BOW VALLEY – His name and reputation are catching the eye of top goalie prospects across Alberta. They say if you want to improve your game between the pipes, then you go see Justin Cardinal.
Mentor to Stanley Cup champions and hero to 10 year olds at the Canmore Recreation Centre, the Bow Valley-raised goalie coach has been fostering the next generation of goaltenders for two decades, and until recently, those accomplishments went relatively under the radar.
However, following an impressive All-Star season and clutch playoff performance from two pupils, plus his more frequent trips south of the border, Cardinal's track record is picking up steam in hockey circles around North America.
“That's sort of the message: no one guaranteed any of these kids were going to even play in the NHL,” said Cardinal. “Now I've got two guys and I can't wait to see their Stanley Cup rings.”
Modest in his approach, the community is just starting to catch wind of how accomplished Cardinal is, said Michael Hay, president of Canmore Minor Hockey Association (CMHA).
“I can't even put a value on [Cardinal's coaching] because it's that important and it's that impactful to our association and to our players,” said Hay. “We're so lucky to have him as part of our association. He can obviously coach an NHL goalie and a Stanley Cup champion, but he can also coach an 11-year-old.”
Growing up in Exshaw with dreams of playing in the NHL, Cardinal discovered early on he was better suited as coach than player.
He played local minor hockey until age 14 and then headed east to play for the AAA team Airdrie Xtreme. Although, coaches were always irked by the young hockey nut giving answers to all the questions about plays and systems.
“I have always had sort of a brain and an eye for the game and I am always aware and hungry for information of why certain things happen during hockey games,” said Cardinal.
“Then I had a goaltending coach later on that flat out told me, ‘You're gonna be a better coach than you are a player’. It didn't sting. It was cool because it sort of led to me being able to further a career.”
He transitioned from playing to coaching at a young age, getting his first taste Down Under in Australia for a year to try to grow the game through a developmental league. The experience lit a fire under Cardinal as he got rewarded by watching players get better.
“When I came home at the end of it, I had the option to get into a career of working construction or pursue coaching. I chose coaching and here we are,” said Cardinal.
Doing one-on-one lessons, using the Goalie Shop in Calgary as a home base, Cardinal was offered jobs with the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars and Kootenay Ice, which won the championship in 2011 when Cardinal was there.
From an athletic family, he’s the younger brother of Brad, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, Cardinal has always taken a hands-on, experience-based approach with his students.
“There's so much mental and so much physical that goes into it that I don't think there's like a cookie cutter way that works,” he said. “Everybody responds to things differently, so it's sort of more of building a relationship and seeing things through.”
One of the biggest risks the Exshaw resident took in his career was founding Evolution Goaltending Corp (EGC), an Alberta-based goalie development company, which is now branching out to South Korea and Germany to run goalie camps.
This October is EGC’s 10-year anniversary.
“I've been coaching for close to 20 years now and I think the last time I went through the list there was 17 to 20 I’ve coached that had either been drafted, signed contracts or have played in the NHL,” said Cardinal.
“It's my job to get the best out of my athletes.”
Two of Cardinal’s most well-known students carry a lot of prestige nowadays. All-Star Logan Thompson and Adin Hill, 2022-23 Stanley Cup champions with the Vegas Golden Knights, were just a couple of Calgary kids kicking pucks aside in Cardinal’s training program.
“I've known Adin and Logan for a long time, since they were kids,” said Cardinal.
Through the years, from juniors to pros, the pair would come back to Alberta during summers and get in some ice time with Cardinal to stay razor sharp.
Although the Vegas goalies and their families were clients, Cardinal sees them more as family.
With Thompson, for example, Cardinal was almost like a big brother, giving advice and answering questions when Thompson bought his first vehicle.
When Hill had his first NHL start against the Stars, Cardinal flew to Dallas to watch with Hill’s family.
When Thompson, who is an NHL all-star, went down with an injury last season, Hill, the untested back-up, stepped in as the No. 1 option for Vegas during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Cardinal was glued to the TV, watching the remarkable run the unknown goalie had.
Hill and his long-time mentor would text during the long gruelling playoffs, which would usually involve Cardinal giving a synopsis after each game. Cardinal recalls a message exchange with the 27-year-old NHLer when Vegas was up against the awesome firepower of the Edmonton Oilers.
“[The Oilers] changed their power play when Adin went in,” said Cardinal. “They moved [Connor] McDavid from up high to down low and instead of being on the weak side, they put him in the middle.
“As soon as I saw that, I texted Adin and let him know that's what they were sort of looking for and he called me and told me exactly how he was gonna handle it and it was perfect. That just shows me that not only is he a phenomenal athlete, but he's also a very, very bright student of the game.”
On ice in Canmore training young athletes, Cardinal wears a pair of white and gold gloves he received from the Vegas Golden Knights. During previous off-seasons, his pupils returned to Calgary to train, but this year the Stanley Cup champions flew Cardinal south of the border to Sin City.
During his time in the desert, the Bow Valley goalie coach said he had a few conversations with Golden Knights’ coaching staff.
Having previously worked with the Calgary Flames and its former goalies Mike Smith and David Rittich, Cardinal is showing his value at the highest level.
“I would love to coach in the NHL,” said Cardinal. “If an opportunity arises, I’d definitely be more than happy to entertain it, for sure. I mean, that's part of the dream as well.
“It's the pinnacle of the sport.”
When seeing Hill and Thompson lift the Stanley Cup over their heads, Cardinal said it was pretty emotional to be “a small part of this.”
It still gives him goosebumps talking about it.
“There's no amount of money that anyone can give me to change the feelings that you get when you see kids that you've coached from 10 years old lift the Stanley Cup over their heads,” said Cardinal.
“There's no better feeling as a coach.”
Cardinal added both want to further their NHL careers and being on the same hockey club has given them friendly competition.
Cardinal has mentored and coached the next generation of goalies for two decades and has had a big impact, including where he started out with Canmore minor hockey.
CMHA president Hay said there’s a plethora of young goalies coming up under Cardinal’s wing right now.
“When he's with our kids, they just look up to him and they love him,” said Hay. “We have goalie clinics at six in the morning, seven in the morning, and they're full. The players just wanna go out and they want to be around him.”
Cardinal and CMHA have been working together for the past six or seven years, a relationship Hay said is invaluable. As Hay puts it, he’s just as good with parents as he is with the kids.
“As a parent, there is a big fear to have your kid go in net – I can speak to it myself because my kid’s been playing goal for seven years,” said Hay. “Justin definitely helped with that, explaining it to a parent on what it means to play net.”
Out on the ice with the next generation of goalies, Cardinal says he gets bombarded with questions from excited starry-eyed athletes, asking about the Golden Knights and what’s happening with the new NHL season, only a few weeks away from starting.
It’s a lot of fun for the mentor and he knows the pair of Golden Knights goalies would love to know the kids at the rink are asking about them, he said.
When Cardinal was a kid, playing in net in his backyard in Exshaw, he would imagine kicking aside slap shots like Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.
“Right now, there's guys that are pretending to be Adin Hill and Logan Thompson,” said Cardinal.
“The other thing that really makes it real is Adin and Logan, they're both just two kids from Calgary, right? It could be any one of these kids from Canmore. It's totally possible.”