WINNIPEG — Connor Hellebuyck's path to the NHL began with a little baseball glove and a mini hockey stick.
Armed with the tiny equipment, a young Hellebuyck would stand in front of the TV in his Commerce, Mich., home and mimic the goalies on the screen. One day when he was about four years old, the future netminder of the Winnipeg Jets surprised his father.
"He sat in front of the (Detroit) Red Wings game and he's just like making moves and I thought he was just copying the goalie," Chuck Hellebuyck said in a recent phone call.
"It was kind of cute when he was watching and then there was a breakaway on the Red Wings' goalie. The goalie just went right down, did a sprawl right down on the ice, and the shot actually went up. The guy shot the puck towards the top of the net.
"And I looked at Connor and he was actually up. His arms were up, his glove was up, his head was up. He was watching the puck, he wasn't watching the goalie. He was playing the game in his mind and he was watching the puck. And I'm like, holy cow, this kid really is a goalie."
The 24-year-old has actually become a great goalie for the Jets this season, his third in the NHL. He's posted a 15-2-3 record, including his first shutout of the season in Sunday's 5-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. He has a .925 save percentage and 2.31 goals against average.
His play has helped propel Winnipeg to a 17-6-4 mark, good for first in the Western Conference. The team's 38 points also ties Tampa Bay for top spot in the league, although the Lightning have a game in hand.
The Jets will play the Lightning on their current road trip, which begins Tuesday in Detroit and continues Thursday against the Florida Panthers and Saturday versus Tampa Bay.
Hellebuyck's family will make the short drive to Detroit. A lot of his success can be traced to family traits such as extreme focus, attention to details and a competitive nature.
Chuck, who used to race stock cars as a hobby, is an electronics expert and works for Microchip Technology Inc. as a technical training engineer.
He's also written 12 books to help people get started with electronics and has a blog and a YouTube channel called CHEP 3D Printing and Electronics, which features a weekly show about 3D printing. Mother Erin has written children's books and is an artist. Connor remembers the time she created a miniature Harry Potter Hogwarts house.
Brother Chris is 14 months older and owns Gamers Option. He customizes electronic products such as Xbox controllers and hula hoops that light up. Sister Brittany, 20, attends college and is majoring in engineering with a focus on biomedical.
Chris also played college and junior hockey as a centre. He joined Connor with the North American Hockey League's Odessa Jackalopes for five games in 2011-12.
That love of hockey includes an annual family barbecue and street hockey tournament that began 25 years ago as a birthday party for Chuck's nephew.
Chris and Connor took over the late-spring event two years ago and are captains of their teams. About 20 relatives and friends play and take turns in goal.
"We're super competitive," Hellebuyck said with a chuckle prior to facing the Senators. "Even when we're playing ping-pong in my basement, you can see tempers are flying and we hate to lose."
While he often comes across to fans and media as very serious, Hellebuyck says that's not the case.
"I always want to be doing something — something fun, cracking jokes. I'm pretty easy going," he said.
"For my summer, I'll get my work done and then after that I'll go fishing, go golfing. I'll go to the bowling alley, play poker with my friends. It's always something."
This past summer, though, he got down to serious business when he travelled to Kelowna, B.C., to work with sports performance coach Adam Francilia. They focused on biomechanics; how the body moves as a goalie and what muscles he uses for different moves.
He was Winnipeg's starter last season, but the Jets brought in veteran Steve Mason, who's out with a concussion.
It was believed Mason would get the bulk of starts, but Hellebuyck quickly excelled and has been the go-to guy.
"People expressed that it wasn't good enough," he said with a wry smile. "But I used that as motivation this summer.
"I've always known I was better than what I showed. I showed glimpses of it last year, but I couldn't figure out that consistency so then I went and tried to find that consistency and that's exactly what I got."
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press