gloss over his career stat sheet. The real Pogge, now relaxed and philosophical at 30, doesn’t look back on his NHL career as a failure, as he never forced unrealistic expectations on himself. He didn’t cross the ocean in 2012 out of defeat. He did it to take a risk and experience a new way of life. The irony of it all was that by abandoning his pursuit of excellence on the world’s top hockey continent, he’s slowly increased his odds of achieving just that.

For the Pogge of 10 years ago, playing internationally meant dominating the competition representing his country. He entered the 2006 WJC in the midst of a breakout season with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen in which he’d finish with 11 shutouts and win major junior goalie of the year honors. He earned the starting job on the Brent Sutter-coached Team Canada. Pogge was untouchable, winning all six of his starts and posting a 1.00 goals-against average with a .952 save percentage. His three shutouts set a tournament record. The Leafs had drafted Pogge in 2004 and felt they had a can’t-miss star.

One year in THN’s Future Watch, Greg Gilbert, Pogge’s coach with the AHL Toronto Marlies, was quoted “scoffing at those” who felt Carey Price would become a better NHL goaltender than Pogge. That’s how highly the franchise regarded him. As the story goes, Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. dealt Rask, their other top goalie prospect, to the Boston Bruins at the 2006 draft because Toronto had so much faith in Pogge. But there’s a little detail missing from that narrative.

“It’s not like they traded me for Rask,” Pogge said. “Rask was a draft pick, and he’s had an excellent career, and he’s got to be one of my favorite goalies of all-time. But people always forget that the trade was for Andrew Raycroft. He was coming off a Calder Trophy (two years earlier), and he was the guy. He set a Leaf record for wins in a season, but we still didn’t make the playoffs, and people always look past that. So I always thought it was funny that Rask was always compared to me, and people are talking about it still. I never put any extra pressure on myself because of that. He did his thing, and I did mine, and it was just a different path.”

Pogge’s path still led to the NHL. He debuted triumphantly that December night in Atlanta but couldn’t duplicate the effort. In fact, he never won another NHL game. He posted an .836 SP over his next six appearances, allowing four or more goals in four of them. He never made it back. Pogge was 22 at the time. He doesn’t buy the idea the Leafs rushed or ruined him at all. He felt ready. He does wonder if he ever really had a chance to flourish, as he was sent down after almost every game. He wasn’t able to practise and bond with the team or learn from the veterans.

“It was more like an experiment,” he said, “and they talked about that, the media: ‘The Pogge Experiment.’ I don’t think that’s the proper way to go about it. You fly in or bus in for a pre-game skate, and then you’re expected to play, and then you’re back to the minors. Where do you get comfortable?”

Pogge ended up being traded to Anaheim the ensuing summer. He bounced around over the next few seasons, primarily in the AHL, with a short ECHL stop. Then came an unexpected opportunity on the eve of 2012-13 lockout. Pogge learned Ritten Sport needed a netminder. He didn’t want to take a North American minor-pro gig not knowing if locked-out NHLers would spill into those leagues, stealing work from him, so he took a calculated gamble.

The decision wasn’t simple. Pogge had a girlfriend, Christina Heinzel. She was gainfully employed by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and worked as a grant writer under Homeland Security. She and Pogge had never lived together. Her father, an old-fashioned man, bristled at the idea of her running off with a hockey player. But Christina and Justin were devoted to each other. She believed in him and was willing to take a risk, knowing her job was promised to her when she returned. Justin secured a blessing to propose from Christina’s father and popped the question at Christmastime in Italy. They married in July 2014.

"I always thought it was funny that Rask was always compared to me, and people are talking about it still. I never put any extra pressure on myself because of that. He did his thing, and I did mine, and it was just a different path."

The Pogges have lived about as exciting a hockey life as one can imagine since. They’ve travelled all around Europe, from Venice to Paris to the Alps. And Italy was just the first playing stop. Pogge excelled with Ritten Sport, posting a 2.37 GAA and .925 SP, and attracted Swedish scouts, who recruited him to join BIK Karlskoga of the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier league, for 2013-14. Fifty-one games, a 2.16 GAA and a .921 SP later, Pogge moved up another level, this time to the highly regarded SHL, Sweden’s top circuit, with Farjestad. Pogge stayed there two seasons. He loved how close-knit the team dynamic was. It had players with 20-year tenures. Since Farjestad had such a rich history, it also attracted a lot of national media attention, which meant the spotlight would ramp up to something resembling what Pogge was used to back home. His game was evolving, too.

“He plays a lot bigger,” said Christina, who never misses a game. “He’s changed. He looks more confident, and it looks effortless. I was with him before, when he was playing back home, and he’s come a long way. He’s so consistent now.”

As Pogge describes it, he’s gone from working hard to working smart. He scrambles less. He’s more economical moving his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame post to post. And he’s less of a cowboy handling the puck.

“That was always one of my strengths,” he said. “But I’ve learned to manage that and give the coach less grey hairs.”

Pogge took yet another step up in competition in 2016-17, signing with the KHL’s Slovan Bratislava, where he platoons with Barry Brust. The KHL is theoretically the summit of European pro hockey, the last stop before a North American comeback attempt. And Pogge is interested in one. He can’t praise Christina enough for journeying with him all these years, but he wants her to be closer to her family.

The European lifestyle, while exciting, has brought with it different challenges. In Italy, equipment standards are lower. It’s much tougher to call up a manufacturer and have custom pads or sticks delivered to your stall before a game. Pogge got to spend most nights in his own bed while in Sweden, but the KHL’s long flights are vicious and the pre-game meals questionable. The language barrier in Slovakia is much more alienating than the Italian or Swedish experience, too.

“I struggle to talk to people every day, and it’s something that wears on you over the years,” Pogge said. “We got used to it in Sweden because we were there for three years. We learned the language. But now we’re speaking Slovak…which doesn’t totally make sense to me. It’s different. Not too many people speak English here. Some do, but it’s not like up in Sweden where everyone could speak English, and it was just a matter of whether they were shy or not. Here it’s just…they’ll walk away from you.”

Christina felt the culture shock didn’t truly kick in until this season. The Pogges are starting to feel homesick. A return to North America makes sense emotionally but also practically. It’s time to see if Pogge can become the next Tim Thomas, who played in Europe for a decade after being drafted in the NHL. He returned in his late 20s and forged a phenomenal late-career run that included two Vezina Trophies and a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins. Pogge cites Karri Ramo as a more recent example of faring better in the NHL on attempt No. 2.

So don’t be surprised if Pogge gets another crack at the North American pro game. His overseas path to glory has been circuitous, to say the least, but necessary. If we ever see him in the NHL again, he’ll be his best self. And it will be because he took a leap of faith.

This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the 2017 World Junior Championship Preview issue of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

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Justin Pogge chases storybook ending to his career