BERWICK, NS - Charles Grant is someone who has made the most of the opportunities that have come his way.
The Berwick native is an assistant coach with the Valley Wildcats, bringing his hockey journey full circle.
After minor hockey, Grant played at the major midget level with the Wildcats before spending three seasons with the Yarmouth junior A Mariners and four years playing NCAA hockey at Dartmouth College, as well as a stint of minor pro.
Growing up, Grant was always interested in being a goalie. “My dad made me play defence for a bit, he said, 'You have to learn how to skate.' Not trying to discourage me from the position, but making sure I had a true passion for it before he put me in," he said.
"I played road hockey goalie, I made my parents shoot pucks on me in the driveway, and I just never let up.”
Like many young hockey players, he drew his inspiration from the NHL.
“I was a big Leafs fan growing up, and CuJo (Curtis Joseph) was between the pipes,” recalls Grant. “I was definitely his biggest fan. I had a Leafs jerseys with CuJo on the back before I was even a goalie, so it was always there. It must have been there since birth because who would want to be the one getting shot at instead of scoring goals?”
Grant grew up in a period when Atlantic Canada was producing a number of top hockey players, so competition for a spot on teams was fierce.
“I remember my first year of midget; it was tough,” Grant says. “There were lots of good players around Atlantic Canada at the time, guys that are in the NHL now.”
Grant was drafted by the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League but failed to crack a roster stacked with goaltenders as a 16-year-old.
“I wasn't quite ready for the Q at 16, so I kept my options open,” he said.
Grant would go on to play three seasons in Yarmouth, becoming one of the most successful goalies the Mariners have ever had. In his final junior A season in 2011-2012, Grant carried the Mariners to the seventh and deciding game of the Maritime Hockey League championship final before losing in triple overtime against the Woodstock Slammers.
Despite the loss, Grant was still named playoff MVP.
“It's like a second home to me,” Grant says of Yarmouth. “Every time I go down, I end up shaking hands and talking to people I met there. They remember everybody; they're a great supporting town.”
Read other stories about the Valley Wildcats:
• Annapolis Royal goaltender having impact on the ice for Valley Wildcats: http://www.kingscountynews.ca/sports/annapolis-royal-goaltender-having-impact-on-the-ice-for-valley-wildcats-154766/
• Valley Wildcats give back in Berwick: http://www.kingscountynews.ca/sports/valley-wildcats-give-back-in-berwick-166234/
• Living the Dream: Newport native closer to home with Valley junior A Wildcats http://www.kingscountynews.ca/sports/living-the-dream-newport-native-closer-to-home-with-valley-junior-a-wildcats-172583/
While he was passed over at the major junior level at a 16-year-old, the option might have been available as a 17-year-old.
"But I was looking at the big picture. There were a lot of things that made me look at the long-term development," he said.
Playing junior A instead of major junior left Grant's options open to play collegiate hockey in the United States.
“NCAA hockey was the path that I went because I worked hard in school, and had an opportunity that way," he said.
"It's something that we don't talk about a lot in Atlantic Canada. It's gaining more tread now, but when I was playing junior, it wasn't like that at all. It was a foreign pathway."
But, he thought, it would give him a better chance of playing professionally.
"Dartmouth had an opportunity for me with a goaltender graduating, and I'd have an opportunity to step in and battle for that number one job as a freshman. There was an opportunity there, and I took it," he says.
Grant says his experience playing for the Dartmouth Big Green was phenomenal.
“NCAA hockey is like nothing I could have expected. It's cool to play for your school, to have support from your peers and fellow students," he said.
"I had a blast. There was a live band at every game. It was like a football game atmosphere. It was a big learning curve, but at the same time, it was so exciting. It was a path that if I could do it again, I would choose college hockey.”
Although Grant's pro career after university lasted only one season, it included some unforgettable experiences.
“I was with the Rapid City Rush in the ECHL. It was on the Western side of the US, but our division had teams in Colorado and Alaska," he explained.
"We'd fly into Alaska and play three games in a row in Anchorage. Hockey's the best thing for travel, it's basically free to travel. Sometimes it's not that fun sleeping on buses and in airports, but it's really cool to see all these different places.”
Grant also played with the Knoxville Ice Bears of the Southern Professional Hockey League before looking to make the move to coaching.
“I always had a love for the game. I tried to get into coaching professionally overseas. I had a job in Italy to be a professional goalie coach, but it kind of fell through at the last minute.”
Nick Greenough, the current Wildcats general manager, was the head coach of the major midget Wildcats when Grant played on the team. The two always kept in touch, and the opportunity to become a Wildcat coach happened naturally.
“When I would come home for Christmas break, Greenough would ask me to come out and practice and talk to the guys," Grant said. "That's how I stayed in touch with the Wildcats. I didn't really expect to be coaching here, but it's always good to come back and help out, and it's been a great fit. I didn't have any goalie coaching in the Valley growing up, so I'm just trying to fill that void that wasn't there when I was here.”
Not an easy position
Grant knows first hand that being a goalie isn't an easy position.
“People have almost called it a sport within a sport because you're almost by yourself. You don't have time to come to the bench and decompress after a bad shift or a bad goal," he said.
"Briefly, you can communicate with your D on a play, then you're alone again. You have to be mentally tough to be a goaltender, and that comes with age and as you develop.”
With the playoff race heating up in his first full season behind the bench with the junior A Wildcats, Grant is happy with the decisions he's made along the way and is quickly learning the ropes of coaching.
“I never knew what my end goal would be. Coaching's been really interesting, and I really like the challenge. It's fun for me, and almost scratches the itch of wanting to play.”