(Article submitted by Martin Martinson of Battlefordsnow.com)
Nearing the midway mark of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season, few storylines may be as compelling as that of the man between the pipes with the Battlefords North Stars, wearing #30.
North Stars goaltender, Josh Kotai has hit the ground running in this, his first season of SJHL play, setting the benchmark for goaltending across the league this year.
Having played 18 of the Stars’ first 23 games, Kotai backstopped the team to 15 of their league-leading 20 wins this season, to lead all at the position, while also setting the bar with a shimmering 1.94 goals against average and .945 save percentage.
The 19-year-old’s play has laid the foundation for the team’s success, as the Stars remain the lone club in all of Canada to remain undefeated in regulation time heading into December. The players are now in their sixth straight week as the top-ranked team in the Canadian Junior Hockey League Top-20.
“Obviously I’m really happy and everyone’s really happy with where we’re at and I don’t think we really expected [the season] to be quite like this, but it’s great to see all the hard work we’ve put in as a team and myself too, really paying off,” Kotai said of the first-half success.
Making the numbers even more impressive has been the consistency with which he’s performed. Kotai has allowed just two goals or fewer in eight games this season, while allowing more than three just a single time.
Seemingly only getting better as his workload has progressed in recent weeks, Kotai was instrumental in leading the Stars to back-to-back wins over their rivals from Flin Flon in his last two games, stopping 58/60 and 51/54 Bombers’ shots in consecutive nights, for 109 saves on his last 114 shots.
The performance earned the Abbotsford, B.C., product SJHL Goaltender of the Week honours for the second time last week, becoming the lone goaltender to take the distinction multiple weeks.
For the 19-year-old, the key to success all comes back to his love of the game and the day-to-day process.
“I try not to focus on the numbers a whole lot because I know they’ll come with the hard work,” Kotai said. “It’s just nice to be able to go out and play, and especially after the time off [during the pandemic] not really getting any games, it’s been really nice to get those games in, find that rhythm and keep it going.”
Kotai comes by his passion for the game honestly. Though tennis may have been his first love growing up, there was something about the nation’s favorite pastime on ice that drew him in from his first season of organized hockey at age 10, to where he is today, just nine years later.
Kotai said he can still recall his father, an avid fan of the Dallas Stars – and Minnesota North Stars before them – passing along that interest in the game and in particular, tending the pipes.
“My dad played goal as a kid and then started to play again a little bit as an adult when we were little, so I remember I looked to him and just kind of thought I want to see what dad’s doing,” he said with a laugh. “As soon as I started playing hockey, I knew I wanted to be a goaltender.”
Whether in the basement or backyard playing the game or on the couch after school and on weekends watching NHL games, those early days getting into the sport are memories Kotai can’t help but smile when recalling them.
“I remember with the [Dallas] Stars I would watch as many games as I could,” he said. “I’d come home from school, have five o’clock dinner and then watch the game, with my favourite players the goalies they had at the time, Kari Lehtonen among them. I’d just kind of watch the goalies and try to learn from them a bit.”
From watching the NHL’s Stars in action to doning the SJHL Stars’ crest, for Kotai, his journey to the Battlefords has been some time in the making. It was actually prior to last year that talks between himself and the organization first began.
“My goalie coach knows (North Stars head coach) Brayden [Klimosko] really well and (head scout) Wylie [Riendeau] too, so it was really kind of an easy choice,” he said of his decision to come to the community.
Marking his first venture to Saskatchewan, Kotai played the last two years with the Vermont Lumberjacks program of the Eastern Hockey League, after spending the extent of his grassroots and early junior career in his home province of B.C., playing his AAA in Vancouver and first year of Junior ‘B’ in Aldergrove (Langley) prior to the move.
“I hadn’t been here at all before, so this has been my first experience of Saskatchewan winter and everything too, but I had heard lots of great things from here,” Kotai said. “When I first talked with Brayden I kind of had this place set in mind and thought it would be a great place to go and that conversation just reaffirmed that.
“I’m just fortunate enough that I am able to be here.”
Kotai and his North Stars teammates will return to play this weekend for their first games in two weeks due to postponements last weekend. The team will play Friday at home at the ACC against Notre Dame, before heading to Melfort for a matchup with the Mustangs Saturday.
Both games will be available on 1050 CJNB. The Ultra Print Pregame Show will begin at 7 p.m. with puck drop at 7:30 p.m. both nights on the NAPA Auto Parts North Stars Hockey Broadcast.