The Art of Preparation: How Mack Guzda Went from Undrafted to NHL Prospect
It’s the middle of December. The North Bay Battalion are paying a routine visit to Barrie, driving a few hours south on the 400. The game is tied at two, late in the second period, when a two-on-one develops for the Battalion. San Jose Sharks prospect Brandon Coe flies down the right wing before dishing a perfect pass to Edmonton Oilers draftee Matvei Petrov. As Petrov turns to one-time a shot towards the net, newly acquired netminder Mack Guzda stretches across the crease, doing the splits in the process, robbing Petrov point blank.
“A highway robbery save”, as Colts play-by-play announcer Mike Poirier put it on the broadcast. Guzda would later shut the door in the shootout, en route to a Colts victory. The very next day, he would post a 1-0 shutout in North Bay, kicking into motion what would eventually become an impressive stretch of goaltending performances.
Since joining the Colts back in November, Guzda has been among the league’s best between the pipes, earning Goaltender of the Month honours in both December and January. Along with posting sparkling numbers, he’s been a stable presence in the crease, adding more confidence to an already talented Colts squad.
While you might expect this level of success from a goaltender who’s currently in the middle of his fifth and final year in the OHL, Guzda’s triumphant ascension to the upper ranks of junior hockey is the result of a painstaking process complete with adversity, dedication and an unwavering decision to put preparation first.
When you think of Tennessee, what comes to mind? Country music, probably. Chicken and barbeque restaurants would likely be a close second. According to Guzda, who grew up in Knoxville, hockey is quickly rising on that list largely in part to a shift in culture spearheaded by the Nashville Predators and youth hockey organizations around the state.
“When I first started playing, the market in Tennessee was pretty small”, he says. “As I got older, the game is growing and it’s gotten bigger. It’s pretty cool to see the game spreading all around.”
Guzda also holds a unique hand in growing the game, spending the offseason helping youth hockey players in and around Nashville. “I’m always on ice working with goalies especially, so it’s definitely cool to see how many more kids are getting into it and how many more ‘first generation’ families are getting into hockey”, he says with a smile. “It’s definitely great for the game.”
Most Americans who aspire to one day skate on NHL ice typically take the collegiate route in order to get there. Despite familiarizing himself with his collegiate options, Guzda had always set his sights on the OHL. A dual citizen, with his father hailing from Alberta, he knew the Canadian junior hockey route better suited his ambitions.
“I was really excited to get to come play in Canada and in my eyes, the OHL is really the best way to get yourself prepared for pro hockey”, Guzda recalls. “You play a pro schedule plus preseason and playoffs, so I think the OHL really does a good job mirroring other professional leagues and preparing guys to play at the next level.”
Playing parts of four seasons with the Owen Sound Attack after being drafted in 2017, Guzda established himself as a consistent and reliable netminder, with the hopes of being drafted looming large.
However, Guzda didn’t hear his name called in his first year of eligibility. His second year came and went. His third year included more silence on the NHL front.
With three years under of OHL experience under his belt, Guzda was sent searching for answers. He had talked to a handful of teams leading up to each of the three drafts he was eligible for. In all three years, he was projected to hear his name called at some point. Yet, that’s not the way things worked out. His numbers in the early days of his OHL career weren’t phenomenal, but even still, he figured most teams would jump on the chance to add a 6-foot-5, 200 plus pound goaltender to their prospect pool.
“That was tough, when I wasn’t drafted. There were a lot of people that expected me to get drafted, some people thought pretty high, and that’s just not the way things went. I didn’t have a very good season and at that point, it was just time for me to get to work”, Guzda remembers. “More than anything now, it acts as motivation. It still burns a little when I think back on it and I think that’s something that’s going to stick with me forever. I don’t think I’ll ever forget about it.”
With an NHL opportunity seemingly slipping away, Guzda was forced to change his perspective. He knew he had missed his chance on getting drafted, but there was still work to be done. “The most important thing for me was to stay positive and go to work. I had a much better season the following year and even though I still wasn’t drafted, I felt like I made some pretty big strides”, he says, thinking back to his days in Owen Sound.
“That’s been my main goal, to come back better and better each year and even though I may not have been drafted, I proved to myself that it didn’t mean it was the end of my OHL career.”
That shift in mindset, one where a player goes from the potential of being drafted to focusing on other things, came in handy during an unprecedented time. The pandemic hit the junior hockey scene hard, with the OHL becoming one of the many casualties of COVID-19. The 2020-21 season suddenly vanished, and Guzda was forced into an intriguing position. Away from his teammates, Guzda flew home to Tennessee, where spent the cancelled season training alongside his father.
And this, as Guzda puts it, was as big of a turning point as any.
“It ended up being a huge blessing for me, to come home and be able to work on my game that much. I had a lot of time, so I was able to really take a deep dive and watch some video, especially over the course of the previous season, and really look for some things in my game I wanted to improve on”, he says, thinking back fondly to his extended stay at home. “I made some technical adjustments and really worked on the foundation of my game and I was able to play out so many different situations which made everyday exciting.”
Few people are better positioned to talk about what Mack possesses than his father, Brad, a former pro goalie himself and the current goaltending coach for the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds.
“To be honest, it was a blessing. I got a year with my son that I never dreamed I would get. That being said, it was also a curse because it was a year that my son didn’t get to chase his dreams” says Brad. “When you’re trying to perfect something and when you’re hunting for a job at the top level in the world, the detail that goes into it is very intense and it has to be if you’re going to get there. Putting in the work and perfecting yourself is a very painful process.”
He admitted that while some days were ripe with challenges and hardship, there were plenty of positives to take away from the cancelled season. Both Guzdas hit the ice everyday and were often joined by Zach Walker, a former USA National Team Development Program (USNTDP) product. Brad often oversaw Mack’s on-ice work while Zach fell more into more of a shooting and mentorship role, which provided the perfect balance when it came to training.
Brad also shined a unique light on what exactly sets his son apart.
“Right from a very young age, Mack wanted to be a hockey player. There’s a lot of kids growing up wanting to be athletes, but it’s one thing to say it and another thing to live up to it and make those choices. He had to make some choices that were a little bit different because he lived in Tennessee,” he explains. “He may have been seen as the odd kid in a lot of ways, the kid that would slip out on a Thursday, disappear for the weekend and come back exhausted on Monday. He wasn’t seen or heard from much, but he would just be back in the fold for a few days and then go away for the weekend. He made a lot of sacrifices and his willingness to do that is incredible.”
“He did a lot of mental work when he was young. He embraced the idea of preparing at a very young age. He liked the idea of doing as much as he could to make it less of a guessing game when it came to his performance. He learned a lot about himself over the years and I think that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve noticed about him. It’s the quiet, unseen mental preparations that he’s put in.”
Brad was also quick to point out that this similar mentality, one that put hockey first and required the utmost amount of dedication, is what kept the grind alive when the two were together during the cancelled season. “It just became about getting better at stopping the puck, getting more consistent, working at his craft and his details. The biggest thing was to not quit and I have to tell you, there were some dark days during those few months off during the pandemic”, he explains, retelling the experiences lived over the course of an unprecedented stretch. “I was so proud of him and how he kept showing up and working, just because he wanted to be a hockey player so bad. I think it was a saving grace because there’s really no time to feel bad for yourself when all you’re doing is working on yourself.”
Mack’s unwavering ability to dive back into his craft whenever he got in his own head is what kept pushing him forward. When a bad day would arise, he would simply hit the ice again or go back to watching video, ultimately moving on and entering the following training session with a stronger desire to improve. Coming off of three straight seasons where you don’t have the satisfaction of hearing your name called by an NHL team can be detrimental to a goaltender’s growth and development, but being at home and simply focusing on getting better every single day fueled Mack’s longing to come back stronger.
The beauty was in its simplicity. It was never about changing the past or predicting the future. It was about getting better.
“It was really good to have someone in my corner, someone who I could work with every day. It helped me stay focused and keep working”, Guzda explains. “Things weren’t too exciting, we weren’t playing games or anything, so it was really big that my dad was able to help me out the way he did and obviously I’m still super appreciative and thankful of that.”
With the pandemic returning to more bearable levels, Guzda returned to Owen Sound to begin his overage season, bringing with him a refreshed mindset and, according to him, a new level of confidence. NHL Drafts had come and gone, which encouraged him to continue taking each day at face value, something he made a priority when he returned to the OHL scene.
“I think for me, the biggest things that changed were experience and confidence. Confidence is earned through hours and hours of practice and knowing your game inside and out, knowing what you’re capable of and knowing where your strengths are,” says Guzda. “I really had the time to dive into that part of my game, discover what I’m capable of, knowing what I’m comfortable doing and knowing what I’m not comfortable doing and that really made all the difference for me coming into this year.”
After a brief 10 game stint with Owen Sound, Guzda was dealt to Barrie, which ignited a retooling process by the Attack. Leaving behind a team that had his back since day one was a challenge, but at the end of the day, he was aware of the circumstances behind it.
“Obviously it’s a transition, but the way I see it, especially in hockey, when you’re playing with guys as teammates, that’s the quickest way to build bonds,” says Guzda, noting that he’s become close with some of his new teammates quite quickly. “You go to war with them every single night. Guys get close really quickly in the locker room because everyone has your back. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Joining the Colts pushed Guzda into the spotlight on a team that already featured top NHL prospects and 2022 NHL Draft candidates. He thrived in his new environment, keeping the Colts competitive in the midst of a long winded playoff race.
While fans acclimated themselves to watching a quiet, determined character dominate between the pipes, the same work ethic that had carried Guzda through the darkest points of his career were rubbing off on his new teammates. Dave Belitski, a former pro goalie and the current Colts goaltending coach, had a front row seat to witnessing how Guzda carried himself at practice and before games.
“There’s a professionalism to him. You’re kind of drawn to his preparation in practice, his preparation before games. He’s very methodical in the way he gets ready for games”, Belitski explains. “He takes care of his body. Everything he does shows me that he really wants to be a pro. It’s great for the younger players on the team, for them to see how a veteran approaches each game and prepares. I think he’s worked a lot on it and that’s probably one of the biggest things that stands out to me.”
Comically dubbing himself as a goalie who has played in “just about every league except the NHL”, Belitski has seen first-hand what Guzda brings to the table. Despite being a new face in and around the locker room, Guzda’s consistent focus hasn’t changed, no matter what’s happening on the ice.
“Mack never uses any excuses. He takes every goal and puts it on himself and I think that’s what puts him to another level”, he says. “When you do that as a goalie, when a team sees that, you get the whole team wanting to play for you. And that’s a quality that every goalie wants to have, showing that competitive drive and that there are never any excuses.”
As he’s continued to work with Guzda, Belitski attributes one of their first off-ice interactions to inspiring their relationship and the work that the two continue to put in.
“I think when players first get to a new team, you want to make them feel comfortable. And I remember we went out to dinner one of the first nights he was here, just to get away from the rink. I’m a big believer in setting goals and getting to know an individual and getting to know what their aspirations are. Obviously everyone’s dream is to play in the NHL, and I think one of the questions you want to ask them is ‘what is your main goal?’ One of the first things Mack told me was that he wanted to play in the NHL”, he recalls. “So I told him some of the things that I thought were going to help get them there and emphasized that I was committed as a goalie coach to help get him to the next level.”
It may have been a simple gesture, welcoming a new player to a new city and team, but their first meal together sparked something between the two. Working in tandem ever since has paid dividends for Guzda’s development, and even some 4000 kilometres away where Brad is stationed with Seattle, Belitski’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.
“Honestly, I feel really grateful that he’s getting to wake up today and go to work with Dave. He’s been absolutely unbelievable with his development”, Brad says. “Dave has taken him out to dinners regularly, right from when he got to Barrie from Owen Sound, and the organization has taken such a vested interest in him.”
There are still plenty of games left in the regular season and as they’ve grown closer, Belitski knows what the road ahead has in store. With the team coming off a fresh seven game losing streak, he’s remained focused on maintaining balance and a healthy mindset for Guzda.
“I just want to make sure he’s getting the rest he needs and mentally being able to stay fresh. A lot of the goalies are very good, but the thing that I believe in with goalies and what puts them over the edge is their mental toughness and that’s something we want to pay attention to going into the last part of the season”, he says. “Whether that be a lighter practice or a tougher one when needed, we want to make sure that we’re checking all the boxes and doing all the right things so that we can go on that playoff run.”
We have agreed to terms with goaltender Mack Guzda on a three-year, entry-level contract!
📝 » https://t.co/vPNla9mTM4 pic.twitter.com/cMn1D4ydIi
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) February 7, 2022
Three months is not a long time to establish yourself as a household name within the OHL. But after joining the Colts and putting together an impressive stretch of games, NHL opportunities came knocking, with Guzda eventually inking an entry-level contract with the Florida Panthers. After attending their development camp in the summer of 2019, Guzda credits Florida’s professionalism and dedication to winning that encouraged him to sign with them.
“There’s so much knowledge within the Panthers organization, within their goaltending department. There’s so much I’m just excited to learn from all those guys. I’m just so excited to see what they have to offer”, Guzda says, doing his best to hold back a smile. “I built some great relationships with their staff when I was down there so I’m just super excited to get to work with them again.”
But it wasn’t just the fact that his development camp experience was so positive. The establishment of the Panthers never-before-seen goaltending excellence program was another major selling point in getting Guzda to sign in Sunrise. Spearheaded by former NHL All-Star and current Panthers special advisor Roberto Luongo, the program focuses on a “comprehensive, integrated experience and program for all goaltenders in the Panthers system and will coordinate and oversee coaching, development and scouting.” The program also staffs world renowned goaltending coach Francois Allaire, current Panthers goaltending coach Rob Tallas, as well as Leo Luongo, the goaltending coach for the Charlotte Checkers, the Panthers AHL affiliate.
In Guzda’s eyes, this was all he needed.
“Luongo is just a really down-to-earth guy, one of the most down-to-earth guys that you’ll talk to. I remember growing up watching him play in the NHL, watching him play in the Olympics so getting a chance to speak with him before signing, it’s just crazy how things come full circle so quickly”, he says excitedly. “He’s got so many years of experience and I can’t even imagine the knowledge he has when it comes to goaltending and anything I can learn from him will be unbelievable.”
On top of a first-of-its-kind commitment to goaltending, the Panthers newly discovered winning culture has been attracting current and future NHL talent to Sunrise. “Even back during camp, they talked about being a winning franchise and they’re certainly trending in that direction now”, says Guzda. “Their culture is unbelievable, their staff are unbelievable.”
While not in Sunrise yet, Guzda already sees Florida as home. But that doesn’t take away from anywhere he’s been before. In fact, from his perspective, Guzda finds the feeling of “home” in many places. Florida, eventually, as he prepares for an NHL career. Tennessee where he grew up and returns during the offseason. Owen Sound for believing in him and providing a place for development. Barrie, now, as he’s focused on growth and success.
You might think that this is where the story ends, with an NHL contract signed and the last stretch of games approaching. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth, as Guzda still remains laser focused on the work that remains.
“Signing an NHL contract, obviously that’s really exciting. Going through some tough times, signing the contract makes it all worth it. All the hard work, all the sacrifices, everything I went through during my time in the OHL, not that it wouldn’t be worth it otherwise, but it makes me feel good for sure”, he says confidently. “But for me, it’s so important to not rest on my laurels. We’ve got a good team here in Barrie and we’ve got a great opportunity going forward. So as excited as I am about signing and about getting to Florida at some point, right now I’m just trying to enjoy my day-to-day routines.”
“This is my last year in the OHL, my last time going to all these rinks, so I’m really just trying to take it all in and take in one day at a time.”
Belitski can attest to Guzda’s attentiveness and desire to take it one day at a time, drawing back to their first meal together.
“Keeping Mack grounded and focused and understanding the process has been a big focal point for us, but having a character like he has and the discipline and the drive that he has, I was very happy to see him sign that pro contract.”
His father, while out on the west coast, still maintains a close relationship with him.
“It was my hope that he would have the opportunity to play in junior and maybe even professionally and I knew it was going to be a bit of a marathon”, Brad says. “I know the grind that’s coming, but I’m super grateful for the situation that he has in Barrie. They’ve got an exciting team up there and I’m excited for the opportunity that they might have at the end of the year, to put their heads down and go to work.”
No matter what else is happening in his hockey career, the focus always shifts back to taking each day as they come. For Guzda, that means putting Florida on the back burner and shifting his focus to what the Colts want to accomplish.
“I feel like from earlier times in my career, I learned a lot of lessons. It was easy in my draft year to look ahead and I went into that year expecting to be drafted. But that’s no way to live when you’re playing hockey because everything can disappear so quickly”, he states. “For me, it’s such a point of emphasis living moment-to-moment.”
So while the tropical beaches and warm weather may eventually be on his radar, Guzda is focused on the present-day, a testament to the mentality he’s already established.
“I’m not going out there thinking about Florida or what’s next, as exciting as that is and as exciting as the future is. It’s just really important to me to just stay grounded and stay in the moment.”