Peninsula Panthers put stock in goalie Olson

Junior B hockey team will look to 18-year-old to lead from between the pipes.

Panthers’ goalie Alex Olson is keeping his eye on the puck this season.

Fans of Peninsula Panthers hockey should get used to seeing number 33 in net for the local Junior B hockey club for the foreseeable future.

Alex Olson has become the team’s first option in goal, after a series of changes within the team pushed him into the full-time starter’s job. Olson came to the team back on October 29, picked up after a new Junior A hockey league folded and the team he had been attached to in Langley, vanished.

Olson, 18, is essentially a rookie in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, having played only five games with the Oceanside Generals up in Parksville last season, before a shoulder injury led to his release.

“We’re really happy with him,” says coach and hockey operations manager Pete Zubersky.

He added Olson was called up when their previous starter, Kaelen Leblanc, lost confidence and was let go. Olson has managed to hang in with the Panthers for 14 games, winning five and holding a 3.27 goals against average and a .887 save percentage.

Zubersky said Olson is being backed up by a tandem of young goalies — Taylor Findlay and Jordan Vander Heiden. The latter hasn’t been playing  and Findlay has only sporadically replaced Olson between the pipes. However, Zubersky said Findlay will be heading east soon.

As of Jan. 11, Findlay will be on a seven-week course. That means he’ll be done for the season. Vander Heiden will then step into the backup role.

Having so much of the goaltending load put on his young shoulders isn’t bothering Olson. Before practice this week, he told the News Review he loves the ice time and has a great bunch of guys in front of him.

“After my injury, I got in contact with Pete,”Olson said, “and he was kind enough to give me this opportunity. I couldn’t be happier.”

Olson admitted he thought at first he’d be able to ease into the starter’s job, being a backup for more games than he ended up spending on the bench. His first game with the Panthers, Olson was at the wrong end of a 1-0 shutout loss to the Saanich Braves, but from then on he took over as the club’s starter.

“There’s no real pressure — except for the pressure I put on myself,” he said. “But I play it shot-by-shot and try to play well enough for us to win.”

Olson has only five wins in those 14 games — the team stood at 7-23-1 on the season as of earlier this week — but he said the team is coming around.

“I have to credit the guys out there, especially the ones who block shots. I’ll try to stop the ones I can stop and give us that chance.”

Olson said the Panthers can hang with any of the league’s top teams and it’s only because of a nasty bounce or two that they come out on the wrong end at the buzzer.

“We’ve come a long way and proved we can play up there with the big dogs.”

Olson added he doesn’t look too far ahead — other than the next practice or the next game. He said if you start doing that, you make more mistakes.

Growing up in Comox and playing minor hockey there, Olson said he watched NHL Martin Brodeur and held him up as the model to emulate.

“The guy’s an icon. He’ll be a first ballot hall-of-famer.”

The Panthers and Zubersky have high hopes for the young net minder this season and even into the next. The coach said he hopes Olson will stick around next season, allowing a pair of prospects out of Peninsula Minor Hockey to learn the ropes.

The Panthers had three games before the Christmas break. The locals resume the season on the road in Nanaimo on Dec. 30.