In the ten previous years of the Eugene Generals, there are usually multiple 20 year-old players on a roster playing in their last year of junior hockey. This year, however, there is only one 20 year-old whose time with the Generals is winding down.
That 20 year-old, goalie Chris Pritchard, also happens to be an indispensable and transcendent player who has been vital to the success of the Generals this season. With this upcoming weekend being his last regular season home series at the Rink Exchange, Pritchard reflected on his three years in Eugene, what he wants to achieve the rest of the season, and what his future holds.
Originally from Tualatin, Oregon, just a 90-minute drive north on I-5, Pritchard has been playing hockey since he was four, but did not start out as a goalie. It was during his peewee days with the Portland Junior Winterhawks when he started to play goalie. Even though he liked scoring goals at forward, there was no better feeling for Pritchard than making a great glove save.
The Generals coaching staff wanted Pritchard to play for the team during his senior year of high school. Instead of playing junior hockey in Eugene, Pritchard decided to graduate from Tualatin High School and play another year of hockey with the Portland Junior Winterhawks. Similar to his current Generals team, that Junior Winterhawks team was also a tightknit group, where he played alongside a familiar face, Generals defenseman and Portland native Brett Sparks.
The next season, Pritchard finally decided to take the leap of faith and tryout for the team at Main Camp in August 2013. After officially making the team, his junior hockey career with the Eugene Generals was underway, as well as a memorable first practice.
Pritchard recalls throwing up in a trash bin over the bench after skating lines, where he had a memorable interaction with Coach Kern, who was the assistant coach at the time.
“Kern looks at me and asks, ‘so are you happy to be a General now?’ and I’m like ‘f&%$ yeah’ and never looked back. It was terrible at the time, but looking back now it was hilarious.”
Three years later, Pritchard reflects on the 2015-16 season, which he calls “the best year of hockey I’ve ever played. All the way from the ownership, coaches, front office down to the players, everything has been unbelievable. Everything they do for us and the support from the city of Eugene, it’s been unreal.”
Of all the teams Pritchard has been on, he refers to this Generals team as his favorite one. “As far as the players go, everybody is so close. We are a family. It’s been so much fun this year.”
Despite the success of Pritchard and the Generals this year, the previous two seasons had its share of highs and lows for both sides. Aside from the team finishing under .500 in each of the past two years, things on Pritchard’s end were not great.
In his first year with the Generals, Pritchard started just two games while facing a mere 43 shots against over a five-month span. To put that into perspective, Pritchard has six games this season where he has made at least 43 saves.
Pritchard's first start with the Generals on 10/19/13, also the team's Breast Cancer Awareness Night
Working hard and losing a lot of weight during the offseason, Pritchard was determined to rightfully earn the starting job for his sophomore campaign. There was only one problem: much like his rookie year, he was not getting any playing time. With the exception of one start, Pritchard was not playing despite winning all three of his starts.
Unhappy with the situation, Pritchard made the difficult decision to leave Eugene and head back home to Tualatin. Describing his time away with the Generals as “terrible” and “depressing,” things would begin to change with a phone call.
On his way to a nearby rink to play at an adult league scrimmage as a forward, Pritchard got a phone call from Justin Kern, who was just promoted to head coach the same day. “He called me and said that he wanted me to be the starting goalie next year. So I immediately turned my car around, picked up my goalie gear at my house, and played goalie instead of forward that night.”
One of his favorite memories during his time with the Generals was his return to the team and starting against the West Sound Warriors, back on January 17, 2015. Despite being bombarded by shot after shot, Pritchard described the game as one of the best moments of his hockey career.
“I had 77 shots against me and we lost 10-0, but to me I finally felt like I was part of the team,” beamed Pritchard. “That game made me realize how much everyone cares and how great it is to be part of the Generals organization.”
Pritchard's return to the Generals against West Sound on 1/17/15
Fast forward to the current 2015-16 season, where Pritchard has put together one of the best individual goalie seasons in Generals history. Starting in 18 games and playing in 20, Pritchard has compiled impressive numbers and statistics in his third year with the team. Along with three shutouts and a stellar goals against average of 2.36, his save percentage of 93.8% ranks third best in the Northern Pacific Hockey League (NPHL). Not to mention the fact that over half of his starts have come against the top two teams in the league (Wenatchee Wolves and Bellingham Blazers).
His best games personally have been versus the aforementioned top two teams. The Wolves’ lone loss this year was courtesy of the Generals, with Pritchard having an integral role on the outcome of the game. With 52 shots against him, Pritchard recorded 51 saves, including 24 in the final period with the Wolves’ backs against the wall. The Generals won the intense 2-1 game on his head coach's birthday, a game which Pritchard says he still gets chills just thinking about it.
Back in January, the Generals travelled to Bellingham to play two games against a Blazers team they had not beaten in almost three years. Pritchard did something only three other Generals goalie have acheived, which is record back-to-back shutouts en route to consecutive wins. Pritchard saved all 84 shots during the two-game sweep on the same ice where both teams will meet in games one and two of the NPHL Playoffs.
Pritchard owes a lot of his success to his goalie coach, former NHL player Derek Gustafson who is from nearby Gresham, Oregon. "He really pushed me with on-ice and off-ice training, especially running and cardio. He made me work hard and helped get me to where I am at today, so a lot of credit goes to him."
Along with giving credit to Gustafson, Pritchard also acknowledges how everything he went through his first two seasons continued to motivate him. “A lot of what happened my first two years made me want it more since I did not play much. I just wanted to push myself harder and harder, on and off the ice.”
With all that he endured, Pritchard offered advice to anyone who has had to earn a starting job the way he did. “You have to be patient,“ he preached. “For one thing, you really have to want it. I only played two games my first year, and a lot of the times I would really be frustrated. In the end, you just have to wait it out and stay hungry. If you don’t want it, it’s not going to happen.”
From mentoring young players like Chris O’Shaughnessy, to competing against local news anchors (see below), this has been a busy season for Pritchard. With four regular season games left plus playoffs, Pritchard says it has not hit him that his junior hockey career is about to conclude. “It really hasn’t sunk in at all yet. This is my first year really playing a lot and it kind of feels like I’m just getting going. You want to play your whole life but you have to move on to bigger things.”
Pritchard with KVAL's Sky Muller in his "goalie tryout" with the Generals
Even though there are just a handful of games remaining, there is still plenty of hockey to be played. During the rest of the season and playoffs, Pritchard’s goals the duration of his time with the Generals includes more than just winning.
“Obviously I want to win the Cascade Cup, that’s why we are all here. We have worked hard every day in practice. I want us to play to the best of our abilities, leave it out all on the ice, and make sure we do not regret anything after it’s over. I just want to have fun and enjoy the rest of my time here.”
As is often the case with junior hockey players aging out, there is the all-important decision of what is next in life, whether it involves school or higher levels of hockey. For Pritchard, his aspirations for next season and beyond include the continuation of his hockey career at some college or university.
“I would like to play NCAA hockey somewhere,” explained the Generals goalie. “If that doesn’t work out, I’ll try to play club hockey. I’ve been thinking about going to the University of Oregon or Stony Brook University, so we’ll see what happens there.”
Hockey or no hockey in the foreseeable future, the sport will always have a special place in Pritchard’s heart.
“Hockey is always going to be a part of me for the rest of my life,” he explained. “Whatever happens with hockey, whether it’s competitive or not, I will still be happy.”
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