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Goaltender Milic starring for Thunderbirds at Memorial Cup

Seattle Thunderbirds Jordan Gustafson and Thomas Milic Jordan Gustafson and Thomas Milic - The Canadian Press

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Thomas Milic has a cool, calm presence to him that's been evident both on and off the ice.

And the Seattle Thunderbirds star has used it to shine bright at the Memorial Cup. The six-foot, 179-pound goaltender has paced the tournament in goals-against average (2.02) and save percentage (.923) across three games for a Seattle squad that next plays in Friday's semifinal.

"That's always something I've naturally been pretty good at, is staying level-headed during games," he said with a smile. "I think what encourages me to continue doing that is just the calmness that it feeds to my team as well.

"If we go down a goal or two early, sometimes if you see a goalie have a negative reaction to that, it can feed to the rest of the team and cause everyone else to get a little worried. But I think myself, if I can stay level-headed regardless of whether we're up or down, really just provides a solid backstop for the rest of the team."

As a result, he's drawn high praise from head coach Matt O'Dette.

"The main objective is to stop the puck and there's nobody better at his age than him," he said.

"He's got all the tools that you need to be a good goalie," O'Dette added. "He's athletic, he's technically sound, I think maybe his biggest asset is his mental strength.

"He's calm and cool, always ready for the big game and the big save, just (a) real nice stabilizing influence for our team."

Milic led the Western Hockey League in GAA (2.08) and save percentage (.928) and was tied for second in shutouts (four) in 33 regular-season games. In the post-season, he paced the league in GAA (1.95) and save percentage (.933) across 19 games helping Seattle win the WHL title.

His efforts were recognized with the Del Wilson Memorial Trophy as the WHL Goaltender of the Year and WHL Playoffs MVP honours.

"I've been pretty confident with my game, especially leading throughout playoffs and coming to Mem Cup here," the 20-year-old said. "Happy with where my game is at and I feel like throughout the tournament as well, so far, I've been getting better every game and I think our team has as well."

The Coquitlam, B.C., native isn't new to performing on the big stage. He was top five in both GAA (1.76) and save percentage (.932) in six games when Canada won a gold medal at the world junior championship in January, including a 43-save semifinal performance against the United States.

"Obviously his performance there gave him some confidence, going to give anyone confidence when you're playing on the world stage and having success," O'Dette said. "We've seen that version of Thomas time and time again and it was nice to see him show that to the world, get the respect and the recognition that he deserves.

"It's no secret that he hasn't been drafted yet and he's used that as motivation to continue to get better, continue to prove himself. It's nice to see him get the accolades and the recognition that he deserves."

Currently ranked 28th among North American goaltenders in the final NHL Central Scouting rankings, Milic was passed on at last year's NHL draft. Although it's stuck with him, it isn't something that occupies his mind at the moment.

"It's definitely not my biggest concern right now," he said. "Focusing on trying to help my team win a Mem Cup here."

"One of my favourite quotes is, 'A rising tide lifts all boats.' I think with team success typically comes individual success as well."

While acknowledging Milic's height being a sticking point for NHL teams, O'Dette thinks it's "outdated" and pointed to the success of Nashville's Juuse Saros (five-foot-11), in addition to youngsters in Calgary's Dustin Wolf (six-foot) and Buffalo's Devon Levi (six-foot) being in the league.

Although he feels his netminder has little to prove, O'Dette believes Milic's time will come.

"It's just continuing to prove it," O'Dette said. "Sometimes it takes a longer amount of time to prove yourself when you're not a 6-4 goalie.

"This will be another proving ground for him."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2023.