Until 2009, the Tier II North American Hockey League was always known as “the league with the NTDP” amongst NHL Entry Draft followers.
Since the National Team Development Program left for the Tier I USHL, there have not been many direct ties between the NAHL and the draft.
That is until this year. This season, the league has been known as “the league with Anthony Stolarz” amongst 2012 NHL draft community.
Though he represents the league well, how Stolarz ended up playing hockey in Corpus Christi (Texas) IceRays is a peculiar story to begin with. The Jackson, NJ product was not drafted by any junior team this past summer. Instead, he attended the IceRays’ open tryout in Albany, NY and took it by storm.
“I was told I should go up to [the IceRays] open camp and that they were a great organization so I figured I would give it a shot and check it out,” Stolarz said. “I went up there, made the main camp in Dallas, and from there I made the team.”
It didn’t take long from the six-foot-five goaltender to go from impressing Corpus Christi personnel at an open tryout to impressing USHL teams. Stolarz posted a 1.50 goals against average and .939 save percentage in two showcase games. He admits that after the NAHL’s opening season Showcase Tournament in Minnesota, two USHL teams wanted to acquire his services for the season.
More USHL teams called as this season went on, asking him to play 10 games for their respective team so they could own his rights for next season. Stolarz did not budge as he stayed in Corpus Christi.
“I wanted to stay loyal to Corpus Christi because they gave me an opportunity to play this year and I was promised to play games down here,” said Stolarz who is ranked 128th overall by Future Considerations. “As a goalie, it doesn’t matter what league you play in—you just want to play games because if you play games you’re going to continue to get better.”
Getting games in is exactly what Stolarz did, playing in 50 of the IceRays’ 60 contests this season. In those games, he posted 23 wins, a 2.84 goals against average, and a .920 save percentage.
IceRays head coach Justin Quenneville stressed how big of a find Stolarz was to his team’s success this season.
“With the youngest and least experienced team in the league ahead of him, [Stolarz] managed to give us an opportunity to win every night and the players fed off of him,” Quenneville said.
Stolarz really caught scouts’ attention at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament in February where he played for the U18 Selects team. In the 90 minutes he played, Stolarz allowed two goals and had a .965 save percentage—both were good enough for second best among all goaltenders in the tournament.
For Stolarz, the event was just another stop on the path to improvement.
“[Throughout the year], I just worked hard and tried to improve my game as best as I could and prove that I could play in the NAHL,” said Stolarz who compares his game to Pekka Rinne.
Next year, Stolarz is headed 1,000 miles directly north to the University of Nebraska-Omaha to play for head coach Dean Blais.
“Coach Blais is a legend and a great coach and I’m looking forward to having him coach me,” said Stolarz who with a 4.0 grade average also considered Harvard, Clarkson, and Cornell. “[Associate head coach Mike] Hastings and [assistant] coach Brian Renfrew talked me through the process and showed the most interest in me so I thought it would be a good fit.”
While he never envisioned himself playing 1,800 miles away from Southern Texas, Stolarz states the decision to leave home was a great experience that he will always remember. The IceRays missed the playoffs by two points and their season ended March 31.
“Back home on the East Coast you’re playing in front of your parents and kids that are playing before and after your game, maybe 100 people total,” Stolarz said. “Here, we are playing in front of 3,000 screaming fans at home…the community was very supportive and behind us this year.”
Come the NHL Draft in June, Stolarz will have many more than 3,000 fans in his corner hoping to hear his name as early as possible.