Even on the days when a path to the NHL seemed permanently blocked, Eric Comrie was first on the ice, last to leave and a beacon of positivity for his teammates with the Manitoba Moose.
Yet there were times through their six seasons together that Rick St. Croix, the Moose’s goaltending coach during Comrie’s 198 games with the Winnipeg Jets’ American Hockey League affiliate, recognized that, below the surface, his pupil was growing frustrated that he hadn’t received an opportunity to prove he was ready for the highest level.
“There was a period of time where I could sense that it was pushing the envelope, but who wouldn’t be frustrated?” st. Croix recalled. “I had five years in the minors, also as a goaltender, so I could relate to some of that. I was a bit concerned. But not because of his character or work ethic. We kept throwing these things at him and threw him curveballs, but he was always ready to handle it.”
People are also reading…
Comrie, 27, always believed, though. His love for the hockey life, passion for the position and burning desire to be great motivated him on those days when the odds seemed unsurmountable. There were many difficult moments along the way. Before his breakout performance as the Jets’ backup goalie last season, he was claimed off waivers four times, twice by Winnipeg, and traded once.
But on July 13, nine years and three weeks since he was drafted in the second round by the Jets, Comrie signed a two-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres that positions him to compete for the starting job. The achievement was celebrated across North America by the scores of proud coaches and former teammates who will witness Comrie’s tireless pursuit for an NHL crease.
“He was always in these organizations that the room just wasn’t there for him to wedge himself in and prove himself at the top tier,” said James Jensen, whose coached Comrie each summer since the goalie was 10 years old. “His affirmation every day was just wake up, work hard and put yourself in a position where you can’t be denied.
“Eric’s been pushing on that ceiling for many, many years, and he’s finally in. He’s an everyday NHL goalie, and I could not be happier for him. And I cannot be happier he’s in Buffalo. It’s a fantastic, fantastic scenario.”
To goaltender Eric Comrie, the Buffalo Sabres represent real opportunity. The kind he has waited to grab for nearly a decade.
When Comrie’s family moved from Edmonton to California when he was a child, his father, Bill, a Canadian businessman who founded The Brick, a successful chain of retail stores, had a full-sized roller rink built on their property. They’re a hockey family. Eric’s older brothers, Mike and Paul, played in the NHL, and Bill was a talented junior player. Eric developed a love for the sport at an early age.
All these years later, Rick Kelly is still stunned by what he saw at a spring pee-wee hockey tournament in El Segundo, Calif. When the team he coached, the California Wave, won a semifinal game that started at 8 am, everyone left the rink to go home because the championship wasn’t scheduled to begin until late that afternoon.
At 10 years old, he sat by the glass, with his equipment still on, watching the other semifinal game. He remained there all day until it was time to lead his team to victory. Even at that age, Comrie was so detail-oriented that he didn’t drink anything except water. Not even the occasional Gatorade.
“I hope he’s had a beer now in his life; one beer even,” Kelly said, chuckling. “But I doubt it. I bet he’s still on the same plan. He was always so dedicated. Like, off the charts.”
In those days, Comrie was just learning the position. He soon linked up with Jensen, who saw in Comrie a “street hockey goalie” with raw potential. Previously, most of Comrie’s experience in goal came from his brothers, Mike and Paul using Eric for target practice. Each time the puck wound up in his glove, Comrie was elated.
Eric always wanted to work himself to exhaustion, on and off the ice. Kelly estimates that during his private on-ice sessions that typically included a dozen skaters, Comrie would volunteer to face 1,000 shots in an hour. Bill would yell over the glass, “Get out of the net,” because the boy wouldn’t want a break. And when Kelly invited another goalie to lessen the workload, Eric objected.
The Sabres’ hockey operations department targeted veteran goalies who would sign for one or two years to work in tandem with Craig Anderson and hold the starting job until a prospect is ready. And shortly after free agency opened, General Manager Kevyn Adams got his preferred target.
“It turned out this was his calling, for sure, to be a goaltender,” Kelly said. “He just lives for it.”
Comrie was the most valuable player on his club’s back-to-back national championships in pee-wee and bantam, erasing mistakes for a team that included future NHLers Trevor Moore and Adam Erne. Gradually, Comrie established himself as one of the top 1995-born goals in North America. And when he weighed whether to play junior or college hockey, coaches and scouts gathered at games to try to recruit him.
An owner from a Western Hockey League team chartered a private jet to see Comrie in a tournament. Red Berenson, the longtime coach at the University of Michigan, wanted him to wear maize and blue. But Comrie’s eye was on the WHL, the league in which Carey Price developed into a top goaltender.
Price, a record-setting Canadian goalie, played for the Tri-City Americans before his remarkable run with the Montreal Canadiens. Lured by the opportunity to follow in Price’s footsteps, Comrie joined the club following his selection in the WHL draft.
“Eric always worked extremely hard,” said Bill Tory, Tri-City’s owner and general manager. “He really just enjoys coming to the rink, being at the rink. It’s not a job to him. He has a passion for this. That’s what’s allowed him to be successful. Other players looked up to him. He was just a tremendous player for us.”
Comrie went on to win 85 games across four successful seasons in Tri-City and heard his name called in the second round of the NHL draft in 2013, even though he underwent hip surgery months earlier. The injury likely impacted his draft position, but didn’t hinder his development. He emerged as a legitimate NHL prospect and won both of his starts at the IIHF World Junior Championship in 2014-15 to help Canada win gold.
Before he even appeared in a professional game, a future Vezina Trophy winner was ahead of Comrie on the Jets’ prospect depth chart: Connor Hellebuyck, who was drafted in 2012 and became an NHL regular in 2015.
Upon turning pro and joining Manitoba in 2015-16, Comrie thrived while handling a starter’s workload. He averaged 44.5 appearances across his first four years with the Moose until 2019, and owns a .911 save percentage in his 207 games at the AHL level.
“He’s a very passionate athlete,” said St. Croix. “Loves the position of goal. And from day one, he was going to show that work ethic would never be a question mark.”
Sustained success wasn’t enough to earn Comrie opportunities in Winnipeg, though. Prior to last season, he had appeared in only nine career NHL games because he was blocked by Hellebuyck and the Jets’ backup goalie, Laurent Brossoit.
On Sept. 30, 2019, when Comrie couldn’t surpass Brossoit in training camp, he was waived and claimed by the Arizona Coyotes.
“There’s been a lot of times where it was tough, when it was tough to continue doing it,” Comrie said. “But hockey’s something I truly love doing… I love playing, I love practicing.
“It’s almost like, even though it takes a while, it’s almost better that it took a while because it took me time to really appreciate getting there.”
Less than two months later, he was traded to Detroit and remained with the Red Wings for three weeks before going on waivers again. The Jets reclaimed Comrie and sent him back to Manitoba, but he landed on waivers the following season because there still wasn’t a spot in Winnipeg.
Claimed by New Jersey, his only game in a Devils uniform occurred in KeyBank Center, without fans, on Jan. 31, 2021, when he made 30 saves in a 5-3 victory. He was placed on waivers only three weeks later and rejoined the Jets, where he bounced between the taxi squad and minors the rest of the 2020-21 season.
“If anything, it was more an important process for him to just take a half step back and just really trust himself, and that’s what maturity brings you,” St. Croix said. “That’s why I say he’s really, really ready for anything that comes to him because I think he’s seen everything. … I think, right now, the inner confidence is more real. And that maturity is there. The curve is in the right spot for him to excel going forward, and he’s earned it.”
Comrie wasn’t complacent during his time in the minors. He did whatever he could to reach the NHL. Approximately 10 years ago, Lyle Mast, then goalie coach for Tri-City, introduced Comrie to an innovation in technique called, “Head Trajectory,” which focuses on how to move your head, rather than your eyes, to track the puck and shot releases. Doing so eliminates unnecessary movements, allowing the goalie to maintain precise footwork and positioning.
“He was an early adopter of that, and honestly, in the entire National Hockey League, he’s probably the best at it right now,” said Jensen, who also serves as goalie coach for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips.
Each offseason, Comrie embarks on a quest to gain more knowledge about goaltending and different tools that can help him succeed. Last summer, he hired a nutritionist and sports psychologist, the latter of which he sought out because of the benefits described by professional golfers. Over the years, he has traveled across North America to seek specialized instruction.
“What’s great is every time he comes back to me, the first thing I want to do is download as much information off of him as I can that’s going to aid in my coaching for the next generation,” Jensen said, “because he’s an absolute encyclopedia of all things goaltending and all things goalie development.”
A path to Winnipeg finally opened last July when Brossoit signed with Vegas as a free agent. Seven years after his first AHL game, Comrie had a real opportunity to be an NHL goalie, and he seized the job in training camp. In 19 appearances, he had a 10-5-1 record and .920 save percentage.
His play in the crease helped keep the Jets’ playoff hopes alive in the final weeks of a difficult season, but their interim coach, Dave Lowry, leaned on Hellebuyck, whose 66 starts were second-most in the NHL. The decision was costly. With 90 more minutes, Comrie would have qualified for restricted free agency this summer.
Instead, he was free to sign elsewhere July 13 and, based on his breakout performance, emerged as the Sabres’ choice to work in tandem with Craig Anderson next season. In Comrie, genreal manager Kevyn Adams and his staff saw a goalie who could flourish with the opportunity he never received elsewhere.
“I always just wanted him to get his moment and show everybody what he is,” Kelly said. “I feel like Buffalo is going to be shocked at what they actually have.
“There’s nothing negative you can say about Eric Comrie.”