Caption: Walleye's Brett Perlini (11) takes a shot against Gwinnett goalie Josh Unice (1) during an ECHL hockey game Saturday, 03/22/14, at the Huntington Center. THE BLADE
The distinction of being labeled one of the best from the area to ever play hockey created incredible opportunities but also daunting expectations for young Josh Unice.
At 17, the Holland native, who attended St. John’s Jesuit but graduated from Ann Arbor Huron, was selected higher in the NHL draft than any local player in nearly two decades. He had realized his dream in 2007.
Now 24, the gifted and tested goaltender hopes for just one more opportunity to meet some lofty expectations.
The last seven years were a whirlwind, a tumultuous course of events with invitations to three NHL training camps and the chance to represent his country in elite world tournaments. The journey also included a major nightmare — a knee injury that threatened to completely derail his aspirations.
In a blink of an eye, the fledgling netminder’s promising career was in jeopardy.
Unice has emerged as a college graduate and a mature goalie hoping for one more shot.
“My hockey journey has been like a pendulum with swings that have been unbelievable,” Unice said. “I remember back when I was drafted. I was in the NHL. Someone believed in me, and I was one of the top 100 players in the world.
“I’ve had some tough bounces. At the same time I’ve gotten a lot of accolades, and then one injury and it was all gone. Hockey has been very humbling. You’re so high one day, and the next day, ‘What do I do?’ ”
A day before his 18th birthday, Unice received the best present a player could ever hope to get. He was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the third round of the NHL draft. It was the best day of his life.
Already 6 feet and 175 pounds, Unice was the highest drafted player from the Toledo area since local legend Bryan Smolinski was a first-round pick in 1990.
He was on national TV, wearing a Blackhawks jersey and ball cap, shaking hands and taking pictures with Chicago’s executives.
“The last time I was home, I pulled the jersey out,” Unice said. “Obviously it was one of the best times in my life. I put in all the hard work. I got to live every hockey player’s dream.”
His future was so bright that he was included in a book about the history of hockey in Toledo produced by The Blade in 2009.
Unice was selected to play in net for Team USA when he was 18 in the World Junior Championships. He then helped lead the Kitchener Rangers to a title in the Ontario Hockey League, the top major junior league in Canada.
“It’s humbling to look back on,” Unice said. “You’re flying all over the place to represent your country and playing your favorite sport. Most teenagers are very cocky. You think nothing can hurt you.”
Just as sudden as his meteoric rise, Unice’s world came crashing down when a player crashed into his knee. He had just returned from a rookie camp with the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers, where had beaten out some other young goalies.
He played in an exhibition game for Thrashers, but he had already signed to play a second season with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL.
“It was my third game back from Atlanta,” Unice said. “I went down to stop a puck and went to push back up, and a player fell on my leg. And that was it. I'd had mild knee strains before, but this was very obvious it was something more. It’s still a tough subject … There are a lot of what ifs.”
Unice had torn his medial collateral ligament, which is located on the inside of the knee. MCL injuries do not require surgery, but Unice was told he would be sidelined for six to eight weeks.
“I thought I was infallible, nothing could take me down,” Unice said. “But within seconds I had to re-evaluate.
“I’ve gone from the highest of highs to the low points. It’s just a humbling, humbling game. At some point, no matter what, it humbles everyone. But that’s what makes me love it so much.”
And that is why Unice flew to Finland last month. He had a tryout with a team in the Finnish Elite League.
Former NHL goalie Hannu Toivonen, who was Unice’s roommate in Finland, said he sees a bright future for Unice.
“I really like his compete level,” the veteran Toivonen said. “You can’t teach that. I don’t doubt for a second that he has potential to play in this league and be successful. He does all the little things right.”
But the team in Finland opted to go with another veteran goalie, so Unice now finds himself in limbo. His agent has made contact with other teams in Europe and with North American teams in the American Hockey League and ECHL.
“I just want to go to a place where I’m given a fair shot right off the bat,” Unice said. “I just want to go somewhere where I can show what I go do.
“It’s weird. For the first time in my life I do not have a team.”
A photo of a beaming Unice on the day he was drafted hangs on the wall of the Ice House. The rink in North Toledo is where Unice started playing hockey at age 3.
Unice also still has a photo of himself in the back of a red pickup truck with the Riley Cup trophy. It was 1994 when Unice was 5. He was posing with his hero — the Toledo Storm’s young goalie, Nick Vitucci.
“When I first was playing goalie, he was my favorite,” Unice said. “Later I fell in love with Patrick Roy, but Vitucci was my first favorite goalie. He was my first autograph. He was one of the winningest goalies in ECHL history, so he’s a pretty good role model. He was part of the reason why I started playing goalie.”
Vitucci has maintained a long relationship with hockey in Toledo as coach of the Storm and Walleye. He currently is the director of hockey operations for the local ECHL team.
“I followed his career,” Vitucci said. “When I see his picture at the Ice House, I smile every time because it’s a local kid who has done well. Josh is a quality netminder. Any time someone looks up to you, you should feel honored by that. It’s humbling.”
Unice also repeatedly cites his mother, Carol, as a source of inspiration.
“My mom would work hard and long hours, and she’d still drive me two and a half hours to Michigan to play [travel] hockey to chase my dream,” Unice said.
At 18, Unice was the goaltender for the USA U-18 team that reached the finals of the world championships. He had verbally committed to play at Bowling Green State University. But he then opted to play junior hockey, which allowed him to compete in twice as many games.
“When I decided to play in the OHL, I always promised my mom I would get an education,” Unice said.
Unice did not become an instant millionaire when he was drafted. In fact, he didn’t earn any money.
“They don’t give you money until they sign you,” Unice said. “So I didn’t go out and buy a Rolex.”
The urgency of a backup plan if hockey did not pan out came into immediate focus after his knee injury. He jumped at the chance when the coach from the University of Western Ontario offered a scholarship.
The knee injury may have but a bit of a black mark on Unice, who fell under the radar a bit despite putting up terrific numbers.
He settled into a five-year college career and posted an impressive 59-21 regular season record, including seven shutouts. He had a career 2.47 goals-against average and was a three-time all-star.
Perhaps more importantly he earned degrees in criminology and sociology.
“When hockey is done, I’d like to be a corporate lawyer or maybe a hockey agent,” Unice said.
But first he has unfinished business on the ice.
Unice played in Toledo for the first time since he was 14 in March.
In just his fourth game as a pro, Unice suited up for the Gwinnett Gladiators to take on his hometown Toledo Walleye.
More than 50 of his family members and friends came to support Unice at the Huntington Center.
“I played so good for the first 12 minutes, but then the wheels fell off,” Unice said.
Unice made 10 saves on 14 shots before being pulled in the second period.
“It was good to get my feet wet. Despite the one bad game in my hometown, I played really well. Everyone has a bad game. It just stinks it was here,” he said, chuckling.
Toivonen, who played in 31 games for the Walleye last season, said Unice must have “done some things right at some point” to even earn an invitation to tryout in the Finnish Elite League.
“It’s a very competitive league. To be invited is something special,” Toivonen said. “He’s a very good guy. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Vitucci said he had considered signing Unice to play for the Walleye.
“He’s a good-sized kid,” Vitucci said. “He has good angles. He can read the game really well. He has good instincts. The sky’s the limit for him.”
For Unice, it’s just the next leg in one extremely interesting trip.
“The path has been long and winding to get here,” Unice said. “I may be that guy that may have been forgotten and now gets that opportunity again. Very few people in the world get to be a professional athlete.
“At the end of day, I have a good resume. I just have to get my foot in the door. I'll give it my best shot.”