It was the summer of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic at a rink in the Chicago suburbs that goalie coach Oliver Freij came to the realization his star pupil was going to be just fine.
At the end of a gruelling on-ice session, he conducted a “compete” drill where the skater goes to the front of the net to tip a shot, then tries to jam in the rebound. Freij remembers Tucker Tynan stopping 10 straight shooters before allowing a goal. Tynan moved all over the net, diving for saves, going into the butterfly without hesitation, attacking the puck and standing his ground. “That fire never left,” Freij said. “It didn’t look very pretty, but he was dominant.”
In isolation, that’s not a big deal. Shake a tree hard enough and goalies who are super competitive and athletic are likely to fall out. But this was only Tynan’s second time on ice since suffering a laceration so deep that only the quick work of trainers for the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs and London Knights prevented him from bleeding out right there on the ice. That session with Freij came just six months and two surgeries after Tynan had been taken off the ice on a stretcher surrounded by six medical attendants and his Niagara teammates, with his equipment strewn at the other end of the ice in a pool of blood. It was an inordinately short time after a member of the local broadcast crew exclaimed in horror, “Oh god, there’s blood everywhere on the ice!” It also came about six months after doctors told Tynan he’d probably never play hockey again.
Yet here’s the thing about Tucker Tynan. He’s really quiet, but he’s also a little bit cocky and seriously stubborn. Sometimes he doesn’t listen so good. He remembers almost everything about Dec. 12, 2019, the night Hunter Skinner of the Knights cut to the net and slid into him, lacerating Tynan’s right thigh. A 10th-round long-shot pick of the IceDogs in 2018, Tynan had worked his way onto the roster and was finding a real groove, supplanting the No. 1 goalie and facing more shots per game than any other stopper in the CHL on a pretty dismal team. He remembers medical people telling him his career was in jeopardy. He also remembers not paying attention to them. “Right away, the doctors and nurses said, ‘Yeah, we don’t know, chances are you won’t play hockey again,’ ” Tynan said. “I didn’t think too much into it because they really didn’t know the severity of the injury and people aren’t really saying that with any backing. It might be tough mentally, but I think it’s just as important to keep your head up, or actually put your head down and just go to work.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Whether his head was up or down, it wasn’t going to be clouded with doubt or fear. After months of inertia, then relearning how to walk, Tynan started the process of getting stronger. Before the injury, Tynan would squat 375 pounds and do split squats with 50-pound dumbbells in each hand. Now he squats 450 pounds and does split squats with 80-pound dumbbells.
On the ice, he’s returned as the IceDogs’ undisputed starter, stopping 57 of 60 shots he faced in his first two starts of the season to earn OHL goaltender-of-the-week honors. He’s been solid in the net ever since, and he’s in the mix to be one of Team USA’s three goalies for the World Junior Championship. Boston University starter Drew Commesso, despite a slow start to 2021-22, is seen by most observers
as the likely No. 1 goalie for the Americans, but Tynan is making a strong case to be on the roster. And if you’ve watched enough WJCs, you know that once a player gets there, anything can happen.
Tynan is also drawing the interest of NHL bird-dogs, with an eye to either signing him as a free agent at some point this season or taking him in the 2022 draft. One scout said he was making his first trip into Ontario in early November, and Tynan was one of the players he intended on targeting. “You win Stanley Cups with culture,” the scout said. “People who deal with adversity and deal well with adversity, they’re very intriguing to me. They still have to be good. I’ve seen a lot of culture guys who would make great AHL captains. He’s making me go to see him to make sure that I don’t miss him because his story checks some of the boxes I like checked.”
Had the OHL played a season in 2020-21, Tynan likely wouldn’t have been ready to go. That was why the IceDogs went out and got an overage goalie, essentially as a placeholder. They had so much faith Tynan would return they didn’t take a single goalie in the 2020 draft, using an 18-year-old they took in 2019 as Tynan’s backup this year.
Going into training camp this season, Tynan’s only other action – aside from working out with his goalie coach in Chicago – came in practices with the AHL’s Iowa Wild, who picked him up while on a road trip in the area and signed him as a third goalie when one of theirs was called up, and also in USA Hockey’s World Junior Summer Showcase, where he allowed (gulp) seven goals on 28 shots in three games. It was his first game action in more than a year-and-a-half, and it also happened to be against the best young players from his own country, along with Finland and Sweden. So we’ll give him a pass there.
By the time the IceDogs’ training camp came around, Tynan was ready. Coach Billy Burke said he and goalie coach Jason Barron were nervous about putting Tynan back in the net, especially on home ice. They wrestled with whether to keep him out of the end of the rink where the incident occurred, or starting him on the road for the first little while.
“And he was like, ‘I don’t care. I’m here and I’m playing,’ ” Burke said. “He’s handled it like it was a sprained ankle or something like that.” Added Tynan’s agent Bryan Mountain: “I brought it up with him and he was like, ‘I know people want to keep bringing it up because it was so scary, but I’m done with it. You can all keep talking about it, but I’m moving on.’ ”
You always wonder how someone is going to react to a catastrophic injury, particularly one that occurred on an innocuous play that often happens multiple times in a game. You wonder whether or not he’s going to be more timid challenging shooters, you hold your breath the first couple of times you see an opposing forward cut hard to the net. You wonder how someone who came that close to disaster could just stand in there as though nothing happened. But then you talk to Tucker Tynan and those around him and you realize that his unflappability is genuine. “I’ve got better equipment now,” he said. “You can’t be scared. You play through it. It’s hockey, right? It’s a physical game, even for a goalie. People don’t understand that most of the time.”
Perhaps it has something to do with the invincibility that comes with being young and maybe a little unaware. But Tynan is no stranger to putting his head down and getting to work. It’s what he’s done throughout his career, throughout his life. Tynan is the son of a single mom. His father, a former high-school hockey player who founded a construction company and played drums in a rock band, died of a heart attack when Tynan was just eight months old.
So when something as devastating as a serious injury occurs, and it results in going unchosen in successive NHL drafts, Tynan starts wearing kneepads and Kevlar underwear under his goalie pads and goes back to work. “He’s never felt sorry for himself,” Burke said. “He’s just frustrated by this. He’s frustrated by not being drafted. In his mind, he feels he is the best goalie in the OHL, and he gets frustrated that he doesn’t get the recognition of some of the other great goalies in our league. It’s motivation, it’s fuel for him and it’s all positive. It’s not a distraction.”
Joining the Wild, even if it was as a third practice goalie who didn’t dress for a game, lifted Tynan’s spirits and reinforced his belief that he belongs with players at that level. A berth on the U.S. world-junior team, a dominant season and a long playoff run would go a long way toward preventing Tynan from going unselected in his third NHL draft. He plays a position where the path to the NHL, if it ever gets there, is rarely linear.
Goalies have been known to play hundreds of games in the minors, sometimes having to work up from the ECHL, before having any success at the NHL level. So there’s still a long road ahead. The injury was a major pothole in that road, one that has become more of an annoyance for him than anything. Tynan is upset, not at Skinner for sliding into him and accidentally slicing his leg, not even at the randomness of it. Most of all, he’s unhappy with the circumstances it created and how he has watched other goalies pass him by.
“Forget about the people I train with in the summer and that I know I’ve outperformed and have a higher skill level,” Tynan said. “When it happened, I was 17 and a younger guy in the league. When you look at guys I was outperforming, not only in the OHL, but in the WHL and QMJHL, a lot of those guys are in the AHL and some are even in the NHL. People can say whatever they want about where I would be if I didn’t get injured, but honestly I probably would have gotten drafted and it probably would have been a completely different past couple of years. But you can’t do anything about that.”
In his first five games with the IceDogs, Tynan won four of them. In his second game of the season, he stopped 32 of 34 shots, including two overtime breakaways, before winning the game in a shootout. He was named first star that night. Because of his injury and the cancelled season due to the pandemic, that gave him just 28 games of major-junior hockey experience.
It’s clearly a huge year for him. Tynan is working out as hard as ever, even harder. Those closest to him are amazed, but not terribly surprised. The way he attacked his rehab with the goal of getting back into the net in the face of some people telling him he might have trouble even running again doesn’t come as a shock to people like Oliver Freij, Billy Burke and Bryan Mountain.
It’s one thing to have the desire to return. It’s quite another to be able to resummon that ability after hardly playing for almost two years and return to being an elite player in your age group. When you think about it, Tynan missed out on an enormous amount of time at a crucial period in his development.
But in that sense, his cohorts in the OHL have missed almost as much time, which may have levelled the playing field a little bit. Once they saw his determination, the IceDogs made the decision to stick with him and see this through, and it’s clear that has paid off for both them and Tynan.
“He’s unbelievably resilient and incredibly impressive,” Burke said. “Of all the goalies I’ve seen in my short career, I don’t think we’ve ever had a big-game goalie like Tucker Tynan. When he’s in the net for us, you just have that confidence that nothing is going to beat him. No matter what happens, we always have a chance to pull one out.”
This article originally appeared in The Hockey News' Goalie Issue.