Gwinnett Gladiator Jeff Jakaitis was named the ECHL goaltender of the year
Gwinnett Gladiators goaltender Jeff Jakaitis ranks among the ECHL's best this season with a .944 save percentage and a 1.76 goal-against average. The 28-year-old from Rochester, Minn., was assigned to the Gladiators from their AHL affiliate in Rochester (N.Y.) and his efforts have helped put Gwinnett near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
In this installment of "Getting to Know ...," Jakaitis, who has never had a save percentage under .900 in his professional career, talks to staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of topics, including getting to play hockey at home until he finished high school, being a visiting goalie at the Gwinnett Arena and his interest in the field of art history.
CT: What's your hometown like?
JJ: It's a medium-sized city. It's probably like 80-90,000 people. The downtown area is pretty compact. It's probably most famous for the Mayo Clinic. It's pretty much the majority of our downtown with hotels and restaurants for people staying at the hospital.
But it's nice. It kind of has that small-town feel to it. Everybody kind of knows everyone.
CT: There's a perception about goalies that they're more superstitious than other players. Is that true?
JJ: Probably in most cases, yes. I think the biggest thing with superstitions is just your job is so uncontrolled. You never know what's going to happen on the ice, what kind of shots you're going to see. So I think sticking to a routine or having superstitions kind of gives you a little bit of control in an environment where everything is so uncontrolled. It makes you feel like you have a little bit of control.
CT: What age were you when you left home to go play hockey?
JJ: I didn't leave until after high school. So I was 18.
CT: One of the benefits of growing up in Minnesota.
JJ: Yeah, the high school hockey is a pretty big deal there. I got lucky, I got to play in a couple state tournaments. I didn't leave home until after high school.
CT: That's nice. A little unusual from most in the pro ranks.
JJ: I was a little more prepared, definitely.
CT: Why did you end up choosing Lake (Superior) State for college?
JJ: It's kind of a weird story. It was really late in the season. They actually had a goalie that was committed to go there and I was all set to go back for a third year of junior (at Waterloo in the USHL). I got a phone call from the head coach asking if I'd be interested. He said they didn't have time to bring me in on a visit or anything. He just said, 'take a couple days, think about it, but I need to know right away.'
I thought it over and it was one of those things that just felt like the right thing to do. It was good hockey. Michigan and Minnesota are kind of similar areas. I have never even been to the U.P. (Upper Peninsula) when I decided to go to school there. So my first day on campus was the first time I'd been there. It was a leap of faith, but it actually ended up working out really well for me.
CT: Did you finish your degree?
JJ: Yep. I have a degree in management with a minor in finance.CT: Hoping not to have to use that just yet?
JJ: I don't know. It's kind of sad to say, but I more or less went to school for hockey at that point. The programs that they offered, I'm more of an art, art history kind of guy, but at that point, I didn't see what direction I could go with that. I think I took every art class at Lake State and it was like five when I was there. I didn't have an option to pursue that. Maybe when hockey is winding down, I can hopefully get some further education and go that route.
CT: How did you end up playing in Columbia your rookie year?
JJ: I signed a two-way contract out of college with the Toronto Marlies. I ended up playing the full year in Columbia.
CT: Is that not the smallest rink ever constructed for professional hockey?
JJ: (Chuckles) It wasn't the greatest facility. You could tell it wasn't a hockey building. The fans were at the top of the glass. It was almost dangerous clearing pucks out of the zone sometimes.
CT: You played the next season in Charlotte?
JJ: Quite a few guys made the jump over from Columbia (which suspended operations). The guy who was our head coach, Troy Mann, got on as an assistant there. He brought six or eight guys over with him. I was one of those guys.
I really enjoyed it. Charlotte was a really nice set-up. A nice building and a nice city. The owner was great.
CT: But you opted to go to Italy the next season?
JJ: In two years (in the ECHL), I had played pretty well. I got one callup, played one game in the American League and I felt, not like it was the end of the road, but like there was a little bit more money to be made in Europe and kind of a new adventure.
Looking back, I don't know that it was the best choice to leave after two years. But I had a great experience in Italy. I got to travel. I got some really cool life experiences along the way. I definitely don't regret it. It was a great experience, but from a hockey standpoint, I don't know that I necessarily saw things through here before I left. It set me back a little bit.
CT: A lot of guys face that decision. It's tempting because of the reasons you mentioned -- the money and the experience. I mean, who's going to pay you to go live in Italy?
JJ: Exactly. Most people would pay twice what I made just to go on that trip. It's hard to beat that.
CT: But then do you face the mentality in North America, kind of out of sight, out of mind?
JJ: Yeah. Coming back was tough. Even in just that one year, a lot changed over here. When I was in Columbia and Charlotte, from a goalie's standpoint, you could be on an East Coast League contract and actually have some time (in net) and get to play.
Some teams dropped out of the league the year I was in Italy and a lot of teams started picking up double affiliates, like we have here. So if you're not one of those contract goalies, it's tough to find a spot. Going over to Italy and trying to come back, you fall off the map a bit. I had a good opportunity in Dayton (with the CHL's Gems). They gave me some good time. I got to play a lot of games and kind of get back on the map.
CT: The location is good, too, with AHL teams fairly close?
JJ: I went to Worcester for like a week and a half, then I finished the year in Portland.
I've been really lucky everywhere I've gone, I've had good experiences. I've been in good cities. I've played for good coaches, good front-office staffs, good fans.
CT: You played against Gwinnett before?
JJ: (Laughing) I've been in this building a lot, just not on this side.
CT: Is it a nice change?
JJ: Yeah, it's good. It's nice to have the fans cheering for you instead of against you. The fans are good here. They like to be loud and get into the game. I always enjoyed playing here. It's a nice building and, like I said, good fans. Even when I was a visitor, I enjoyed playing here.
CT: Do goalies get heckled no matter where they are?
JJ: (Chuckles) Yeah, I think so.
CT: Do goalies hear their name chanted pretty much everywhere?
JJ: (Smiling) It's the thing to do. He's the easiest guy to point the finger at when a goal goes in. And it's not like he can skate around or run away. He's stuck standing there listening to it.CT: How many people though have trouble with your last name?
JJ: (Laughing) Quite a few. I hear a lot of different pronunciations for sure. You kind of learn to laugh it off. It makes light of the insult they're throwing at you.
CT: Right? It's easier to laugh?
JJ: If you're not even going to get my name right, I'm really not going to take it to heart, you know.
CT: What's the origin of your name?
JJ: It's actually Lithuanian. A lot of people think Greek, but it's Lithuanian.
CT: What kind of music do you generally listen to?
JJ: Honestly, I really can get into anything. My iPod is a lot of slower like folk kind of stuff. Like Bob Dylan, Ray Lamontagne, Mason Jennings, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam. That kind of stuff. But I'm definitely not afraid to get into techno or any of that other kind of music.
CT: That's good in this environment.
JJ: I think as long as the music fits the mood, you can kind of get into anything.
CT: Are there any TV shows you try not to miss?
JJ: I don't watch a whole lot of TV. I try to avoid it. I like cooking shows, like 'Top Chef' and Anthony Bourdain's 'No Reservations.' I watch that online quite a bit. Other than that, I try to avoid TV as much as I can. I'm more of a book guy. I think that educational TV can be good, but I try not to veg out on the couch too much.
CT: Do you have any particular books you're reading now?
JJ: I'm about halfway through Steve Jobs' biography. It's a pretty interesting story. He's really a fascinating guy and a little bit different from the public image that you see. I like the way it's written. He more or less said he didn't want any control over it because he wanted it to be unbiased. If it's an autobiography, you read how someone wants to be portrayed, not necessarily how they were. I think this, from what I've read, seems like a pretty accurate description -- and not always the most flattering description. Which is probably what makes it accurate.
That's the main one. I usually have three or four going. I have a couple history books, an art history book going kind of on the side.
CT: Are you a physical book kind of guy or do you have a Kindle or whatever?
JJ: I'm kind of working on making the transition. I've always been a physical book guy. I like having an actual book in my hands. But I do have a Nook. It's just to make it easier when I'm traveling around so much. You can have a dozen or two dozen books on a little thing you can fit in your pocket almost.
CT: As a goalie, you face your own teammates in shootouts during practices. Pick your five if you were going into a shootout at the end of a game with this team.
JJ: Oh, man. That got tough all of a sudden. There's a lot of guys. I think (Brad) Miller is really patient with the puck. He's calm. He runs the point so well on the power play. He'd be a good guy to have in there.
Obviously, (Tyler Murovich) came through for us in Florida (in the 11th round of a shootout opening weekend with Jakaitis in net). So I'm a little biased there. And (Scott) Fleming as well. Those two guys scored pretty key goals in that shootout so I'd be hard not to give them another opportunity. From there, any number of guys. It would change week to week. Any guy could be the first guy (to score in the team's practice shootouts) and then wear the yellow helmet (as last to score) the next week.That's one of the nice things about this team so far. Everybody's chipping in. Everybody's pulling on the rope. That's part of the reason we've been successful so far. It could be any number of the guys on a different night.
CT: Does anyone get more excited than the 'D' when they score though?
JJ: (Chuckles) It's an opportunity they don't get that often. So when they do, they like to have a little bit of fun with it.
CT: You've already got the facial hair for Movember. Are you going to shave it down to a true 'stache?
JJ: I've been trying to decide what shape I'm going to go for. I think I'm going to have it part of the way down (to his chin), the rockstar 'stache. We'll see. I think the idea is to draw as much attention to yourself (in the month's fundraiser to support men's cancer research). The more obnoxious the better.