Graduation: Isaac Poulter
Isaac Poulter seemed destined to be a goaltender. After all, it’s in his family history.
“I played forward in minor hockey until I was seven and decided to make the switch to goalie when I was eight,” he explained. “Both of my parents were goalies, and my great great uncle was a goalie and won the Vezina Trophy. It ran in the family so I tried it out and just loved it.”
Charlie Gardiner was a goaltender for the Chicago Blackhawks from 1927-1934, winning the Vezina Trophy in both 1932 and 1934. He was the first, and only, goaltender to captain his team to the Stanley Cup in 1934, and was the first right-handed catching goalie to win the Vezina Trophy. He tragically passed away in the summer of 1934, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a charter member in 1945.
A book was released, Before the Echos Fade by Antonia Chambers, detailing the life of Gardiner. That book, combined with watching his parents play in net, inspired a young Poulter to make the switch to the crease.
Success didn’t immediately follow him, however.
“I actually got cut from my local area team when I was eight,” Poulter laughed. “I actually played for a private school’s team, St. Johns-Ravenscourt, even though I didn’t go to school there. They needed a goalie and they took me in like I went there. I’d go to school and then my dad would pick me up and drive me over for practice with the other team. I loved it and it was a lot of fun.”
Understandably growing up as a Blackhawks fan considering his family connection to the organization, Poulter’s allegiance was swayed to his hometown when the Winnipeg Jets relocated from Atlanta in 2011.
He was even in attendance for their first game back in Winnipeg.
“We shared tickets with some of our neighbours, so I got to see quite a few games,” he said. “I got to watch the first game against Montreal and seeing Carey Price play in person was a pretty cool experience.”
Continuing to progress in the crease, Poulter continued to push for roster spots on the top teams in his age group, but was consistently unable to make the cut.
“I got cut from the 10 A1 team when I was 10 so I played 10 A2,” he said. “I got cut from AA when I was 11 and played A1 and then when I was 12, I got cut from AA and played A1. When I was 13, I was finally able to make the AAA team as a bit of an underdog, and I think that really helped me blossom into a better goalie.”
Suiting up for the U14 Winnipeg Monarchs, Poulter was able to shine to the tune of a 1.74 goals against average and a .931 save percentage during the 2014-15 season.
Then moving to the U15 level the next season, Poulter was able to make that jump with nearly the exact same team for 2015-16. The chemistry from the previous year no doubt played a role in the U15 Monarchs winning the league championship that season.
“I kind of struggled in the playoffs that year,” Poulter admitted. “I think I got into my own head a little bit and put too much pressure on myself. My goalie partner was playing really well and I had to accept that I had to support the team any way I could.”
Poulter’s performance throughout the season caught the eyes of a few WHL teams, but none more so than the Broncos who he said kept close tabs on him all season long.
Though had he not missed a phone call, there’s a chance Poulter may have never been a Bronco.
“I actually missed a phone call from Medicine Hat the day before the draft because I was at a Guess Who concert in Winnipeg,” he laughed. “I didn’t really have my hopes set on being drafted because I was never really talked about in draft rankings. Swift Current was one of the teams that was pretty persistent with me, asking for video and watching me at Westerns and the top 100 in Manitoba.”
The Tigers held the 94th overall selection in the 2016 WHL Prospects Draft.
At school during the 2016 WHL Prospects Draft, Poulter and a number of his teammates repeatedly checked their phones for updates throughout the day, much to their teacher’s dismay.
It was during the lunch break that Poulter saw his name appear.
“We were all hanging out in the gym during lunch,” he recalled. “One of my close friends had just gotten drafted ahead of me so we were all excited for him. And then my name popped up and my phone started blowing up.”
The Broncos selected Poulter with the 112th overall pick that season.
Excited and motivated to work as hard as he could in the summer before his first WHL camp, Poulter’s plans were unfortunately put on hold as he contracted mono early in the summer.
“I was basically down and out for most of the summer,” he said. “The doctor didn’t want me training because my spleen could explode. I tried to get back into it as soon as I could after I got the clearance to skate. I had Team Manitoba tryouts a few weeks before training camp and I was only able to skate a handful of times before that.”
The first WHL training camp is always an eye opener for young hockey players, and it was no different for the 14-year-old Poulter when he arrived in Swift Current in the fall of 2016.
He was thankful for the mentorship provided by a veteran on the team.
“Taz Burman really took me under his wing during that camp,” Poulter said. “We were on the same team during camp, and even though he didn’t say a whole lot during camp, he was just a guy that I was able to look up to a realize that I had a lot of work to do.”
Poulter said stopping Aleksi Heponiemi on a breakaway was one of the moments from his first camp that stuck out to him.
Moving up to the U18 level for the 2016-17 season, Poulter said the adjustment of playing against players three years older than him was made easier by attending Broncos training camp, but the schedule Rink Hockey Academy had wasn’t exactly easy.
“My first year we played in what was essentially the B.C. Division,” he said. “We were flying to Kelowna basically every second weekend. We’d fly out on Thursday and get back late on Sunday to go to school on Monday. We had a pretty good team but didn’t seem to get the bounces we needed when push came to shove.”
Poulter went 5-7-0 with a 3.25 goals against average and an .898 save percentage for Rink Hockey Academy’s U18 team in 2016-17.
Able to train on a normal schedule in the summer of 2017, Poulter was determined to show how much he had improved from the previous year when he returned for training camp in 2017. He did that, receiving a Standard Player Agreement offer from the team at the end of camp.
Though he admits he wasn’t 100 per cent committed to the WHL at that time.
“I was actually looking at going to school and reaching out to some NCAA teams,” Poulter said. “Heading into that second camp I just wanted to show better than I did the year before. I wanted to make a good impression and have some options. When they offered me that contract, it was nice to know I had one opportunity on the table. I was still pretty 50/50 at that point.”
After taking some time to consider the options, Poulter officially put pen to paper and signed with the Broncos in October of 2017.
Poulter’s strong work during the previous summer and training camp carried over into his second year with RHA’s U18 team as he went 13-3-1 with a 1.68 goals against average and a .938 save percentage in 2017-18.
His stellar play helped RHA reach the championship game of the CSSHL U18 Championship in Penticton, B.C., where they came up just short in a loss to the Northern Alberta Xtreme.
“It’s funny because Raphael Pelletier was actually watching the game from behind my net,” Poulter laughed. “He was banging on the glass all game. It was a tough ending to the year but it was a great experience for us.”
Pelletier was playing for the NAX U16 team during that 2017-18 season.
Poulter didn’t have much time to dwell on the loss as just a few days later he was brought to Swift Current to join the Broncos for the 2018 playoffs. Unbeknownst to him, it was going to be a long stay.
“I was there right from the start until the end,” he said. “I was out there for every practice but I didn’t get a lot of shots because Joel Hofer and Stuart Skinner were pretty dialed in. It makes you realize how tough the WHL is though when you’re out there with all those guys.”
Travelling with the team to every road game, Poulter did his best to help out any way he could, while also staying in the shadows to avoid getting in anyone’s way.
The time spent with the team during those months provided invaluable experience and memories for the young goaltender, who soaked in the celebration following the final buzzer in game six against the Everett Silvertips.
“The rink sold out every game during that run,” he recalled. “It was crazy to see all the cowbells during the games. It was so exciting to see how well the team played and how well Skinner played. I just remember how crazy the crowd was during that game. When the game was over and we went on the ice you could barely hear anything because it was just so loud in there.”
Poulter was also able to join the Broncos for the Memorial Cup in Regina, gaining even more experience to help him prepare for what was to come in his future.
He made a point of using those months as motivation heading into the summer of 2018.
“Just picking up what I learned there, I took it with me that summer,” he said. “Just making sure that I was putting in as much effort as those guys did on a daily basis during the playoffs.”
It wasn’t long after Poulter returned home that Manny Viveiros was hired by the Edmonton Oilers, creating a new start for the organization.
Poulter admitted that while he was happy for Viveiros to get the opportunity, he was a little nervous about what a new management group meant heading into his potential rookie season.
Those nerves were quickly put to rest as Poulter came to Swift Current a week before training camp started to help out with the Broncos hockey school, which allowed him to feel more comfortable and confident by getting the extra time with some of his new teammates.
In a rookie season that featured plenty of highs and lows, Poulter always knew he had people in his corner whenever he needed encouragement.
“Sometimes when things aren’t going my way I like to reach out to Skinner and see if he has any advice for me,” Poulter said. “Same with Joel Hofer, he’s always been there for me. When I’m struggling and need some advice, they’re a few guys I’m always able to turn to.”
After watching the Broncos first three games, including the championship banner raising ceremony on opening night, Poulter made his first WHL appearance on September 29, 2018 against the Red Deer Rebels.
He said Hofer gave him a heads up on what to expect before the game.
“I remember getting to the rink and Hofer telling me that after the national anthem, everyone in the rink was going to yell ‘Poulter!’, and the other half was going to yell ‘Sucks!’,” he laughed. “I didn’t know what he was talking about until they did that after the anthem I thought ‘ok, I see what you mean.”
Poulter said Dean Brockman told him the night before that he would be starting that game, which allowed Poulter’s father to fly out from Winnipeg to be in the arena for the special moment. The Broncos dropped a 5-2 game, but Poulter showed strong with a 35-save performance.
That was the story of Poulter’s first few seasons with the team; facing a barrage of shots night in and night out and doing what he could to keep his team in it. That led to plenty of tough nights for the team during the 2018-19 season.
“I think it was just a lot of learning for me,” he said. “It’s obviously hard for your confidence when you’re playing and you’re not winning. It’s hard for everybody because you want to win, but I think it made you closer with everyone because you really needed to have everyone’s back when you’re losing.”
There were moments of light in a dark season for the Broncos, one of which came November 3 against the Edmonton Oil Kings when Poulter recorded his first career win.
“That was a really exciting day for me,” Poulter recalled. “I got my first painted mask for the Broncos that same day. I remember when the game was tied in the third period, Garrett Sambrook and Max Patterson blocking four or five shots. The team ate a lot of pucks for me that season and that night I remember guys taking more than their share of pucks to the shin pads. I was nervous in overtime because it was my first overtime game. After the game I did probably the worst interview ever, and I got some heat from the boys for the next couple days.”
Andrew Fyten scored the overtime winner to cap off a thrilling weekend for the Broncos as they beaten Lethbridge in overtime the night before.
Goalie partners are often two of the closest-knit players on any given team, and it was no different for Poulter and Hofer.
While it was a necessary move to significantly bolster the future of the team, the news of Hofer’s trade on January 9, 2019 was still a tough pill to swallow for Poulter.
“You kind of think that an NHL draft pick and a guy who’s playing as well as he is, someone might want him,” Poulter said. “It was hard losing a guy that you’re really close to. It was one of the trades that really hit me hard. In the same breath, I knew it would be good for me because I would get to play a little more. That’s when I started feeling like I was having an impact in games.”
The Broncos traded Hofer to Portland for a bevy of draft picks which later turned into players who are now making an impact on the team. Some of the picks acquired in that trade were used to draft Mathew Ward, Grayson Burzynski, Van Eger and Josh Fluker.
Poulter’s workload increased from eight games before Christmas to 17 games after following the trade, giving him an opportunity to show he was capable of playing more. He said having another veteran in Riley Lamb come in also helped him immensely.
In his final start of the season, Poulter picked up his first career shutout with a 2-0 win at the Brandt Centre in Regina.
“It was kind of the cherry on top of a tough season,” he said. “Everything went right for the team that night. We got a lot of good bounces, guys blocked a ton of shots for me that night. I was really happy to get my first shutout out of the way because it was looking like I might not get one that season.”
Poulter knew he would be the go-to guy in the crease for the 2019-20 season and kept that mindset throughout the off season. That, combined with plenty of returning players from the previous season, led to some excitement and optimism about the upcoming year.
After a solid start to the season, things started to trend downward for the team.
“We were just looking forward to getting going,” Poulter said. “I was excited to try and make a name for myself and help the team out as much as I could. We had a pretty good start with a few wins, but things tapered off for a bit. Some guys started to get a little unhappy. It was tough to see some of those guys move on because those were guys I had been with through the playoffs. All you could do was hope for the best and play your hardest, knowing they would be doing the same where they were.”
The team made a number of moves in the months of November and December, bringing in players like Sam McGinley, Cole Nagy and Jordan Borysiuk.
While the team struggled to get results on the ice, Poulter did his best to ensure he was doing his part to keep morale high and push his teammates to be their best during a difficult stretch.
“It was hard obviously, we struggled a lot,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I was coming in with a positive attitude every day and making sure I was pushing guys in practice.”
With a significantly different offseason in the books, Poulter was thrilled to get the opportunity to return to the ice with his teammates when the Broncos converged on the University of Regina for the shortened 2020-21 season.
He felt it was the perfect time to really focus on becoming a true leader on the team.
“Being a 19-year-old, I really wanted to lead the young guys,” he said. “We all knew that we were bringing in a young team. I wanted to step up my leadership. Having Reid Dyck come in, I knew I had to help him out and help his development as much as I could.”
While fans weren’t able to attend games during that season, it was evident from day one that Poulter and Dyck had a strong bond right from the first day in the hub.
The team struggled to string wins together during that shortened season, but Poulter was once again the backbone of the club and claimed Team MVP honors for the second year in a row.
The future of the Broncos was on display in the Regina hub, and Poulter was excited to return to Swift Current as the team was clearly ready to make a push that they hadn’t been able to during his previous seasons.
“We had all the young guys and the work they put in during the summer clearly paid off,” he said. “Everyone was looking a lot better and everyone was just kind of clicking right off the bat. We had a lot of skates at training camp so it was pretty hard, but with the group we had, everything looked really good.”
Poulter developed plenty of strong relationships during his four years in Swift Current, but perhaps none more important than the one he created with the Olfert family, who he lived with nearly his entire tenure in Swift Current.
“Carley and Mike were an amazing billet family,” he said. “They took me in from the first day and have been so supportive of everything. The hard times coming home after a tough game. Having some nachos or something ready and waiting for you, seeing their kids grow up just as much as you do during that time. I can’t thank them enough for everything they did for me, helping with my car whenever it broke down, helping with me school work, it was a lot of fun and it’s going to be really different next year without them.”
The team started off strong with a pair of wins over the Medicine Hat Tigers, but then fell into a slump and dropped their next 10 in a row.
Truthfully, the team likely deserved to win a few of those games based strictly off the way they played, and Poulter says his team knew they had to stay positive in the face of a lengthy slide.
“That was a really tough streak for us,” he said. “We were up a goal late in a few of them, but I think just the age of our team played a bit of a factor in that. It seemed like as a group, we weren’t quite ready for how hard teams could push late when they were down a goal. We couldn’t really get a bounce during that streak either.”
It was clear early in the season that Poulter was determined to be a difference maker as his statistics finally seemed to reflect his true talent that he had displayed in previous years.
He says he was motivated to help the team reach their goal of the playoffs.
“I had been doing well but I really wanted to make an impact,” he said. “Everyone always said we wanted to make the playoffs and it was my last chance to do that, so I knew I had to step it up. If I had to make a couple more big saves then that’s what I had to do, but that never really seemed to be the case this past year. I didn’t have to bail out the team very often compared to previous years. I just had confidence in myself all year long, knowing that I just had to keep doing what I was doing and that things would come.”
By December 10 Poulter had already matched his career high in wins with nine, and the Broncos were in the thick of a playoff hunt.
A few weeks prior to that, Poulter hit a milestone he had long dreamed about when he appeared in his 100th career game with the Broncos, a 3-0 shutout win over the Saskatoon Blades on November 20.
“When you walk into the room for the first time, they give you a tour of everything that’s down there,” Poulter explained. “One thing that stuck out for me was the wall in the back with all the milestones. For goalies they have 100 games, 25-win seasons, 50-games in a season and career wins. Early on I thought to myself with Hofer ahead of me until I’m 20, I don’t know if I’ll hit 50 in one season or win 25 in one season, so I thought 100 career games was the most achievable for me. It was something I could leave for people to see in the future that I owned.”
As the season came closer to the end, the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference stayed as tight as could be until the final weekend of the regular season.
Playing in meaningful games was something Poulter relished.
“It was great experience for us as a group,” he said. “In previous years you know you’re not playing for much because you’re already eliminated from the playoffs. When every game is meaningful, all throughout the year, it means a lot. Every game is exciting, you’re ready to go. There’s nothing really more you could ask for.”
The Broncos playoff hopes came down to the final game of the season, needing a win over the Prince Albert Raiders to essentially clinch a playoff spot.
Unfortunately, the team came up short, falling 4-1 on home ice.
“It was tough because it didn’t feel like we were done yet,” Poulter said. “The group we had, we could have made an impact in the playoffs if we got in. Knowing we fell just short really hurt. We still had to wait to see what was going to happen because Prince Albert still needed to beat Brandon the next night. It was tough not knowing if that was our last game.”
The players gathered at Poulter’s billet house to watch that final game between Brandon and Prince Albert, only to see the Wheat Kings sit a number of their top players as that game had no impact on their playoff picture. The Raiders won 5-1, officially eliminating the Broncos from the playoffs.
With the playoffs now out of the picture, that provided an opportunity for seven players on the Broncos to immediately head overseas and play in the World U18 Championship.
That included Reid Dyck, who Poulter’s relationship with grew even stronger with each passing day.
“It’s funny because I knew he would have to play a lot, even in the hub, which was hard for me at the start because I wanted to play every game,” he laughed. “I felt like I wanted to mentor him the way I was mentored by Skinner, Hofer and Lamb. Whenever he had questions or was going through difficult times, I wanted to be there for him.”
Dyck’s performance at the U18 Championship turned heads as he was named one of Canada’s top three players at the tournament, and vaulted from 26th amongst North American goalies to ninth in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.
He wasn’t the only Broncos goalie who caught the eyes of NHL scouts this season, as Poulter was getting plenty of attention himself, particularly from the New Jersey Devils.
“They reached out the most and their goalie scout, Scott Clemmensen, was communicating with our goalie coach Dave Rathjen,” Poulter said. “One night Scott asked me if I could come up and talk with him after a game in Edmonton. We had a few talks throughout the year, going over video. It was nice to see that someone had that kind of belief in me.”
After just missing out on an opportunity with an ECHL team when the Broncos season came to an end, Poulter said there were a few teams contacting his agent about a potential deal, which pushed the Devils to sign him before someone else did.
In Kelowna at the time, Poulter’s agent reached out to him to give him the good news: the Devils wanted to give him a one-year, two-way American League contract with their AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets.
“There was a little mix up with the time change where I was, so it was about 6:30 in the morning when he first told me,” he laughed. “It was an exciting day. Knowing that I’m going to be playing at a high level that I’ve always wanted to play at is a dream come true. I need to make the most of it and be prepared to be there.”
Poulter knows he wouldn’t be where he is today if not for the lessons he learned during his time in Swift Current.
“It’s a small town but everyone there has a big heart,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are, you never feel left out. People care about you there. I love Swift Current and it was a pleasure playing there.”
With his popularity in Swift Current, the Utica Comets will gain plenty of fans for the 2022-23 season.