Notre Dame netminder Stone Denbok taking Connecticut hockey by storm
A hockey goaltender's job is to stone the opponent.
And Notre Dame Catholic High School goaltender Stone Denbok is both living up to his name and the reputation of his homeland.
The Lancers' junior netminder -- a Canadian-exchange student -- has invigorated the previously dormant ND hockey program. Notre Dame enters the Division I state tournament at Simsbury on Wednesday as one of the state's most dangerous teams, thanks in large part to Denbok.
"Coming from Canada, you have a big name, and you have to show it," Denbok said.
Denbok possesses a 2.33 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage and has stopped 483 shots in 16 games for ND -- an average of 30 saves per game.
Some might think shutting down opponents on a nightly basis would come naturally for a native of Oakville, Ontario, but it's taken an adjustment for a 16 year old to be living with a host family in Trumbull -- about 500 miles from his parents.
"It's been a big change coming from Canada," Denbok said.
But thanks to Lancers coach Steve Hetherman and the support of the Notre Dame community, Denbok has come to feel at home.
Living in a suburb of hockey-mad Toronto and giving their youngest son the name "Stone," Leon and Victoria Denbok, one might think, must have been breeding him to be a goalie from birth.
But that's far from the truth. Unlike most Canadians, Stone's parents were not hockey fans.
"It's just a family name," Victoria Denbok said of their son's given name. "It's a strange coincidence."
In fact, they'd never attended a hockey game until Stone started playing.
From the day Denbok put on skates, he knew he would play between the pipes.
Very young players are forced to alternate positions -- so as not to be pigeon-holed at too young an age -- but Denbok somehow found a way to stay in goal.
"I swear he'd bribe kids to keep play goalie," Victoria said.
Denbok's prowess in net landed him on the Connecticut Junior Islanders' midget-minor team at a United States Hockey League "Young Guns" Tournament in Philadelphia last spring.
That team was coached by Hetherman.
Hetherman asked Denbok if he'd be interested in going to school in the U.S. and taking his talents to Notre Dame.
"He's a good kid with wonderful ability," Hetherman said. "And there was a willingness (to move)."
When Denbok first ran the idea past his mom, she laughed. But he wasn't kidding.
"I told him: `do your research,'" Victoria said. "Tell me how it is going to work out."
Denbok did his research and pitched a presentation. He and is parents came to Fairfield and visited Notre Dame. And the goaltender ate it up.
"I loved the school," Denbok recalled. "I liked the kids on the team a lot."
He made sure to remind his mom that her biggest fear -- being hundreds of miles away with no access to her son -- though rational, was not grounds to hold her son from fulfilling his dreams.
"Stone had all the answers," Victoria said. "I couldn't come up with any reason for him not to do this."
Without the language and cultural barriers that many exchange students face, Denbok's transition to life in the states was not especially difficult.
Still, being 16 and living 500 miles from home has taken some getting used to.
Denbok lives with Lency and Kias Suporn in Trumbull. Lency and Kias' son Jonathan is a forward on ND's hockey team.
"He wanted to to go to school and play hockey here," Lency said. "We're just trying to help him out."
"They've been great," Denbok said of his host family.
Suporn and Denbok have developed a close relationship -- they share a bedroom -- and that has eased Denbok's transition.
"We're super close," Denbok said. "We're like brothers now."
Denbok stays in close touch with his family. He texts his mom daily, they video-chat about once a week, and he's been home twice -- during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. Suporn even went with him once.
During Canadian Thanksgiving -- which falls on Columbus Day -- Denbok was in Oakville in spirit, if not in body. His family set him a plate and set up the video camera at the dinner table.
"He got to be here virutally," Victoria said. "We set him a place, and we all had Thanksgiving dinner together."
While he was not promised the Lancers' starting goalie position when the season started, it did not take much time for Denbok to take it from 2011-12 starter Scott Kline.
"It started in the captain's practices," Suporn said. "We all knew, and I think Kline could see it himself."
But life in the ND net was no bed of roses early in the season.
After winning his first start, 8-2 against West Hartford's Conard, Denbok surrendered seven goals on 34 shots -- and was pulled after two periods -- in a 7-2 loss to Fairfield Prep. Two nights later, Denbok stopped 35 -- but allowed five goals -- in the Lancers' 5-4 loss to Darien.
His confidence waffled, and the team sank deeper. In all, ND lost five straight -- including two losses to Division II teams -- bottoming out at 1-5.
"I was so angry, I couldn't go to sleep because of how bad I thought I was playing," Denbok recalled. "Going into that game, I knew I had to show up and go all out."
In that contest,
Denbok and the Lancers turned their season around.
Denbok stole the game -- stopping 33 shots in the Lancers' 2-1 victory. Suporn scored the winning goal.
And the Lancers started to roll.
Denbok started, and won, the next eight games, clinching ND a state tournament berth. And along the way, began seeing the goalie who had grabbed his attention in Philadelphia.
"He's very reserved, maintains his energy level. He's very stoic." Hetherman said. During the run to playoffs, however, the coach has seen "a new level of intensity and focus."
Though Denbok is only 5-9, 145 pounds, when things are going right, he is a fundamentally-sound butterfly goaltender. Former NHL netminder Kay Whitmore is among his tutors.
"When Stone's on his game, he's very patient," Whitmore said. "Patience is one of the hardest things to teach a young goaltender."
One of Denbok's most unheralded, but more-valuable, skills is his puck-moving ability. While many most Connecticut high school goaltenders shy away from cleared pucks for fear of surrendering an open-net goal, Denbok comes out to play the puck -- like his favorite NHL goalie,
"You don't see that in Connecticut high school hockey," Hetherman said. "We encourage it."
"I take a lot of pride in that," Denbok said.
Denbok's puck-moving is so good that Hetherman has to rein him in when the team is practicing dump-in drills.
"In practice, we have to tell him `don't touch the puck,'" Hetherman said.
Though Denbok and ND lost four of six to close the year, Denbok played well in each game. All four losses came to teams ranked in the state's top-10 -- including back-to-back one-goal losses to Fairfield Prep and ND-West Haven with his parents in the stands.
"It was so nerve-wracking," Victoria said.
He limited Prep -- the state's top team with an explosive offense -- to just two goals; then two nights later he held the Green Knights to just one goal
in 42:54 -- the Lancers surrendered three goals
in 5:01, falling in overtime, 4-3.
Denbok earned praise from both opposing coaches.
"The goaltender is good," Prep coach Matt Sather said.
"He's a terrific goaltender," ND-West Haven coach Bill Gerosa said.
Denbok tentatively has plans to play hockey this summer in either New York or Connecticut. He's also hoping to gain the attention of U.S. college coaches.
Hetherman, who made college-hockey connections during his his tenure as head coach of NYU's club team, believes Denbok has Division I potential.
"My job is to move him to the next level," Hetherman said.
The process of getting to a top-tier college program could be long. It might involve two years at post-graduate prep school, then two years of juniors before he'd skate on a Division I rink.
Whatever Denbok's aim, Whitmore is hoping for bright things from the young goalie.
"He just loves to play the position," Whitmore said. "You can't help but hope that things go well for him."
But that's down the pike. For the immediate future, Denbok and ND must worry about their
Division I state tournament. The Lancers have not advanced beyond the state's first round since 2009.
"If I don't play well there, I'm not going to have the chance to go much farther," Denbok said.
But because of Denbok, the Lancers believe they can pull off a fairy-tale story just as a former Nutmeg goalie, Jonathan Quick, did.
"I think we're coming in as the underdog, and nobody really thinks we can do it," Suporn said. "But I think we can pull an LA Kings and win the whole thing."
If the Lancers do, it will be in large part because their netminder stoned the opposition.