Face-off for number one

First-year Gaels Justin Fazio and Jack Flinn are vying for starting goaltender spot, and they're not making the decision easy

Jack Flinn (left) and Justin Fazio (right).
Jack Flinn (left) and Justin Fazio (right).

After his starting and backup goaltenders left the program this summer, men’s hockey Head Coach Brett Gibson faced a problem: he only had one goalie going into the season, and hadn’t recruited at all for another. 

Gibson already had Jack Flinn, who’d practiced with the Gaels the previous year. But he needed to fill the gaping holes left by one of the most storied goaltenders in Queen’s history, Kevin Bailie, and backup Jake Brennan. 

He reached out immediately to who he believed was the best 21-year-old goalie in the Ontario Hockey League the year prior, Justin Fazio. Gibson said he didn’t fear rejection when he went to recruit Fazio—Gibson wanted to know what he had for the next 3 to 4 years.

“I know some teams get scared,” Gibson said of trying to recruit premier, young talent. “Justin Fazio was the best [and] I know that scares some guys away—but not me.” 

Fazio, having Queen’s as one of his top school destinations, joined the program this fall and continues to rotate as the team’s starter with Flinn.

The Gaels have yet to decide their number one starter, and the Gaels have been alternating games since the beginning of the season. 

When it came to selecting one before the season began in September, Gibson said it was too early to pick—“there was no conversation.” 

“I told [Flinn and Fazio] I had an opportunity to coach [them] for the next three to four years, and I’m not deciding a starter in the first three months.” 

Now, with two experienced goaltenders at his disposal, Gibson has both short and long-term security in the crease.

The coach recognizes each goaltenders’ unique style of play—he said Fazio’s skating abilities are the best he’s ever seen, and Flinn’s 6’8” frame makes him nearly impossible to slip past—but also sees congruities between them.

“They’re both elite goalies with elite mindsets,” he said. “They want to be  he good and want to be the best goalies.”

When it comes time to make the final decision on who will lead the Gaels through the season’s most critical points, Gibson knows exactly what he wants from his starter.

“Confidence,” he said. “I want to see a goalie who, when he gets scored on, is just as confident as when he stops a breakaway.”

Meanwhile, Bailie, who was hired as an assistant coach after graduating last season, has acted as Fazio and Flinn’s peer mentor during their rookie seasons. Over five seasons with Queen’s, Bailie played 108 games and posted a career .929 regular season save percentage. He said his role hasn’t been different than previous years when he worked alongside other goaltenders.

“I feel like the goalie who is talking to them as a fellow partner rather than a coach,” Bailie said. “I just don’t get to play in the games myself.”

Gibson agreed, adding Bailie’s role has been largely “player development.” Together, Gibson and Bailie have been focusing on strategies to get the most out of their rookie goalies—and so far, that’s been to have them alternate games. 

“You want guys that play a lot. If you look at the goalies I’ve brought in here, they’ve all played a lot and that’s how they’ve gained their experience,” Gibson said. “There’s no difference there from Kevin, to Justin [Fazio], to Jack [Flinn]—all these guys play a lot of hockey.” 

If the question of who will be his number one guy remains undecided in early January, Gibson’s not opposed to rotating Flinn and Fazio until playoffs.

“We play it week-by-week who is starting. Come February, [Bailie] and I will sit down and we’ll decide who we want,” Gibson said. 

Justin Fazio

Before Justin Fazio made a save for Queen’s, he’d already let in a goal.

After getting the starting role in the team’s first game against McGill in October, he let a shot from one of the team’s veteran players slide by him, putting the Gaels down 1-0.

“There were some butterflies […] that was definitely memorable,” Fazio said of his debut with Queen’s.

Over 60 minutes of hockey later, the Gaels would come away with a 2-1 overtime win against the fourth-ranked team in the country. Fazio finished with 32 saves.

From that moment on, the 21-year-old rookie has been unstoppable. Through nine games this season, he’s posted a 2.31 goals-against average and an OUA second-best .943 save percentage. In that span, he’s made 296 saves, including a season-high 55 against UQTR earlier this month.

Fazio came to Queen’s this fall after spending five seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Sarnia Sting.  A Sarnia native, he played 176 games for the Sting before deciding to pursue other avenues this summer. 

Before he made his way to Kingston, Fazio was invited to the Detroit Red Wings’ Prospect Tournament and training camp, where he played alongside five other goalies. While he’s not under contract with the Red Wings, it was his first time seeing NHL hockey from inside the crease. While there, he shared the ice with the team’s current roster and their prospects.

“Just talking to those guys in the room […] you learn a lot from them and try to soak it in,” he said.

For Fazio, Queen’s was one of this top destinations. When calls from the Red Wings and AHL didn’t come, he began looking at opportunities for the 2018-19 season. He said he wants to make a career out of the sport, and said Queen’s provided him with the best chance at doing that.

“I’m still firm on hockey,” Fazio said. “As long as you have a couple good years here, you still have the chance of playing pro hockey.”

Coming out of Sarnia as an established veteran in the OHL, Fazio has found a new and fresh experience playing for Queen’s as a rookie.

“It’s definitely different, coming in and being a rookie again,” he said. “It takes a little getting used to. Sometimes you forget to pick up pucks or forget to bring soap to the rink.”

Now in a battle for the starting position with Flinn, Fazio said he’s enjoyed the experience of competing with another goalie.

“It’s been working for us,” he said. “We’ve been winning and you can’t complain about it.”

Jack Flinn

Twenty-two-year-old goaltender Jack Flinn may have made his first start for the men’s hockey team this fall, but he knew his way around the ice well before.  

Having played in the Ontario and American Hockey Leagues, and clocking game time under the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings affiliates, the Ontario Reign and Manchester Monarchs, Flinn already had the experience when he officially joined the Gaels this season.

But before trading in his training jersey for game-day threads in September, he’d yet to play a game for Queen’s. 

Flinn spent his first year at Queen’s training with the men’s hockey team, practicing alongside veteran goalie and now assistant coach, Kevin Bailie. From there, he experienced university hockey from the sideline.

“You can practice all you want, but nothing replicates how you’re feeling during that full game,” Flinn said in an interview with The Journal. “My first time on the ice was definitely a bit uncomfortable.”  

That feeling changed quickly for the goaltender, who holds the highest save percentage in the OUA at .944 just over halfway through the regular season.  

After a year behind the bench, Flinn said he’s found his place with the Gaels. Whereas the importance during his career in the OHL and AHL was exclusive to hockey, at Queen’s he turned his focus towards school.    

He chose Queen’s almost instantly because he could prioritize a school-centric approach to university sport, translating his motivation to succeed in school to every game he plays.

Between his last two games, UQTR on Nov. 10 and Nipissing on Nov. 17, he allowed only four goals on 95 shots. Against UQTR, he received over 50 shots and maintained a .941 save percentage before heading into the Nipissing game the following week.  

His easy nature in the crease translates to a calm, collected demeanor as a leader on the ice. In the same UQTR game, he pulled aggressive players off one another as a small brawl came to life just outside the net—an example of his maturity despite his youth.

That game is among his most memorable moments with the Gaels thus far. With Head Coach Brett Gibson away for the night, he felt a sense of pride claiming a win for assistant coaches Bailie and Ben Munroe.    

Now comfortable on the ice, he looks forward to becoming a leader for younger players, but also maintaining his game-to-game consistency.  

“[Bailie] was so consistently good for Queen’s,” he told The Journal. “I hope that I can try to give the team the same opportunities he did.”  

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