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Champions: Hard work pays off for Charlotte Checkers

Nedeljkovic hopes his championship effort leads to the NHL. Guess what? The Hurricanes need goalie help.

Alex Nedeljkovic was able to check off a lot of boxes this season.

The AHL’s goalie of the year? Done. A Calder Cup championship with the Charlotte Checkers? Got it. Set a bit of hockey history? That too.

In fact, if you ignore one little episode with a power tool, Nedeljkovic accomplished just about everything he set out to do this season. “He was the goalie of the year for a reason, right?” said Checkers coach Mike Vellucci after Nedeljkovic’s 38-save win in Game 3 of the AHL final against the Chicago Wolves.

That 4-1 victory put the Checkers ahead in a series that they won in five games, a fitting ending to a season in which Charlotte dominated the AHL from start to finish. A steadying force behind all that was Nedeljkovic, 23, an athletic, take-charge goaltender with his sights set on the NHL. “That’s the ultimate goal, obviously,” he said. “But my job is to keep making myself better so I’m ready when the time comes.”

That time might be soon. A second-round draft pick (37th overall) by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2014, Nedeljkovic could be in Raleigh next season. The Hurricanes went to the Eastern Conference final in the NHL playoffs behind Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. But both are UFAs, and some followers have surmised this is the time to move Nedeljkovic to Raleigh. “He wants to play in the NHL, and I know he’ll play in the NHL,” Vellucci said.

Those familiar with Nedeljkovic describe him as hardworking. Youth hockey coaches in his native Ohio recall the strong work ethic of a goalie who played in the Cleveland Barons program. His dedication and athletic ability are family traits. His parents, Butch and Theresa, moved the family to Michigan for two years so Alex and younger brother Andy (now a winger with the NAHL’s Johnstown Tomahawks) could face higher-level competition. The Nedeljkovics spent many weekends traveling across the U.S. Midwest and Canada, taking their sons to tournaments.

 SUPER STOPPER Alex Nedeljkovic makes a stop on Tomas Hyka.(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

SUPER STOPPER Alex Nedeljkovic makes a stop on Tomas Hyka.(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

In 2012, Alex joined the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, where Vellucci was coach. Nedeljkovic compiled a 19-2-2 record with a 2.28 goals-against average. “I’ve had him since he was 16,” Vellucci said. “He’s always willing to put in the work.”

The hard work resulted in a steady progression up the hockey ladder – several good seasons in the OHL, with a few ECHL appearances in 2014-15; mixing time in 2016-17 between the ECHL’s Florida Everblades and the Checkers; and then full time in Charlotte in 2017-18.

Nedeljkovic was a standout stopper during much of 2017-18, with a 31-12-3 record. But Vellucci wanted something more this season. He asked for his goaltender to be outstanding all the time. “He’s been really consistent this year, and we talked about that at the beginning of the year,” Vellucci said. “Just be consistent, game in and game out. He’s a complete pro right now.”

He also became a big-leaguer during 2018-19. He was among a sizeable group of Checkers who wore out Interstate 85 between Charlotte and Raleigh, seeing some action with the Hurricanes. Nedeljkovic got his first NHL start Jan. 23, making 26 saves in a 5-2 win over Vancouver. That’s where the history comes in. With that appearance, he became the first Cleveland-area goalie to play in the NHL, according to hockey-reference.com.

Nedeljkovic remains a Cleveland guy.He says he enjoys being able to return home to his family, which has moved back to the Cleveland suburb of Parma. “That’s home,” he said. “I like getting back there. In some ways, it seems like nothing has changed.”

When the Checkers played a late-season game in Cleveland, Nedeljkovic received almost as big a cheer as some of the hometown Monsters players. He posted a 34-9-5 record during the season and was 10-4 in the playoffs. His GAA dropped from 2.55 last season (18th in the AHL) to 2.26 (first), en route to the Aldege ‘Baz’ Bastien Memorial Award as the league’s top netminder.

Checkers captain Patrick Brown, another player who made the Charlotte-Raleigh shuffle during the season, says Nedeljkovic gave his teammates a sense of security. “He knows when to play the puck,” Brown said. “He can play the puck, and he can make a big save when you need it.”

Nedeljkovic drew raves during the final from the Wolves, who hadn’t seen him until the playoffs, as the AHL’s Eastern and Western teams don’t meet during the season. Chicago’s Gage Quinney had a breakaway in Game 3 that Nedeljkovic stopped. “I tried to go low blocker,” Quinney said, “and it was almost like he knew what I would be doing.”

Nedeljkovic’s family was with him all the way, with his grandparents even getting TV time in the final when the camera showed them holding a large sign with Nedeljkovic’s picture and the words, “That’s My Grandson.”

Perhaps the only low point in 2018-19 was a dressing-room episode with a power screwdriver. Checkers players carried a one-foot-by-two-foot board with them throughout the playoffs, and the star player in each victory was assigned the task of driving a screw through a puck into the board. After Game 3 in the final, Nedeljkovic got the assignment. But he could only get the screw halfway in, leading one teammate to sarcastically observe, “I guess we can’t trust him with power tools.”

His teammates trusted him on the ice, however. “Any time we get hemmed in our zone, ‘Ned’ is there, backing us up,” Brown said.

For his part, Nedeljkovic considers himself blessed to have a career doing something he enjoys. “It’s fantastic every day to come to the rink and play a game you grew up loving,” he said. “Every day, it’s just fun.”

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