As a kid growing up in Peterborough, Ontario, Cornell, junior goaltender Mitch Gillam watched NHL stars like Martin Brodeur and Marty Turco work their magic in the nets. But nothing in his wildest hockey fantasies prepared him for his own spectacular collegiate debut.
In a Nov. 26, 2013 win over Niagara, Gillam had 24 saves and scored a goal.
After gloving a long-range shot from Niagara’s Matt Chartrain, Gillam dropped the puck on his stick, and sent a 175-foot missile soaring into the Purple Eagles’ empty net with less than 10 seconds left in the game. He became the first Big Red netminder and only the eighth goalie in NCAA Division I history to directly score a goal.
“It was a soft shot,” said the 6-foot, 178-pound Gillam of the save that set up the goal. “I played it to (forward) Joel Lowry as he was coming across the blue line. He was yelling, ‘Clear it!’ I looked, and there was no one back there. I saw the open net, went for it, and it just so happened to go in.”
Despite his big splash, Gillam played sparingly the rest of the season, backing up Ivy League Player of the Year Andy Iles. His only other action was in relief, stopping eight of nine shots against Colgate.
Other players may have complained, but Gillam waited patiently for his turn. It came in his sophomore year, when he earned All-Ivy League second-team honors. His goals against average and save percentage stayed at or near the top of the national rankings virtually the entire season. He even racked up a pair of assists: one on a long outlet pass in a game against Clarkson, while the second came against Penn State two weeks later at the Frozen Apple in New York.
Gillam grew up in a hockey family. His father, Bill, played one professional season in the International Hockey League and Atlantic Coast Hockey League. Mitch’s older brother, Josh, played hockey and lacrosse at Dartmouth, and is currently a pro in both sports.
Mitch got his first taste of goaltending stopping shots for his older brother in the driveway, where their parents set up a net. After graduating from Berkshire (Mass.) High School, he was invited to attend a New York Islanders prospect camp before spending two seasons of Junior A hockey with the Chilliwack Chiefs of the British Columbia Hockey League. His 27-18-1 record and 2.53 GAA earned him Rookie of the Year honors in 2012, and the team’s Most Valuable Player award in both years.
This season has been a roller coaster for the Big Red. Gillam has started all 25 games through Feb. 13, leading the team to a 12-8-5 record (7-7-4 in ECAC play). He has five shutouts, a 2.02 GAA, and .929 save percentage. The ECAC has named him Hockey Goaltender of the Week three times, twice in the last month.
After a 9-1-2 start, Cornell has slumped to 3-7-3, dropping out of the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine top 15 poll. Head coach Mike Schafer was sidelined almost two weeks with a concussion, after being struck by a stray puck during a Feb. 1 practice.
The one constant has been Gillam’s stoic nature, earning him admiration from his coaches and teammates. After being lit up at home for a combined nine goals in losses to Ivy League rivals Dartmouth and Harvard in late January, Gillam’s demeanor remained virtually unchanged.
“Even before Christmas, when we had strung a few (wins) together, it was the same kind of smile he had over the last couple weeks, when we were having a little bit of trouble,” said associate head coach Ben Syer, who took over during Schafer’s absence.
“He gives us an opportunity to win every night,” junior forward Jake Weidner told the Ithaca Journal earlier this month. “We can rely on him to come out every night and be one of the best goaltenders in the country for us, which gives us a lot of confidence.
That confidence is evident in Gillam’s outlook on what’s left of the season. “If we just keep working hard, the wins will come,” he said.