Manchester Storm’s James Downie: ‘I always wanted to be a player scoring the goals’

James Downie signed his first professional contract with the Manchester Strom before the 2021-22 Elite League season (Image: Manchester Storm)
James Downie signed his first professional contract with the Manchester Strom before the 2021-22 Elite League season (Image: Manchester Storm)

James Downie is in a hurry. The 21-year-old netminder has high hopes for the future and is enjoying his first season in the Elite League with the Manchester Storm. Last week, the former Australia U18 international sat down with BIH to discuss suiting up for his dad’s former team, the mental challenges of playing in goal, and his first impressions of life under Ryan Finnerty.

James Downie Q&A:

I feel like we should start in Manchester… how do you feel your first season with the Storm is going so far?

It’s going well, I’ve definitely played more than I signed for. I think I’ve taken advantage of that and played well in the games when I got an opportunity to play. So, yeah, I’m really enjoying it right now.

How do you get in the right mindset to play when a lot of your minutes have come through injury or in relief?

Basically, by just being ready as if you’re playing the game. Going into it with the mindset of just being there to sit on the bench isn’t good, it takes you out of the game mentally. I feel like always just get prepared in the same way every game and just get ready.

You never know when it’s going to happen, right? So, you should always prepare for that.

Your dad [Colin] played for the Storm in 1995-96, it must be special to play for the same team at this point in your career?

Yeah, of course, it’s awesome. He always told me about it when I was younger, so being here is a very cool thing. It means so much more to me through that, yeah.

I was looking at both of your Elite Prospect pages earlier, am I right in thinking he was your goalie coach for a couple of years back in Sydney?

Note: James represented the Sydney Bears between 2014 and 2017.

He actually started coaching me when I was like four until I was about 10, so I’ve always really had him as a coach. We did all the drills after practice and stuff, he actually kind of forced me to be a goalie – I always wanted to be a player, scoring the goals.

But, yeah, when we moved to Australia, he was our team coach but also registered as the goalie coach too. He’s a good goalie coach, so it’s nice to have had him around helping me out, that’s for sure.

Were you always a goalie or did you move to the position later on?

I moved to the position after two years of playing hockey… all I was doing was cross-checking people because I couldn’t skate. Still to this day, as a player, I cannot skate. I think I was five the first time [I played in goal] and I started skating when I was three. So, I moved over from [being] a player – I was terrible.

Life in the Australian Ice Hockey League:

You’ve played five seasons in the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL), can you run us through what playing in the league is like? Obviously, the teams are further apart than in the EIHL…

There are only two practices per week, three if [teams] can and the rink is available. Most of the ice time back home is taken by public skating – so yeah, they only practice three days a week with two games at the weekend.

Most people have jobs, I have a job when I’m home. I think this year I’ll be mining on the side because the teams can’t pay you, they just supply with skates and sticks and that stuff. Honestly, it’s a pretty simple league. You travel to Perth, which is the furthest trip – it’s a five-hour plane ride.

For example, if you play for Newcastle, Canberra, is just a bus drive. Sydney is an hour and a half, so just drive yourself or grab the bus.

I really enjoy playing back home. It’s nice to be able to have the extra season when it finishes here to get back in the gist of things instead of sitting at home or just working out. It’s good to be on the ice, getting back in the game, especially for the early parts of the season.

Just to double-check… [do] you work as a miner during the summer?

Yeah, this year will be my first time doing a mining job in the shafts, which I’m pretty excited about. I heard it’s dangerous but I should be able to enjoy it. Previously, I’ve worked as a plumber and my certification is in that, it’s just a little bit of extra money on the side.

Looking to the Future:

What are your aspirations for the future, what does the future hold for you?

I hope good things!

I really want to progress and get a little bit better in Manchester, I think it’s a good spot for all the young Brits. For example, we’ve got Ben Solder, [Jacob] Lutwyche, Finlay [Ulrick] – they’ve all progressed. You’ve got [Joseph] Hazeldine as well, everyone’s progressing pretty fast and getting up to speed [with the EIHL].

My aspirations at the end of coming out of the Elite League is definitely trying to go to Finland or Sweden, somewhere like that – maybe the Allsvenskan. Just a pretty high level of pro would be pretty nice. It’s going to take some time, but I should get there in the end.

You mentioned that there are a lot of young British players in Manchester, which is quite rare for the Elite League. How is being on a team where a lot of your teammates are at a similar point in their career?

It’s good, definitely – I think it brings everyone closer. Say you have a situation where you need to take someone, the older guys are all good. But if you need someone’s opinion that’s the same age as you, I’ll ask.

It’s also good on the ice [for] keeping the competitive level up. I think it’s one of the best things we can be doing right now, having a whole bunch of Brits on the team to develop them. I mean, it makes the IIHF team even better in the long run. Yeah, just the competitive level of the young Brits – it’s good to have.

What are your objectives for the end of the season?

Just to make the playoffs, we’re not looking down the ladder right now. We’re looking up, trying to chase teams in a playoff spot. We’ve been playing really good hockey lately, just come short a few times with a couple of bad bounces.

Related: Forecasting the EIHL’s Intense Playoff Race: Elite League Takeaways

I don’t think our play right now is even close to where we’re sitting in the table. We’ve had a couple of unfortunate games, things definitely went wrong – but that happens and we just have to prepare for these games and win them.

If you are to qualify for the postseason, do you think you could maybe surprise one of the top four?

Absolutely, we have the team to do it. There’s no reason why we don’t have that in us. We have three really good forward lines and a solid defence. Jason [Bacashihua] is a top goalie, he’s played where he’s played [including the NHL], he knows the game very well. I truly believe that we could, yeah.

Mastering the Psychological Side of Goaltending:

You mentioned the other goalies on the team, have you learned anything from them in particular? It’s been a difficult year with injuries for the group – but what has been your main takeaway from the year so far?

Of course, it is a development year – right?

We had [Matt] Ginn at the start of the year. Unfortunately he’s not on the ice anymore because of his injury, but I was learning quite a lot from him. He has a style that I wanted to learn.

[Jason] ‘Bash’, for example, has a different style of play to me – it’s very much old school – so I learn more about the mental side of the game, how to deal with certain situations, from him.

For example, we were playing Sheffield and weren’t having the best game, and he came over to me and let me know the mental side of it. And that honestly goes a long way, I think it’s one of the most important things about hockey as a goaltender.

Ginner works with me after practices, these guys have played high-level pro – so it’s good to pick their brains.

You mentioned the mental side of the game as being as important as technical and physical aspects. How do you stay on top of the mental side of the game – because it’s perhaps even more difficult when your minutes are spread out?

When things aren’t going well mentally, you just have to continue doing the same things that you always do. There’s no reason to do things that you don’t usually do, that’s usually when it gets even worse for you.

I don’t really know, it’s just about always being in it. You can’t really care about save percentage or goals or anything like that.

For me, this year, I’m really not thinking about any of that. It’s my first year in the league, I’m just worried about the ice time and how well the team’s doing.

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