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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Nico Daws has three sweaters hanging on the wall of his room. One is from the game he played in the Canada/Russia series in November. The second is one he wore at the World Juniors in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The third is from January's Canadian Hockey League top prospects game.

The sweaters are symbolic of how far the Guelph Storm goalie has come in 12 short months. 

Last year, Daws was passed over in the National Hockey League draft and, after posting consecutive sub .900 save percentage seasons as the backup in Guelph, wasn't sure if he'd ever get a chance to start for the Storm. 

"It's easy to just give up, honestly," Daws said. "You can just go to school after you ride out your OHL career, but I wanted more than that. I wanted to play professional hockey. It's something I wanted to do as a kid so I really had to prove to people that I'm capable of doing it."

Daws proceeded to author one of the great turnaround stories in junior hockey this season. He led the Ontario Hockey League with a .924 save percentage while playing 38 games, more than double the total from his first two seasons combined. Daws was voted the Western Conference's most improved player in the annual OHL coaches poll. And in their final rankings, NHL Central Scouting listed Daws first among go​alies in North America.

When NHL t​eams call for an interview, the most frequent question Daws gets is about what sparked his rise. He dropped 25 pounds last summer with an assist from the Keto diet, but believes the biggest adjustment was between the ears.

"It was a mindset change," he said. "I knew that this year, whether it was in Guelph or with another team, I needed to be a starting goalie ...​ getting passed over in last year's draft really helped me get that motivation."

Whenever the 2020 draft is held, Daws will finally hear his name called by an NHL team. The 19-year-old spoke with TSN via a Zoom call on Wednesday and reflected on his dramatic rise. Daws also provided a scouting report on the OHL's top scorers and explained why Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck is his NHL role model. 

The following is an edited transcript of the interview. 

Will it be tough to wait if the NHL draft isn't in June? 

"I don't think so. At this point, there's nothing more that you can really do. You've shown all you could on the ice so now it's just waiting and hoping."

What did you learn about yourself this season?

"I learned a lot about myself. More than anything, I learned that I'm capable of playing at a high level. It's something that I was unsure about a couple years ago. Being a backup for two years in the OHL, it's hard. You're not getting into games all the time and you start to question your own ability. So, it was really nice to gain that confidence and just know I'm capable of doing it and I think I'm able to do it for a long period of time."

It hasn't been an easy road to this point, did you ever come close to giving up? 

"I don't think I was ever close to giving up, but it was hard. We'd go on a three-in-three weekend and I wouldn't get a game so it was a mental grind my first two years. You never know when you're going to play and when you do play there's a lot of pressure, because you feel like you have to perform good to get back into the net. So, it was hard mentally for me, but this past year helped me get comfortable. You know that if you have an off game you're able to get right back in as a starting goalie. I'm really confident in myself now."

What did you take from your World Juniors experience?

"I took away a lot of things. It was the first time I ever played in anything internationally, playing for my country, so it was really cool for me. The way the tournament went for me, there were ups and downs. The biggest thing for me was the mental side of the game. Playing in front of that many fans on that big of a stage with a lot of pressure, you have to be able to handle that so that helped me out a lot, understanding what I'm going to have to go through to play at higher levels."

After getting pulled in the loss to Russia, you didn't play again in the tournament. That game was certainly a tough one for the entire team, but what went wrong for you that night? 

"I just got too caught up in the emotions of the game, which is a bad thing for a goaltender. You have to be able to stay level-headed. When you get caught up in the emotions you're not focused on making the proper reads and doing the thing that you have to do, which is stop the puck. The puck doesn't know where it is, the puck thinks it's just any other game so that's one thing I've learned and that I base my game off of now."  

Speaking of emotional games, what was it like on the bench during the gold-medal showdown with Russia? 

"It was nerve-wracking. There was a lot of components in that game. We were down and started to come back. I don't think any of us doubted that we were going to win that game. We all knew that we were able to come back with the skill that we had and it came down to Akil [Thomas] scoring that goal and after that it was just pure excitement." 

Captain Barrett Hayton scored the tying goal despite playing with a shoulder injury. What stood out about him? 

"He was very resilient in that tournament. He's obviously a highly, highly skilled player and he was able to put the team on his back no matter what. He kept everyone in line. Everyone's emotions were everywhere, but he was able to calm everybody down and he was a big reason why we were able to bring home the gold."

Where do you keep your gold medal?

"I have it sitting in my room here in a case."

Is it a source of motivation?

"Yeah, it’s definitely a nice thing to wake up to each morning."

The cancellation of the rest of the CHL season robbed you of the chance to start in the OHL playoffs for the first time. That's one less chance to test yourself in pressure situations. How would you assess the current state of your mental game?

"I think my mental game is a lot stronger than it used to be. Obviously, it's a big part of the game and there's still lots to improve on. As a goalie it's easy to get in your own head, but you got to be able to keep a straight line of focus and just focus on the next shot. We have a mental [health] sports guy in Guelph named Ashwin [Patel] so I was able to connect with him throughout the year and he was always available to talk and he helped me out a lot as well. You got to work on it as much as you have to work on anything else in hockey."

Outside of the World Juniors, what was your favourite memory or moment from the season?

"There were a lot, but I think the OHL-Russia game was my first big me​mory. I was a late invite. I only got in, because of an injury [to Jacob Ingham], which sucks, but I was happy to get into a game. I had never really met any of the guys from around the league. I only really knew guys from my team. So, it was a really cool experience to get on a stage like that and meet all the guys and be able to play in a game like that." 

I wanted to pick your brain about a couple of the OHL's top scorers. You saw Saginaw quite a bit, what's a goalie's perspective on Cole Perfetti? What stands out?

"Oh, there's a lot. He's a dual threat. He's got a great shot, but also great passing abilities, too. He was definitely a threat whenever he was on the ice. He was very smart with the puck. It was a battle throughout the season playing against them. He was probably one of the tougher players we played against." 

How about your World Junior teammate Connor McMichael of the London Knights?

"He's got a fantastic shot. He's got a knack for the net. He got a couple on me this year. He's a goal scorer. Playing against London was never easy and he was one of their hardest players to play against."

You only faced the Ottawa 67s a couple of times, but what stood out about Jack Quinn and Marco Rossi?

"They were an elite duo. Ottawa had a really good team and they were hard to play against. The first game we played against them was the first game this season and I remember it was a constant battle and a whole lot of shots on net. Two outstanding players."

In terms of goalies, who do you like watching in the NHL?

"There's a few goalies, but I like Connor Hellebuyck. I like his style of play. He's a big goalie and he's efficient around the net so I like to model my game after him." 

What's your focus this off-season?

"Last summer the focus was more getting myself in the right mindset and losing weight. Now, I'm happy with where my weight's at and I'm happy with where my mind is, it's more about building muscle and getting ready for that next level."

What's your day-to-day routine look like now?

"It's light. I have workouts with my trainer over Zoom every Tuesday and Thursday and he was able to get me a bunch of equipment for my garage since his gym was closed. So, whether I'm working out with him or by myself and doing cardio, every day it's just trying to do something to get better."