It has been a bit of a transitional year for Thomas Heemskerk.
The 25-year-old goaltender has been putting up some stellar numbers in his first year with the Bentley Generals, helping the team to a 9-1-1 record while sharing the crease with Dustin Butler.
“It’s been good. We’ve had a lot of team success and, you know, it’s been a bit of a transition for myself taking a year off and getting back into things,” Heemskerk said.
Before this season, the Chilliwack, B.C. native played three years of pro hockey, spending most of his time in the San Jose Sharks’ farm system. He took a year off last season to recover from an injury.
“Now I find myself here trying to kind of stay with it and keep playing the sport that I kind of love. I’m just trying to be a part of something and win a championship,” Heemskerk said of why he came out to Alberta in order to play senior men’s AAA hockey.
“It’s been fun. It’s neat to kind of see all the small towns and how it operates. Just coming from Vancouver or B.C., there’s really no senior hockey, so it was all new to me.”
Heemskerk said that he had researched and asked around to find an elite level of hockey that he could participate in this season.
“It’s cool how they’re able to run a league in these smaller towns of great hockey throughout Alberta.”
Heemskerk has been outstanding for the first-place Generals, posting a .910 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.58 in seven games this season.
“It’s always going to be something you look at, your stats, and it’s something you take personal pride in or you want to be number one and put up the best numbers you can. I think that’s what pushes everyone but in the end you want to win the game and at the end of the season you want to win the championship.”
Heemskerk played four seasons in the Western Hockey League from 2006-2011 with the Kootenay Ice, Everett Silvertips and Moose Jaw Warriors. In 2009, the then 19-year-old Heemskirk posted the best save percentage in the WHL as a starter for the Silvertips.
That same season he signed an entry-level contract with the San Jose Sharks and in 2011 he joined the Worcester Sharks, San Jose’s American Hockey League affiliate.
“I played up and down with Worcester and Stockton and then San Francisco the next year,” he explained.
Heemskerk split his time in the pro leagues between starting for the Stockton Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League and filling a backup role for the Sharks in the AHL. He had his most successful pro season in 2012 after the Thunder relocated to San Francisco and became the San Francisco Bulls.
Although he only had a 14-17-3 record in 38 games with the Bulls that year, Heemskerk made up for it by posting a .906 save percentage and helping the team make the playoffs.
”It’s something I will always look back on and I enjoyed it very much but not everyone makes it to the NHL and at some point you’ve kind of got to start to look at the bigger picture and find other things that you enjoy in life, too,” he said when asked if he misses the pro hockey lifestyle.
Now that he’s playing in Bentley, Heemskerk said the level of play isn’t much different.
“It’s a bit different than California for sure,” he laughed, adding that most of the players are very high-calibre.
“There’s a lot of players in the league that could easily still be playing pro if they chose, so the hard thing is not being on the ice as much as before.”
According to Heemskerk, the Chinook Hockey League’s schedule is rather lax compared to those in the ECHL or AHL. Teams only practice once and play one or two games per week, “So when you have the ice time you’ve really gotta make it count,” he said.
Speaking of ice time, Heemskerk said that sharing the starting role with Dustin Butler hasn’t been as much of an adjustment as one would think.
“I think all goalies can kind of agree, it never really goes away. Even in the NHL or the AHL there’s always going to be different situations or new goalies or new tandems. It’s just the way it kind of is. You can’t really find a situation where you’re by yourself, it just doesn’t happen. Just trying to kind of make do with what you have. If that’s playing half a season then you try to make the most of it.”