Evan Buitenhuis, Evan Weninger Bring ‘Warrior’ Mentality to Net for Wichita Thunder
With the 2020-21 ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs underway, the Wichita Thunder find themselves trailing in their series with the Fort Wayne Komets. It has been a testy, sometimes combative series, where seemingly every play on the ice seems to impact the game in one way or another.
One person who has had a huge impact through the first three games has been Thunder goaltender Evan Buitenhuis, who teams with Evan Weninger to form arguably the best goaltending duo in the ECHL. The two are truly living up to their names, battling as warriors each and every night in hopes of providing Wichita with its first Kelly Cup championship since joining the ECHL.
It’s All in a Name
Author Dan Millman once said, “A warrior does not give up what he loves, he finds the love in what he does.” This truly epitomizes Evan Buitenuis and Evan Weninger.
From an early age, both found themselves drawn to the net and have found a home between the pipes ever since. Buitenhuis felt that it was almost inevitable that he would be playing hockey.
“Growing up in Canada, it was always a big part of our life there. You watch it on TV and I have an older brother who was four years older than me who was into it before I was, so it was kind of just natural to get into it at that point. I love it. It wasn’t that my parents made me do it kind of thing, but it was almost expected in my friend group.”
He joined the Ontario Junior Hockey League as a senior in high school, and spent two seasons in the league, going a combined 47-26-7 while posting a sub-3.00 goals-against average in each campaign.
In 2014-15 he attended Hamilton College, spending four years there. His first season he appeared in just five games, but was the starter for the next three, and was absolutely dominant. His sophomore season Evan went 12-7-4 with a 1.74 GAA and a .943 save percentage. A season later, he went 17-5-4 with a 1.78 GAA and followed that up with an 8-3-3 campaign in 2017-18, when he posted a 1.28 GAA and a .954 save percentage.
After graduating, Evan joined the Worcester Railers in the ECHL, where he appeared in 28 games in his rookie season, going 10-9-4 with a 2.37 GAA. His second season was a tough one, as the Railers struggled through a disappointing campaign. Buitenhuis struggled as well, posting a 14-19-1 record with a 3.38 GAA.
For Weninger, his story is a little different. Evan joined the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League as a senior in high school, and played two seasons in the juniors, going a combined 38-16-2 with a goals-against average near 2.00 in each of his seasons.
In 2015-16, Evan graduated high school and headed for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he was the starter in each of his four seasons there. In his freshman season, Evan went 13-8-0 with a 2.46 GAA, and followed that up with an 11-11-4 campaign his sophomore year, posting a 2.94 GAA.
In his junior year, Weninger went 15-14-1 in 31 games, posting a 3.36 GAA and a 0.899 save percentage. He followed that up a year later, appearing in 35 games, posting a 3.50 GAA and a .900 save percentage. In four years at the college, Evan went 48-56-8, posting a 3.14 GAA in 115 games.
Following his senior season, Weninger joined the Florida Everblades (ECHL), where he appeared in one game. Last season he began with the Allen Americans, but soon he would be changing addresses in a move that changed the trajectory of his career.
I Think You Are in Kansas
Both Evan Weninger and Evan Buitenhuis went into the ECHL following their time in college. For Weninger, he had received a minimal amount of opportunity while Buitenhuis had seen mixed results, primarily because of the team he played with.
Last season, while Buitenhuis was in Worcester, Weninger found himself traded to the Wichita Thunder early on. His job was to back up No. 1 goaltender Mitch Gillam, which he did well, going 4-4-3 with a 2.93 GAA in 12 games. It was an opportunity to back up one of the best goaltenders in the league, but Evan admits there were challenges.
“It was tough being the backup because you may only play one time a week. It is hard to be consistent when you aren’t sure exactly when you are going in. It is definitely challenging mentally.”
Buitenhuis has faced the challenge of the backup role as well and agrees with his goaltending partner about how difficult it can be at times.
“We thrive on consistency. You want to make sure you’re getting enough games and, when you are the backup, you’re not always in the best situation. Being in a starting role just helps to make things way smoother.”
When the ECHL opted to play the season, Weninger was returning to be the backup once again, but Gillam went down six games into the season, turning the starting job over to Wenigner. The goaltender admits that he was a little nervous.
“When Gilly (Mitch Gillam) got hurt and I knew I was going to have to play a few games I was a little nervous because I had not had that experience at the ECHL level yet. So, I was a little bit nervous. But all of the teammates were so supportive. They had confidence in me and that gave me confidence. Once you get a couple of games, you’re just kind of going out there playing hockey and having fun.”
It did not take him long to acclimate to his new job. Evan rolled from the start, going 16-10-4 in 31 appearances, posting a goals-against average of 2.74. Up until the last two weeks of the season, he ranked among the top five goaltenders in the league in both save percentage and goals-against average and was a primary reason why the Thunder had become the top team in the Western Conference. He still finished the regular season with a 2.74 GAA, ninth overall, and his .923 save percentage ranked fourth.
However, hockey is a funny sport. Weninger was dominating the league thanks to the opportunity that arose when Gillam went down, but he tweaked his groin during warm-ups prior to a contest against the Kansas City Mavericks on March 26. With Gillam out and Weninger down, it looked like the emergency goaltender was about to go between the pipes, but a brilliant move by Coach Bruce Ramsay was about to pay big dividends.
Earlier in the week, the Coach had acquired Buitenhuis from Florida. Evan had started the season in Utah, where he appeared in five games, going 1-0-3 with a 2.40 GAA. He was then traded to the Everblades before being acquired by Wichita on March 22. The goaltender first headed to Utah to get his car and was driving to Kansas expecting that maybe he would get into a game by Sunday.
The story has been recounted on a number of occasions, but it is still one that is enjoyable to tell. Buitenhuis arrived 15 minutes prior to the scheduled puck drop, and was told by his new Head Coach that he would be the starting goaltender for that night. It was about to be a moment that Buitenhuis will never forget.
“I was driving all day to get to Wichita. I had stopped to get dinner before coming to the game and had eaten some barbecue, a lot of barbecue in fact. There were quite a few points during the game where I thought I was going to throw up because I was so full.”
It became a tough start for Evan, as he gave up five goals in a 6-4 loss to Kansas City. However, that started a run where the goaltender won his next six starts. The team had found their new No. 1 goaltender and, just as important, this allowed Weninger the time to allow his groin muscle to heal.
For Weninger, it was a tough turn of events, but he was happy that the team had a new warrior between the pipes to keep this team in the playoff hunt.
“I was a little nervous at first. I had played against Bootsy (the nickname for Buitenhuis), but you don’t really know what you’re going to get. I know he was good, but you’re just not too sure at first. He did great though and kept us winning.”
Winning is exactly what Buitenhuis did, finishing the regular season 15-5-1 with a 2.19 GAA and a .937 save percentage. Both those numbers were tops in the ECHL helping the Thunder to have two of the top four goaltenders in the league in terms of save percentage.
A Heated Rivalry? Not on Your Life!
Evan Buitenhuis quickly established himself as the team’s top goaltender, maybe even the top goaltender in the league. This could have created a serious issue for Coach Ramsay, as he already had one of the top two goaltenders in the ECHL in Evan Weninger. As Buitenhuis had explained, goaltenders thrive off the opportunity to continuously play, and both had proven themselves to be the No. 1 goaltender for the Thunder.
In any other locker room, this would have had the potential to destroy the chemistry of this team. However, neither of these goaltenders was going to let that happen, as the camaraderie and drive to win was the most important thing to the Wichita Thunder.
“When you have the skill that we do, the hard work that we do and that you have such a good team chemistry where everyone just wants to be here, you don’t let those kinds of things happen. You can tell on some teams that guys just don’t want to be there. They are there because they have to be. On a year like this where some are just thankful to be on a team, there is such an appreciation of being able to play which has really helped to build the chemistry,” explains Wenninger. “We all like one another and we want to see each other succeed.”
It was not just the closeness of the team that helped defuse what could have been an explosive situation. Instead of becoming rivals, the two quickly found that their similar interests became the foundation upon which a great friendship was built.
“The guy has a lot of the same leanings as me. He likes fishing and the outdoors. If we had grown up in the same province, we would have been best buds way earlier on,” Buitenhuis explains of his goaltending partner.
Weninger agrees. “As far as the outdoors, like camping, fishing, and all of that, it is hard to find people in hockey who like to do that. All of my friends back home are not fans of the outdoors. I like to take time away from hockey, and so it was refreshing to have the same worldviews and thoughts on the same things.”
As both goaltenders have performed exceptionally well this season, they have drawn a number of admirers. Wichita Thunder fans have come to love their two netminders, but there are no bigger fans of the play of Evan Buitenhuis and Evan Weninger than one another.
“Bootsy is so good. He makes every save,” Weninger tells. “He makes four or five great saves every night, and our team trusts him because they know he has their back. They can make a mistake and he will come up with a big save.”
“Wenny (the nickname for Weninger) is a guy that makes big saves and we would not be where we are if it were not for him. It is a lot of fun to watch him play. He has great skills and really positions himself well.”
The Heart of a Warrior
While the two have become great friends and fit the brotherhood that is the Wichita Thunder, the reality is that what makes the pair so ideal in Wichita is the warrior mentality of both. Both Evan Buitenhuis and Evan Weninger want to be between the pipes each and every night and have done a great job of giving their team a chance to win.
While both have exceptional skills and have a proven track record, it is their approach to the game that has made them so successful. Hockey is a sport of extreme highs and lows, and Buitenhuis explains that believing in yourself may be the most important factor in achieving one’s success.
“You have to develop a mental toughness over years of playing. Some people hit some adversity and they kind of fold in and they don’t put in the work and keep going, or they don’t trust their success. They haven’t done the work. I find that even at this level you have weeks where you may have bad games, then you may be thinking, ‘Can I do it?’ But then you look back and think that this is my third year. You know that you can do it, because I have done it before. Maybe I was off a couple of times or had some bad bounces but it’s about falling back on your training and your knowledge that you know you can keep doing it.”
For Weninger, it is living in the moment. It is understanding that you will make a mistake at times, but that cannot define you and cannot be on your mind once that moment has passed.
“It almost sounds like you don’t care about hockey which is not completely not true but, at the end of the day, it’s just a game. Yeah, it’s my livelihood and I’ve spent my whole life playing it, but if I’ve given up a goal; I can’t change it. Sometimes you’ve given up some bad goals, but I have to make sure that I keep stopping every shot from here on out even though I may not be feeling my best. It’s not that I don’t care, but you have to say who cares. I can’t do anything about those goals, so I have to focus on the next shot.”
What is clear is that both have the trust of their Head Coach, something Buitenhuis explains is essential in being a top goaltender.
“When your coach doesn’t trust you and starts pulling you after giving up four goals and your playing fine, that starts getting into your head and you start thinking about whether you’re going to the bench or not. I’m never concerned here. If I do get pulled, it’s because something stupid happened. This not because Rammer (Coach Ramsay) is not confident in me.”
The Wichita Thunder will be looking to stave off elimination when they take on the Fort Wayne Komets on Saturday evening. It will likely be Buitenhuis trying to keep his team’s championship hopes alive. While Weninger wishes he was between the pipes, he has one purpose in mind.
“We want to win here. It does not matter who is in net. It does not matter at this point who plays. We all want to win here.”
That is the true mentality of a warrior. A warrior does not need to be the hero; he just wants to win the battle.
By Robert Pannier