During the IIHF World Championships this year in Russia, PRO Goaltending saw two students play for their respective countries. In this two-part series, we sit down with Sebastian Dahm (Team Denmark) and Sandro Zurkirchen (Team Switzerland) to talk about their journey to representing their country.
I first met Sebastian Dahm in 2006 when I was the goalie coach for the Sudbury Wolves. We acquired Sebastian in a trade to strengthen our team in goal. We ended up reaching the Eastern Conference Finals that year and Sebastian played a key role in that accomplishment. The journey for him since then has been quite remarkable. In my last blog, I spoke about the different path a few of our students have taken to be recognized leading up to the NHL Draft. Today’s blog follows a similar theme.
Since finishing his OHL, the journey as a professional has seen many ups and downs. Sebastian’s played for four teams in three leagues in North America, going on seven years in Europe. He’s also represented Team Denmark at many international competitions, most recently at the IIHF World Championships in Russia where he played eight games and finished with a 0.930 save percentage and 2.21 goals-against average. We sat down with Sebastian prior to Denmark’s quarter-final game against Finland to look at his journey.
PRO Goaltending: How has the journey been for you since graduating from the OHL to professional hockey?
Dahm: My first year pro as a backup in the AHL with Syracuse, everything was going great. I was named to Team Denmark that year, as well. I played a game for the national team and didn’t see the ice again. The next two years things were tough. It’s hard to say why. Sometimes I think as a young goalie, you’re fragile mentality. I was mentally fragile at that point in my career. I may have had a false sense of security in myself and my game, as well. And I didn’t really know why I was so successful in my first year as a pro. So the next two years, I was in tough circumstances and went from team to team. After those two years, playing for three teams in North America and one in Denmark, without a contract for the first three months of the year, were very tough.
PRO Goaltending: What did you have to do to reinvent yourself? Was it more technical or mental?
Dahm: I signed a contract with a team in Denmark and had the chance to be a starter. But I knew I had to reinvent myself. Mike Lawrence and I did a camp together with kids and we talked about my career and my game. It was time to start over and build my game from the ground up again. It wasn’t throwing everything out, but more finding out what I do well and creating a system to have to rely on during tough times. The previous years I didn’t really have a foundational system. I was just playing. And having a system helps so you can look back and evaluate performance based on what you know works. RVH has been huge for me in my game and becoming more of a hybrid goalie. I use a lot of half-butterfly saves. That was one of the key points from the conversation I had with Mike. We talked about my eye sight and my vision control, seeing pucks. I’ve worked very hard on seeing pucks better. Being hybrid, technical and detail oriented with the RVH, my vision control and eye sight at an elite level, and the mental part are the areas I’ve worked very hard at.
PRO Goaltending: What was the biggest difference you felt in your game recently compared to just after finishing junior hockey?
Dahm: I started feeling comfortable in the net again and gained confidence. It’s been four years since and I’ve worked hard to maintain structure and mentally to avoid the up and down swings, to play a bad game without it impacting the rest of the week, or two or three quick goals and not letting that impact the rest of the game. I worked hard to face those situations better than I did in the past. I improved every year and got better and better.
I had a strong year last year and returned to the World Championships and had the chance to show how my game could hold up at the international level against great competition – six years after I had been at the tournament. And last year going into the tournament I had a good chat with Denmark’s goalie coach about if I should try and do something different to adjust and we just both felt to stick with the system. If it didn’t hold up, then we’d adjust. But at the end of the day I believe it shows if you can play with a structure and system and play with a strong mentality and confidence things can work.
The tournament went well and it was big for me mentally to show I can perform at the international level again. I received a contract offer from the EBEL (Austrian Hockey League) in Austria after the tournament, which is one of the better leagues in Europe, and I made the jump and continued to improve with my new team (Graz 99ers). My goal was just to establish myself, but the success I’ve had so far is a result of finding my game and a way to manage the mental side of things. Throughout tough patches, which everyone with Mike, and talked about chasing the dream. So, the more you chase the dream and think I need to do this or that or be the best here or there, it goes back to pressure building. I enjoy playing the game. I love the way my game is and my mental approach, it feels great to play hockey. And I’m not going to worry what my stats are. If results happen, they happen. If they don’t, then it wasn’t meant to be. And it’s funny when you stop worrying about moving up or getting good results, how they just start coming. Because last year, I reached a new level for my performance and approached the World Championships the same way, narrowing my focus on just what I have to do.
PRO Goaltending: The mental aspect of goaltending is not easy to grasp. If you could simplify what you’ve been able to achieve, how would you put it?
Dahm: It was recognizing that when there was a lot of pressure or when things weren’t going well, I would increase the pressure, tension or steaks before the game. So if I had a bad game, I would think before the next game, “I had a bad game before, so I have to play well today.” Or if we were playing a good team I would say, “They’re a good team, I have to be good,” so I was creating a lot of extra pressure on myself and obviously when you get to a try-out you think, “I have to out-play this guy or can’t let in any bad goals because “this happens” and in my mind I had to reverse the pressure building and create a process to relieve the pressure.
It sounds easy, but thinking differently isn’t easy and it’s not something you just do. Small things like going into a game, any game, a tryout game, a regular season game, or the Finals, the result doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter win or lose because I can’t control how many goals we score or the bounces. I can play my best game and make zero mistakes, and we can still lose. Winning or losing became the least of my concerns. It’s not about the result or how many goals go in, I have to play each and every single chance against separately the way I play them, and approach them based on my game.
Lawrence: Was there a turning point for you where you felt like you had reached a good space mentally?
Dahm: I remember a game while I was still playing professionally in Denmark. We were playing the top team in Denmark and we were down something like, 6-0 halfway through the game. It’s a thunderstorm out there. And it sounds silly, but I had been playing well. We just couldn’t match up with what they had that night.
When they scored the sixth goal, mentally I hit a turning point, I said to myself, “There’s nothing to worry about, if you lose 10-0 then you lose 10-0, that’s how it is. You’re playing your best, just play your game, enjoy, there are 5,000 people here, you get to be a professional hockey player, and play at a high level, enjoy it and play hockey.” I played the next shift, they had a breakaway, and I made the save. We ended up losing the game 6-3 and I didn’t end up giving up another goal.
I realized if I could enjoy playing hockey while down 6-0 playing and one of the worst parts of being a goalie, I realized that mentally I reached another level. And when faced with tough moments, I always look back on that game. Enjoying the moment because that’s when you play your best anyway.