Jake Hildebrand is playing the best hockey of his life. The Everblades backstop recently was named the Warrior Hockey ECHL Goaltender of the Month for February behind a 4-0-2 record, 2.04 goals-against average, and a .933 save-percentage. Hildebrand is not only winning awards though, he’s winning games in droves. The 27-year-old is unbeaten in his first nine starts with Florida and has come up huge for the Blades in several big moments since he joined the team in January.
“Big Saves in Big Games.” It’s a mantra for Hildebrand on the ice, but it’s also how he brands himself to the newest crop of young goalies. Apart from his ECHL career, Hildebrand is heavily involved as a goaltending coach to youth hockey players.
“I run my own goalie school back up in Michigan, so I felt bad to have to leave in the middle of the youth season to come down here.”
For the last few years, youth players have been able to attend the “Jake Hildebrand Goalie School” in Jackson, Michigan. In the seasons since the establishment of his school, the number of Hildebrand’s pupils has swollen. “It’s kind of started taking off,” he said. “I had like six goalies my first year, and I’m up to 35 to 40 goalies that I work with.” With so many students, not being able to instruct in person has challenged Hildebrand. Yet despite the fact that he is now in Florida playing a demanding ECHL schedule with the Everblades, Hildebrand has still found ways to make an impact on the next generation of goaltenders.
“I offer some different things, whether it's video, or coming up with drills, or doing Zoom calls, or things like that,” said Hildebrand. “Some of the kids have really taken to it, so it's nice that I can keep in touch with them while being so far away.”
Along with his goaltending camp in Michigan, Hildebrand is now taking his coaching virtual. Teaming up with Joel Rumpel, a pro goalie currently playing with the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild, the Everblades netminder will be joining the mentorship service My Virtual Player. The online tool connects youth skaters with current professional players and creates a space where coaching, mentorship, and mental growth can take place.
“We move around so much, and travel so much that you meet a lot of kids, and you deal with a lot of kids,” said Hildebrand. “So it's a way to kind of keep in touch and help them as you leave. Or if they leave you can kind of stay with them.”
My Virtual Player users can select a mentor from a variety of professional athletes. Different mentors are pinned with different specializations such as, “Power Forward”, “Speed and Shooting”, or “Hockey IQ and Versatility”. The designations are all fairly tame and even slightly generic...until you get to Hildebrand’s: ”Big Saves in Big Games.”
Through his first few months with the Everblades, Hildebrand is putting up career numbers. His statistics with Florida so far are the best that he’s published since his days as a Michigan State Spartan. That was when Hildebrand played in every single Michigan State game for two straight seasons and was named the Big Ten Player of the year as a junior.
His numbers with the Blades this year are also better than when he entered professional hockey with the ECHL’s Allen Americans in 2016. As a rookie, Hildebrand played in eight playoff games and helped Allen to a Kelly Cup. Now, the former Spartan and Kelly Cup champion is the headliner for a Florida Everblades team that is consistently riding at the top of the league in 2021 and has eyes on a championship.
Big Saves in Big Games. Hildebrand has made more than a few of those. Yet even in the midst of his own professional career, he still makes time to nurture hockey’s future.
“Just to watch them grow, grow their game, and develop as a human being as well. Seeing them grow up has been pretty fun, and to kind of help them along the way.”
Hildebrand’s passion for mentorship and teaching has already helped dozens of young goalies, and his play has already helped put the Everblades near the top of the league standings. The next generation of goaltenders can learn a wealth of hockey knowledge from Hildebrand like save selection, crease movement, and mental strength. How to make big saves in big games? Hildebrand’s students might just have to watch him play in person to understand that one.