Peter Thome was called into a meeting with UND's coaching staff before this fall's preseason exhibition game against the University of Manitoba.

They were waiting to deliver some news to the junior goaltender.

Thome, who started the final eight games of the previous season, was no longer the starter. He was no longer the backup, either. He would begin the 2019-20 season as the third-string goalie behind Adam Scheel, a sophomore, and Harrison Feeney, a walk-on freshman.

"They were like, 'Hey, right now, we think you're the third guy. (Harrison) Feeney has been great in practice. We really like his game right now. That's kind of where you're at,'" Thome recalled.

"It was kind of a challenge. What are you going to do about it?"

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

It was tough news for Thome, but his entire hockey career prepared him to respond.

Nothing has ever been easy for him.

The first time he tried out for a team, he was cut from the 'C' squad. The highest level he reached at Benilde-St. Margaret's High School was junior varsity backup. Just to get a shot, Thome had to move at age 16 to Chicago, where he ended up living with a Russian family that didn't speak English.

Even after showing his potential and earning a scholarship to UND and being drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the sixth round, the bumps in the road kept coming. In the United States Hockey League, he was traded twice and played for three different teams in three months.

Then came this season.

Thome started as the third-string goalie, worked his way to backup, unexpectedly got a chance in net after not seeing a second of action in the first half of the season and has stunningly emerged as the hottest goalie in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

Thome has made five consecutive starts. He's won them all. He has a .940 save percentage and 1.26-goals against average, which leads all NCHC goalies with more than one start.

The 6-foot-4, 208-pound Minneapolis product is expected to make his sixth-straight start at 7:37 tonight as UND opens its two-game series at St. Cloud State in the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

"This year has been quite a ride," Thome said. "I wouldn't expect anything else."

It's the way things have always been for Thome.

UND goalie Peter Thome gathers his thoughts during Saturday's 3-2 win over Minnesota Duluth in AmsOil Arena. Photo by Tyler Schank / Duluth News Tribune
UND goalie Peter Thome gathers his thoughts during Saturday's 3-2 win over Minnesota Duluth in AmsOil Arena. Photo by Tyler Schank / Duluth News Tribune

A rocky road to prominence

Thome did not come from a hockey family. His parents, Mark and Anne, did not play. Mark played basketball in high school. Peter's two older brothers, John and George, didn't play hockey either. George was a slalom skier.

In fact, Peter got started by chance.

One day, the family was driving to their Twin Cities home and stopped at a traffic light. Off to the side, there was a rink at a community center. An 11-year-old Peter looked out the window and told his parents: "I want to play hockey. I want to be serious. And I want to play goalie."

"My wife and I had no idea what it meant," Mark said. "For some reason, he wanted to do it. If you're lucky enough that your kids tell you what they want to do, you just go and do it. He was crystal clear about what he wanted to do. We just didn't have much background on how to help him."

The first team Peter tried out for was peewees. They picked 'A,' 'B,' and 'C' teams. Peter got cut from all of them. They took all the kids who were left over and threw them on a team together. That's where it started.

Peter never made top teams. There was a time when his future in the sport looked bleak. After his sophomore year at Benilde, the team's coach told Thome that it doesn't look like he'll make varsity the following year, either.

So, Thome had two options. The first was staying at Benilde, where he had come to enjoy the school, classes and his group of friends. The second was moving to Chicago and trying to play AAA hockey with the Chicago Fury. Their team's coach, former NHLer Dennis Vaske, had recently met Peter and offered him a shot, saying he was always looking for "diamonds in the rough" and thought Peter could be one.

"I thought, if I really want to do this, if I really want to try, this is something I have to do," Thome said. "I didn't realize how big of a move it was at the time. I just wanted to play hockey and thought I'd do whatever it takes to play."

Thome didn't quit.

"I always thought I just have to get in the conversation," Thome said. "I know I'm good enough. I just always had that thought. If it's not going to work out in high school, I'll get my chance here. But my first year in Chicago, I was terrible."

Thome posted a .874 save percentage at the U16 level. Off the ice, the transition wasn't easy, either. He also moved billet homes during that first season and spent the second half with a Russian family.

"The family didn't speak a lick of English," Thome said. "I think they wanted someone to live with them to talk with them and help teach them English. They had a nice house and they were awesome. The language thing could be kind of tough, but they were a great family who loved spending time together and they took me in."

That summer, Thome transformed himself on and off the ice. He worked with renowned goalie coach Dave Rogalski, who helped develop UND's Zane McIntyre into a Mike Richter Award winner.

"I started training really hard, just taking care of myself off the ice and trying to get better," Thome said. "Dave was huge. He helped me a lot. I grew into my body a little more."

Things clicked that second year in Chicago. He moved in with teammate Michael Zuffante, now a junior at Bentley. They became such close friends that Thome visits the family every summer to this day. He attended Lake Park High School, which he loved. On the ice, Thome posted a .931 save percentage at the U18 level.

He signed a tender to play juniors for Aberdeen (S.D.) in the North American Hockey League the following season. In Aberdeen, he kept rolling, posting a .929 save percentage. His size and athleticism drew college and NHL scouts. UND grabbed a commitment from him and the Blue Jackets used a draft pick to get Thome's rights.

But the setbacks quickly returned.

'We believe in you'

In 2016-17, Thome was passed around the USHL. He started the season in Omaha. After Thanksgiving, he was traded to Chicago, then he was quickly shipped again to Waterloo.

When Thome was driving from Chicago to Waterloo, he got a call from UND head coach Brad Berry.

"Brad called Peter and was very supportive," Mark said. "Brad told him, 'Don't worry, we believe in you as much as we ever did.' I think that helped Peter through the transition, because it was hard."

Soon after Thome arrived in Waterloo, BlackHawks starting goalie Robbie Beydoun, now at Michigan Tech, suffered an injury and Thome played 14 straight games, getting Waterloo into the playoffs.

The next year as a freshman at UND, national champion-winning starter Cam Johnson got hurt and Thome was thrust into action. He won his first-career start at Wisconsin's Kohl Center and made 11 starts that season.

Last season, Scheel was injured in February and Thome was launched into action again. He started the final eight games, including the first-round playoff series at Denver. UND got swept and Thome blamed himself for the losses, even though his team only scored two goals in two games for him.

"I made a vow this summer that if I get back in there, I'm not going to be the reason we're going home early again," Thome said.

University of North Dakota goalie Peter Thome shows off the fresh paint job on his helmet -- the Night King with glinting eyes from HBO's "Game of Thrones" during a preseason media event at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
University of North Dakota goalie Peter Thome shows off the fresh paint job on his helmet -- the Night King with glinting eyes from HBO's "Game of Thrones" during a preseason media event at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

What kept Thome going?

It didn't look like Thome was going to get in this season.

During the first half, Scheel dominated, going 14-1-2 with a .927 save percentage. Neither Thome nor Feeney played a second of the action.

Thome reveled in watching Scheel succeed and had a few things he used as inspiration for himself.

He closely followed the stories of St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington and LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who both were longtime backups before suddenly becoming the stars of championship-winning teams.

"It sounds cheesy, but things like that kept me going," Thome said.

And there was Karl Goehring.

UND's assistant coach, who is in charge of goaltenders, refused to let Thome get frustrated.

"Karl was awesome. I was asking him all the time,' Let's skate, let's skate, let's skate,'" Thome said. "He never once said, 'No, we've already skated twice this week.' He was always like, 'Let's keep going.'"

Goehring slowly transformed Thome's game, too. He taught him to play closer to the crease in order to stay in position better. He emphasized that Thome use his strengths -- his size and impressive athleticism. He helped Thome become better at seeing through layers of traffic, too.

Upon returning from Christmas break, the coaching staff told Thome that he was going to start the team's Dec. 28 exhibition against U.S. Under-18 Team in Plymouth, Mich.

"I knew I had to have a good showing," Thome said.

He did. He stopped 14 of 14 shots during his two periods of action, including a couple of high-danger chances for the Americans. Some of the transformations in his game were obvious during those 40 minutes.

When he got back to Grand Forks, it was back to the waiting game, though.

"I just said, it's either going to happen or it's not," Thome said. "I thought, I'm just going to keep working hard in practice and getting better. At the end of the day, I'll be a better goalie for it. The opportunity did come. There were times where it didn't look like it was going to. Adam was playing like the best goalie in the country, and he's definitely one of them."

Scheel struggled in his first few starts after Christmas break and the door opened for Thome.

His first two appearances came as a backup. Then, he made his first start of the season at Miami, his mother's alma mater.

He's now reeled off several excellent performances in a row -- he beat No. 4 Minnesota Duluth on the road, swept Colorado College at home and swept No. 7 Denver at home. He has allowed five goals in the last five games and has given the coaches no choice but to continue playing him.

In UND's most recent contest, Thome brought the fans out of their seats multiple times by making key saves. Even Thome has been surprised to see some of the transformations in his game.

"I watch video and I'm like, 'Who is that?'" Thome said.

Thome credited UND's defensive core for his success.

"We have the deepest D-core in the country," Thome said. "Saturday night was proof of that. We lose our No. 1 D-man and we don't miss a beat. It's so nice to have that in front of you. I'm pretty fortunate to play with them."

UND goalie Peter Thome celebrates UND's 3-2 win over Minnesota Duluth on in AmsOil Arena in January. Photo by Tyler Schank / Duluth News Tribune
UND goalie Peter Thome celebrates UND's 3-2 win over Minnesota Duluth on in AmsOil Arena in January. Photo by Tyler Schank / Duluth News Tribune

Special weekend ahead

UND enters the weekend at 23-3-3 overall and 14-2-2 in league play. The Fighting Hawks are eight points up on second-place Minnesota Duluth with an outside chance of winning their third Penrose Cup in six years Saturday.

For Thome, it will be a special weekend.

He's already earned a win this season over his mother's alma mater, Miami. Tonight, he'll be going for a win over his father's alma mater in his father's hometown.

On Saturday, Thome's 93-year-old grandfather, Larry, and 90-year-old grandmother, Gloria, who had their 70th wedding anniversary this summer, will be attending the game. They haven't seen Peter play in years. Depending on what happens Friday, they might get that chance in the series finale.

Playing in front of family will be extra special for Thome.

They've been there for every step of his wild journey.

"It's certainly been quite the career path for a Minnesota kid," Thome said.

UND goalie Peter Thome makes a stick save against Colorado College in Ralph Engelstad Arena this season. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
UND goalie Peter Thome makes a stick save against Colorado College in Ralph Engelstad Arena this season. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

No. 1 UND at St. Cloud State

When: 7:37 p.m. tonight, 6:07 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

TV: Midco Sports Network tonight; Fox Sports North on Saturday.

Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).

Webcast: NCHC.tv.