To say Nathan Lieuwen is surprised that he'll be playing a starring role in this year's MasterCard Memorial Cup is kind of like saying that his Kootenay Ice caught their Western Hockey League opponents slightly off-guard during their magical postseason run to the league championship.
But here's Lieuwen, who'll be in net Saturday night when the WHL-champion Ice meet the Ontario Hockey League-champion Owen Sound attack in their Memorial Cup opener. And here are the Ice, which knocked off the top-seeded Saskatoon Blades and Portland Winterhawks to earn the trip to Mississauga, Ont.
"I absolutely wouldn't have thought I'd be in the position I am now" Lieuwen said Tuesday as the Ice prepared for their Wednesday flight to Toronto. "I didn't even know if I'd be Kootenay's number one goaltender this year. Coming back to Cranbrook this year I knew I had to get my health back and just continue to work hard. There was a lot of stuff that I didn't know what the outcomes would be, but I never would have thought I'd be where I am today."
After having his phenomenal post-season performance capped off with being awarded the AirBC trophy as playoff MVP, Lieuwen's future in hockey is looking as bright as can be. However, the towering six-foot-five, 191-pound goaltender quickly points out he's overcome his share of struggles to get to this point in his career.
"I suffered a concussion during a rollover car accident when I was 16" Lieuwen said. "It was a really hard time in my life. Then after going through the concussion I was sent down to play in (Tier II Junior A) Kelowna. You know being 16 and being away from home for the first time, (that) was really tough."
Lieuwen's periods of hardship took its toll on him to the point where he considered giving up his dream to play hockey professionally.
"I even considered quitting when I was struggling in net and when everything just seemed to go against me" Lieuwen said. "But my love for the game and my faith kept me going through those bad times."
The Abbotsford, B.C,. native isn't afraid to voice his story on how faith has affected his life. When the Kootenay Ice held Faith Night this past February, Lieuwen shared his journey with faith in front of hundreds of Cranbrook residents.
"God really took me on this journey and he took me on this adventure to a place where I found meaning in him" Lieuwen said that evening. "So often we search for meaning in other places and meaning in things that don't fulfil us. When I was going through my concussions and struggles that's what killed me, I couldn't find something fulfilling. And finally when I discovered these things I was full, no matter if I was making 30 saves down here at this end or being sat on the bench over there, it didn't matter. I was still fulfilled when I went home."
Modest and humble, Lieuwen also gives credit to his family for helping him through the times where he needed encouragement and reassurance the most.
"My parents have always been there for me" Lieuwen said. "In those hard years they would give me advice and keep me going. I owe them a lot, I really needed that type of support back then."
Yet after posting an outstanding 2.24 goals-against average and .923 save percentage throughout the postseason, the 19-year-old still turns the spotlight off himself and onto his teammates.
"I know I've played strong, but so have my teammates" said Lieuwen. "We've had all the guys step and with guys like (Max) Reinhart and (Cody) Eakin scoring big goals, they've made my job a lot easier."
Despite being passed over in the last two NHL entry drafts, Lieuwen's recent superb play has made a strong case for him to attract the attention of an NHL team this summer. As Mark Edwards, the director of scouting for HockeyProspect.com, put it: "I expect him to be drafted. He's 6-foot-5 and challenges shooters. Where other goalies try and makes themselves look big, Lieuwen is big."
Kelly Friesen is a Western Hockey League writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on twitter @KellyFriesen