Evan Fitzpatrick's long journey from The Rock to the NHL draft

Evan Fitzpatrick's long journey from The Rock to the NHL draft

Evan Fitzpatrick was reflecting on his hockey journey, the one that took him from St. John’s to possibly the top of the goaltending heap for the upcoming NHL draft.

It’s one year specifically that really stands out.

“A lot of credit goes to my mother for making the jump and moving provinces,” said Fitzpatrick of the QMJHL’s Sherbrooke Phoenix, the No.1-rated North American goaltender per NHL Central Scouting. “That really helped improve my play. From there, there was no looking back.”

Fitzpatrick, 18, makes it sound so simple, at least at first. But the reality was it was anything but for him and his mom, Donielle Briffett – not to mention the rest of their family, too.

Realizing Fitzpatrick had maxed out his potential on their home island of Newfoundland four years ago, Briffett left behind her home, her job and, temporarily, her husband and youngest son. It was all so her oldest boy, 14 at the time, could have a chance advance his career.

Fitzpatrick and Briffett moved to Lower Sackville, N.S., which is about 20 kilometres north of Halifax, where he enrolled in the Newbridge Academy sports school in time for his bantam season, 2012-13.

Evan Fitzpatrick and his mother Donielle Briffett.
Evan Fitzpatrick and his mother Donielle Briffett.

There were plenty of tradeoffs, most notably being separated from the other half of the family. Fitzpatrick’s dad, Pat, and brother, Lucas, stayed behind. They didn’t want to remove Lucas, then a 12-year-old netminder, from hockey and school in Newfoundland until he was ready. It would take year before they were reunited in Nova Scotia.

“It was exciting initially. And then it became difficult,” Briffett said. “Our family was divided. We would see each other and travel back and forth, but with both of their hockey schedules it was really hard to find time.

“We knew it would be in the best interest of Evan.”

The move west had been brewing for some time.

Wally Bray, a minor hockey technical director in St. John’s, coached Fitzpatrick for five years and was witnessing a rising star.

Their team made an annual springtime pilgrimage to the mainland for a tournament and Fitzpatrick was the best goaltender for his age. Teams from other provinces would request his services.

Bray, a 20-year coach who’s guided such Newfoundland-raised NHLers as Teddy Purcell, Ryane Clowe, Adam Pardy and Luke Adam, kept telling Briffett her son should move along.

“There are six (players) from my bantam AAA team (last season) that are leaving, with advice from me, to pursue it,” Bray said. “The chances are better on the mainland because you’re seen more. You’re seen by more scouts and you’re competing in better tournaments and competing more.”

“He was constantly telling me, every time I saw him,” Briffett said. “After about the 20th time he told me, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll look into it.’ ”

Briffett networked and eventually Newbridge athletic director Paddy Flynn called to make a pitch.

Fitzpatrick received close to a full scholarship and was on the ice with goalie coach Brad MacCharles five times a week as part of the flagship program.

MacCharles was leery about working with Fitzpatrick because he was his first out-of-province student. Any fears were quickly laid to rest. Fitzpatrick was open-minded and a quick study. The rangy netminder – he now stands 6-foot-4 and 206 pounds – vastly improved his posture, skating and coordination within days.

“We hit it off right off the bat,” said MacCharles, owner of Empire Goaltending, who continues to work with Fitzpatrick and other CHL standouts from last season, including Mason McDonald (Charlottetown), Chase Marchand (Rouyn-Noranda) and Jack Flinn (Mississauga Steelheads).

“The thing with Evan is that he has this drive as soon as you meet him. He was all business right from Day 1. He wanted to get on the ice right away.”

While the hockey was great, the off-ice situation wasn’t ideal.

In addition to the family split, Fitzpatrick and Briffett lived in what he calls a “trashy basement apartment.” She was able to continue her career as a respiratory therapist. They needed a place to live close to the school so Fitzpatrick could walk.

Evan Fitzpatrick (right) and his brother Lucas and mother Donielle.
Evan Fitzpatrick (right) and his brother Lucas and mother Donielle.

It wasn’t exactly pretty, but it was worth it. Briffett calls the experience “an adventure.”

“Me and my mom have a close relationship. We got to learn more about each other,” Fitzpatrick said. “We really had to fend for each other because it was just me and her. It was pretty much like starting over.”

Still, once Briffett committed to the ideal of moving, she never had to think twice.

“I had confidence in my son,” she said. “Nobody probably understands how much I watched him at every goalie camp I went to. I knew that he was determined.

“This is a child that came home from kindergarten in his first week of school with a pamphlet in his hand about minor hockey, saying that he was going to play in the NHL. He has not wavered off of that path since. I thought I should probably sacrifice a year or two of my life.”

The sacrifice paid off. The other Fitzpatricks rejoined the crew in Nova Scotia a year later and Lucas also signed up at Newbridge. He was selected in the second round of the QMJHL draft by the Quebec Remparts this month, two years after his brother went fourth overall to Sherbrooke.

Fitzpatrick just completed his second season in the ‘Q.’ He wasn’t thrilled with his numbers – 18 wins in 54 games, a 3.42 goals-against average and .896 save percentage – the by-product of playing on a subpar team, especially at the junior level. He was Canada’s starter at the world under-18 championship in April.

“I know my stats don’t reflect how I played,” he said. “I’m going to be one of the best. My goal in life is to be the best.”

Fitzpatrick was one of 10 invitees to Hockey Canada’s under-20 goaltending earlier this month, but wasn’t named to the summer camp roster on Monday. Three first-time draft-eligible goaltenders were on the list – Carter Hart, Zach Sawchenko and Evan Cormier, ranked second, sixth and 11th by Central Scouting among North Americans.

Still, there’s no doubt Fitzpatrick is among the most promising junior goaltenders in the CHL – and one of those who will hear his name called in Buffalo, likely on Saturday after the first round concludes.

“This situation he’s in now, I thought it was a realistic goal for him,” MacCharles said. “I thought he would be among the top-rated goalies in the world for his draft. Just the way he improved and the level of his play, it’s not an unreasonable thing. We’re very, very excited, but we’re by no means surprised.”

It might not have been realistic for Fitzpatrick, if not for a move to Nova Scotia four years ago.

It’s something he knows quite well and something which he’ll forever be indebted to his mom – and dad.

“It’s been a battle for all of us. It’s been emotionally hard for some of our family members. At the same time, it’s been great for exposure and our dreams,” Fitzpatrick said. “I can’t thank them enough for it.

“Anything that they need, I’ll do for them.”