Colorado goalie Lukas Hafner stops a shot by the Walleye’s Kyle Bonis during a May 13 playoff game at the Huntington Center. The 25-year-old Central Catholic graduate helped the Eagles win the Kelly Cup. BLADE PHOTO
With pure childlike exuberance, Toledoan Lukas Hafner jumped up and down rapidly in the jubilant seconds after his ECHL team clinched the Kelly Cup on Monday night.
Doubt had turned into destiny for the up-and-coming goalie in Game 4 of the Kelly Cup finals in South Carolina. Hafner, a 25-year-old Central Catholic graduate, had suddenly transformed from a fledgling goalie with an uncertain future into a champion netminder.
Hafner, who grew up in Point Place with dreams of raising a Cup above his head, led the Colorado Eagles to a sweep of the South Carolina Stingrays.
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” Hafner said. “When that final buzzer goes off, it’s a feeling of relief. Then it’s pure joy with all the hugs. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s all you can hope for.”
Hafner’s path required perseverance after being cut twice this season by the ECHL’s Alaska Aces before finding his legs in the lowest levels of pro hockey.
Hafner graduated from Western Michigan last March and started his pro career with Alaska. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound goalie then went to play for the Columbus (Ga.) Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League before being picked up by Colorado on Feb. 8.
Colorado coach Aaron Schneekloth said when he found himself in need of a netminder heading toward the postseason, he immediately recalled the performance of the young goalie.
“Lukas was my first call,” Schneekloth said. “He stopped a lot of pucks against us when we played in Alaska. He worked so hard at practice and fit into our locker room so well. He was patient and accepting of his position, and it’s paid off. It’s an interesting path that he has taken.”
Hafner did not start in Game 1 of Colorado’s opening-round series, but he got the nod in Game 2 and went on to earn 14 of the Eagles’ 16 wins in the Kelly Cup playoffs.
“It was a tough year for me,” Hafner said.
“I got cut twice by Alaska. I spent some time in the Southern Pro League. I’m just thankful just for the opportunity. They believed in me.”
Hafner finished with the seventh-best goals-against average (2.43), and had the most wins among all ECHL netminders in the postseason.
He posted a 14-2-0 record with a .903 save percentage and finished with the third-most saves (391).
Hafner said the run included a fair amount of angst.
“ ‘Stressful’ is the word,” he said. “It’s high pressure every night. One win or loss can quickly change a series. It’s a lot of hard work. It was a really tight group.”
In the finals, Hafner went 4-0 with a 1.97 goals-against average and a save percentage of .924. The Eagles took a chartered plane from South Carolina back to Colorado hours after the clinching game.
“It was a lot of fun having the Cup on there,” Hafner said. “There were a couple of cold drinks floating around.”
The young netminder said the team’s belief that it could win no matter what the situation also was crucial.
“A couple of times we gave up early goals, but it was easy to shake off because our offense put up [goals],” he said. “The more game experience you get, the more confidence you get.”
The magical run included a showdown with his hometown pro team. Hafner went 3-0 against the Toledo Walleye in the Western Conference final. Colorado eliminated the regular-season champion Walleye with four straight wins, including two that Hafner won in overtime.
Hafner started in Game 2 of the series at the Huntington Center on May 13 before a capacity crowd of 8,005.
“Toledo has such a great fan base,” Hafner said. “I could hear some of the chants [jeers]. But there were also quite a few Hafner fans there as well that were cheering for me. That was a lot of fun.”
Hafner signed briefly with the Walleye as an emergency backup late last season. Walleye coach Dan Watson said he was impressed with Hafner's resiliency. “He found a good home in Colorado at the end of the year,” Watson said. “It shows his willingness to compete and battle.”
Hafner won three games in a row in the series, and the Eagles put an end to Toledo’s season on May 20 in Loveland, Colo. Hafner said that his phone has been ringing off the hook and that he has been deluged with notes of congratulations on social media.
“The support from home has been unbelievable,” he said.
Hafner grew up just minutes from the venerable old Sports Arena in East Toledo. He and his father, Todd, formed an incredibly tight bond while cheering on the Toledo Storm at 1 Main St.
Hafner said he became enamored with the unique position of goaltender when he was about 8.
“I was just obsessed with the custom pads and the painted helmets,” Hafner said. “When my older cousins would babysit me, they’d all want to fire shots at me.”
As he grew into the position and a future in the sport became a possibility, his parents, Todd and Lorie, and his sisters, Audrie and Madilyn, were always his biggest supporters.
Hafner, who graduated from Central in 2010, said one of the biggest sacrifices he made was leaving Toledo when he was a senior in high school.
“Moving away my senior year to play juniors was tough,” he said. “I left all my friends and all I knew behind to only focus on hockey. It was a big sacrifice, but it has worked out pretty well.”
Hafner played major junior hockey in Canada, Michigan, and Nebraska.
When he was 20, his world turned upside down. His father, who had been a standout football player at Central Catholic and is a member of its hall of fame, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March of 2012 at age 49. He died just weeks later.
“Through my whole career, he was such a big part of it,” Hafner said. “Playing was the biggest way to pay tribute to him for his sacrifice.”
Hafner’s goalie mask pays homage to his family with a depiction of himself along with his father and grandfather. His helmet also includes the initials of all of his immediate family members and his father’s old football number that he wore when he played at Bluffton College, No. 55.
Hafner said he could feel his father’s presence as he fought through adversity throughout the season.
“He was always the guy who believed in me,” Hafner said. “He told me I was good enough to make it. He told me to keep working hard and everything would work out. Then to cap it off this way was the best way to pay tribute to him.
“There were so many times in this whole playoff run that it seemed too good to be true. There is no doubt in my mind that someone was helping me out from up above.”
The Eagles went 6-0 in games that went to overtime.
“That alone is huge,” Hafner said. “If those go the other way, it’s completely different. In the two games in the finals, we were down a goal with 30 seconds left [and tied it]. Everyone just believed. Guys were just confident.
“When we won in South Carolina, me and a couple of the other rookies looked around at some of the older, veteran guys that have been playing their whole careers for this, and you realize what a blessing it is for us to get it in year one. It’s almost a belief — a destiny type of thing.”
Lukas Hafner grew up a hockey fan in Point Place.