‘The goal was the NHL’: Oilers goalie Connor Ungar latest pro product from U Sports pipeline

Connor Ungar is sitting at a conference table in an empty boardroom of a downtown Toronto hotel. With his mom next to him and his father in the room, the Calgary native scans through the contract before him.

After finding where to sign, Ungar puts pen to paper — officially inking his first NHL deal on March 18.

The 22-year-old gave his mother a hug, exchanged words with his parents and in a matter of time, Ungar will be Bakersfield, Calif., bound to play with the Edmonton Oilers AHL affiliate.

“That’s got to be one of the best feelings, just seeing my mom and how happy she was for me,” Ungar told CBC Sports. “She’s really important to me, and it felt good to make her proud.”

Ungar went 3-3 with a 2.33 GAA and .928 save percentage in six post-season games. (Brock University/Stephen Leithwood/The Canadian Press)

The two-year, entry-level contract came days after Ungar’s 2024 University Cup aspirations came to a screeching halt at the hands of the UNB Reds on March 14. The Brock Badgers lost to the eventual U Cup champion 4-0 in the national tournament’s opening contest. The Reds also finished off an historic perfect season.

“We are disappointed we did not win the national championship,” Brock Badgers head coach TJ Manastersky said. “At the same time, if you’re not going to win, we got to play the best team U Sports has ever seen.

“In that game, I thought Connor was the best player on the ice.”

Ungar finished his one-year-and-done university career with a 2.15 GAA and .932 save percentage through 26 games and went 3-3 in the playoffs with a 2.33 GAA and .928 save percentage.

WATCH | UNB Reds complete perfect season, defend men’s hockey title:

UNB Reds complete perfect season, defend men’s hockey title with victory over UQTR Patriotes

The New Brunswick Reds defeat the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières Patriotes 4-0 to cap off their perfect season and successfully defend their University Cup championship.

After returning to St. Catherines, Ont., and getting organized, Ungar finally had time to sit down and soak in his first pro contract.

“It sunk in couple of days after the fact,” Ungar said. “Not right away, but it definitely sunk in and put butterflies in my stomach.”

Ungar is expected to leave for Bakersfield at the end of March. To stay sharp, he’s still getting in reps on the ice at the Walker Sports Centre, but his signing has made him a local celebrity.

“People are coming out and watching him now. Connor’s the talk of the town,” Brock’s goalie coach Ryan Ludzik said. “Everyone is calling and talking; the NHL deal is a big deal.”

Hockey’s best-kept secret 

Ludzik connected with their first-year netminder before Brock’s season kicked off to continue developing his skills. Ludzik remembers Ungar, noting his tracking, posture in the net, positioning of his hands, and reading plays as areas he wanted to improve.

“Some goalies have a hard time admitting a fault of theirs or something they need to work on. [With] some goalies, there is pushback — not with him,” Ludzik said. “Connor is driven.

“He wants to be better. He wants to be the best.”

Ungar hit on all these notes throughout last season. His improvement helped his pro-career case, and by signing his deal, he follows a line of recent successful goalie stories from the Badgers system.

Men's hockey goalie with a goalie stick in his right hand steps goes on the ice.
The goal for Ungar was always the NHL. (Brock University/Stephen Leithwood)

First-year netminder Roman Basran signed an ECHL deal following the 2022-23 season. Before Basran, Stanley Cup champion and Vegas Golden Knights goalie Logan Thompson was another one-and-done goalie from Badgers.

Clint Windsor was the first in the recent pro-goalie pipeline by the Badgers. Windsor played in Europe after a four-year stint at the university from 2014-2018.

Many men’s U Sports hockey players are signing professional contracts. Five players have signed deals since UNB won the U Cup on March 17, with more expected to follow.

“U Sports, unfortunately, is the best-kept secret in hockey,” Manastersky said.

For Ungar, the coaching staff knew what his goals were since his first few days at the university.

“We knew the goal was the NHL,” Manastersky said. “We were trying to set him up for success and give him an opportunity to achieve that dream.”

Alberta ties

Being born in Calgary, Ungar naturally grew up a Flames fan. But when he started playing goalie, the Los Angeles Kings caught his eye due to their starting netminder — Jonathan Quick.

He split time cheering for his hometown squad and his favourite goalie. However, Ungar lived with his aunt and uncle in Edmonton while playing midget hockey, spending significant time in the city while chasing his childhood dream.

“Edmonton is a second home for me, and hopefully, in the near future, it will become my first home.”

Ungar is taking everything one day at a time. He understands he has to earn ice time on the Condors and then eventually earn his next pro contract. But as he looks into the years ahead, there are a couple of people he aspires to have in the stands if he makes the NHL.

“Hopefully I can get to the big leagues one day and have my two little cousins grow up watching me,” Ungar said. “That’s looking into the future a little too far, but that is something to keep in the back of your mind.”

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