By George Johnson
Even for someone as innately chill as Jon Gillies, the mugginess of Indiana, an annual summer hangout spot, can be a bit oppressive.
It’s already 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with 40% humidity on this Tuesday morning.
“I’m not,” confesses Gillies, “a big heat guy.”
He has, though, been a big Heat guy, playing a major role in Stockton with the organization’s top minor affiliate.
In this, his full third season pro, the aim is to be a big Flames guy.
When training camp opens in September, Gillies and AHL goaltending sidekick David Rittich are widely expected to duel for the Flames’ back-up puck-blocking role in support of main man Mike Smith.
A two-year contract – at $750,000 per – so fresh the ink has barely dried on the page now finalized, the 24-year-old Gillies can continue to focus on honing his craft.
“Jon is still a very young goaltender,” reminds GM Brad Treliving. “Last year was his first prolonged exposure at the NHL level and there were some really good things.
“Jon has shown over his amateur career and American league career that he’s a top-level prospect. You look at his frame, his athletic ability, his talent level. He’s a guy who’s knocking at the door. Now he’s got to push that door down.
“This is his time. To show us what he’s all about.
“But this is the hardest position to play.
“Go through all the goaltenders in the league and they’ve gone through this process. A lot of guys are just getting into the league at 25, 25, 27.
“I look at a guy like Connor Hellebuyck. A year ago at this time people were questioning a little bit. Now he’s a Vezina Trophy finalist.
“It takes some time.”
So there is a sense of urgency, yes. And ambition. Certainly. Those competitive intangibles never diminish.
“Dealing with some issues away from the rink at a young age (the death of best pal and surrogate brother Brendan Horton, aged 21, of cancer a few years ago) that have provided me with … perspective, I guess,” says Gillies.
So he won’t allow his insides to get wound tighter than those of a Titleist 3. That, he understands, would simply not be good for business.
“If you look at the development model for goalies nowadays,” he points out, “it’s not the Marc-Andre Fleury model in Pittsburgh anymore.
“It’s the Cory Schneider, Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby model. We all want to get to the NHL as quickly as possible, right? But sometimes that doesn’t happen as fast you want. So you keep plugging. Keep working. Keep improving.
“What you’ve got to be is playing. Wherever. Whether you’re in the NHL or the minors.
“What I was thankful for is that last year, whether I was in Stockton or in Calgary, I was playing most nights.”
Over the past two seasons, Gillies has made 85 starts for the Heat. Up top, he made a single appearance two seasons ago and bumped that total to 11 last year.
“If you look at my starts when Smitty was hurt and at the end of the year, I think I’m ready to take that – quote – next step – unquote,” he says.
“I think I showed that in Stockton all year, too. It was tough not reaching the playoffs at the end but a fun year anyway.
“Looking back at my career path and the opportunities I’ve been given, I think I’ve shown my abilities to rise to the occasion.
So fully understanding what’s at stake, the hole that needs filling, how far he’s come and how hard he’s worked to get here, the philosophy still doesn’t alter one iota.
“Same old,” he replies when asked for a game-plan heading into September. “Do my best and let the chips fall where they may.
“So many variables are out of your control.
“Hockey’s my job but it’s also a game. So don’t get too high, or too low. This is supposed to be fun. That’s what we start playing for in the first place. Fun.
“So play hockey. Stop pucks. Wherever I am.
“I’ve been on a path where I’ve played a lot of games. I’ve had a lot of chances to show what I can do. This will be another one.
“And you can’t ask for much more than that.”