By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – Some say a goalie is only as good as the defense in front of him.
In 2013-14, Eric Schierhorn was a first-year goaltender for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, a struggling team with a leaky blue line corps.
Most of the time when he took the ice, Schierhorn was blitzed with shots. The Lumberjacks were outshot 1,287-1,201 in the 38 games he started last season.
Sometimes the team won with Schierhorn in goal. He posted nine wins in games when the Jacks were outshot.
Other times they lost and Schierhorn looked shaky. He suffered through two personal five-game losing streaks in 2013-14.
But he said he loved the experience.
“You develop more from seeing a lot of shots,” said Schierhorn, 19, a native of Anchorage, Alaska. “Coach always used to say ‘I know we played bad defense in front of you,’ but that’s what I like. I’d rather have that than 20 shots a game.
“When you go five minutes without a shot, then all of the sudden the other team has a 2-on-1 breakaway, it stinks, really. When you face 40 shots you’re able to get in the groove.”
Facing all those shots helped Schierhorn sharpen his skills, which is obvious from his performance this season.
He finished the regular season with a sparkling 26-13-4 record, two shutouts and a 2.51 goals against average. He was fourth in the league in victories and led the USHL in saves (1,352) and save percentage (.927).
He was named the league’s goalie of the week three times this season and five times in his career.
“I get joy out of frustrating people,” Schierhorn said. “I love to make a save and watch the players slam their sticks and stare up at the sky.”
Schierhorn’s stellar play is a big reason why the Lumberjacks finished the regular season Saturday with a franchise-best 35-21-4 record and a playoff berth, after missing the postseason last year.
The Lumberjacks will open the playoffs with a 3-of-5 quarterfinal series against Youngstown. Game 1 will be Wednesday at L.C. Walker Arena at 7:15 p.m.
“When he first came in and played it was obvious to all of us – wow, this kid is going to be a player,” said Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier. “He’s had his ups and downs, but without him we wouldn’t be in a playoff spot this year.”
Unknown and undrafted
Schierhorn came to the Lumberjacks unknown and undrafted. His path to Muskegon involved a series of unplanned circumstances.
At 14 he attended a summer hockey camp at Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota, a hotbed for hockey talent. It was supposed to be a short experience, with a few days of learning and workouts and a trip home.
But one of the school’s goalies unexpectedly quit the team, and the coaches invited Schierhorn to stay.
“I knew I would eventually have to leave home,” Schierhorn said. “If you want to go anywhere in hockey you can’t stay in Alaska. It was a pretty prestigous school and I definitely wanted to take it, but I didn’t expect to be leaving home in the eighth grade.”
One season at St. Mary’s led to a two-year stint in midget major hockey in Kansas City, playing in the Russell Stover program. But his second year didn’t go so well, and there were no nibbles from higher leagues.
But in the summer of 2013 he earned an invitation to the USA Hockey Select Festival in New York, where scouts from the NHL and other leagues gather to check out young talent.
Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck, a former star NHL goalie, was at the festival. He spotted Schierhorn and invited him to play in Muskegon that fall.
“I really didn’t know if I had an outside chance of making the team, or if I was just going to be a filler for training camp,” Schierhorn said. “I had no idea.”
Vanbiesbrouck said he was instantly impressed, despite Schierhorn’s six-foot, 185-pound frame. He said pro teams generally look for goalies who stand at least 6-2.
“I saw a young goalie who competed for every puck and we needed a goalie who would do that,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “To me how one competes means more than size or where one had played previously.”
Rising to the top
Schierhorn made the Lumberjacks and spent most of the 2013-14 season sharing time in goal with Jordan Uhelski, who had played in Muskegon the year before.
His final stats were so-so. He finished the season with a 20-17-1 record with a 3.21 goals against average and a .905 save percentage.
But the team got hot toward the end of the season, winning 10 of its last 14 games. Schierhorn started peaking as well, and became the everyday goalie in the final month of the season.
He posted an 8-3 record after March 1, helping the Jacks come within a single point of squeezing into the playoffs.
The Lumberjacks had several outstanding goalies in training camp this season, including Ryan Larkin, who was traded to Cedar Rapids before the opening game and went on to be an elite goaltender in the league.
The Jacks were aware of Larkin’s ability, but were already sold on Schierhorn as their everyday starter, with 16-year-old Michael Latorella serving as an understudy.
“Larkin was our property, but (Vanbiesbrouck) wanted to do what was in his best interest,” Krygier said. “We thought Latorella was part of the future of our program, and Schierhorn would do the bulk of the work this season.
“It’s obvious that Schier rose to the top. He’s done a fantastic job and I honestly believe he’s the best goalie in the league.”
A great final season
The 2014-15 season has been a breakout year for Schierhorn.
He was invited to play on the U.S. Junior Select Team that played at the World A Junior Challenge tournament in Canada in December. He started and won three games, while the American squad went 4-0 and won the tournament.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “We were definitely the best team there.”
In January Schierhorn accepted a hockey scholarship from the University of Minnesota.
“It was the campus, the Big Ten atmosphere, and the fact that it’s one of the best college programs in the nation,” Schierhorn said. “For me it was a no-brainer.”
But the best part of the current season has been playing with the recharged Lumberjacks, who finished in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and seventh overall in points in the 17-team league.
Their playoff path won’t be easy. They open against Youngstown, which won the Anderson Cup as the top regular season team in the league.
If they survive that series, they will play the winner of the Cedar Rapids-Dubuque series. Both of those teams finished ahead of the Lumberjacks in the standings, as well.
But Schierhorn said the Lumberjacks have all the confidence they need.
“We’ve beaten everyone in this league, so why shouldn’t we be able to do it?” Schierhorn said.
The end of the season, whenever it comes, will mark the end of Schierhorn’s stay in Muskegon.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “I’m going to miss this place next year. I’ve played on two teams that have been very close knit. It’s been fun coming to the rink every day and seeing the guys.
“When you’re comfortable, you like playing with your teammates and have good relationships with the coaches, it equals success.”