A quick look at the Canada West roster at this year’s World Junior A Challenge shows no shortage of international experience.
Kurt Keats and Paul Stoykewych are back from last year’s silver medal-winning team, while Keats, Stoykewych, Rhett Gardner, Brandon Hickey and Josh Smith all wore red and white at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
And then there’s Tommy Nixon.
The Sherwood Park Crusaders goaltender is the lone player on the roster to represent Canada at an official International Ice Hockey Federation world championship, but it’s not one that may immediately spring to mind.
Nixon strapped on the pads last June for Canada at the 2013 IIHF Inline Hockey World Championship in Dresden, Germany, helping the Canadians win a bronze medal.
“I just remember, it went by so quick,” Nixon says of his Team Canada experience. “I’m sure every guy can attest to that, that every time they’re with the red and white it’s memorable, and it just flies by.”
The Sherwood Park, Alta., native didn’t get much playing time, starting an exhibition game against Hungary and getting into only seven minutes of action during the tournament.
But that didn’t matter one bit to Nixon, who soaked up every bit of information he could from his veteran teammates.
“I got to learn from some of the best roller hockey players in the world,” he says. “Our starting goaltender, Brett Leggatt, was top goaltender in the tournament, and just getting to watch him play, and study his practice habits while we were there, really helped me out as a goaltender.”
Nixon’s 2012-13 season ended March 8, when his Sherwood Park Kings were eliminated from the Alberta Midget Hockey League playoffs in a five-game quarter-final loss to the Edmonton SSAC Athletics; Game 4 of the series went into the record books as one of the longest in AMHL history; Nixon finished with 68 saves in a 1-0 five-overtime loss.
With his Midget season done, Nixon’s focus turned to the inline game. He and his brother decided to attend an open tryout in Spruce Grove, Alta., for the national team, with Nixon looking to impress coaches for possible international duty in the future.
But it didn’t work out that way.
“I figured, ‘I’m 18 years old, I’m not at the peak of my hockey career yet – knock on wood – and maybe I can get my name out there so a in few years, then maybe they’ll take me,’ “ Nixon says of trying out. “So I went, had a really good camp, I was told I outplayed the returning guy, and ended up booking a flight to Germany.”
While the differences between ice hockey and roller hockey may seem as simple as swapping out ice for floor, and blades for wheels, Nixon says they’re “two completely different sports,” particularly for a goaltender.
“On wheels you can’t set your feet like you can on ice,” he says. “On ice you can get set and just stop; the feet can dig in. But in roller, you just keep rolling, so you have to make sure you can make saves while you’re still rolling, or try to get your feet set a lot earlier, which makes some good habits for ice.
“And you get to throw out some two-pad stacks and a few more poke-checks, which is obviously more fun.”
With so many highlights from Nixon’s world championship experience, everything from his 24-save shutout of Hungary in exhibition play – “It was the first time I ever lined up against someone who wasn’t speaking English, and that’s a little bit of a culture shock” – to singing O Canada on the blue-line after winning bronze, it’s tough for him to decide which is his favourite.
But putting on the Team Canada jersey for the first time is something special for any player, and it was no different for Nixon.
“We all lined up in a circle in the room, and they put on an inspirational song. Our captain, Kirk French, started talking about the pride, how only a lucky few get to do this, and you’re representing your country, 33 million strong. Make sure you wear (the jersey) proud and do everything. He looks over at me, because I’m the young, fresh-faced 18-year-old kid there, and he says ‘Nixon, put it on first.’ So first guy in the room putting on the jersey, I just got butterflies.
“It’s awe-inspiring. You’re thinking ‘Wow, I never thought I’d be here, but I’m just going to keep working so I get to do it again.’ ”