Jean-Philippe Lamoureux was 35 years old at the start of last season.

He's well aware, at that age, most hockey players see a decline in their skills.

Proof is in the numbers: He was the oldest player on his team, one of the 10 oldest in Austria's entire top hockey league. He was older than his team's head coach and older than two assistants.

But the Grand Forks native and former UND star wasn't getting too caught up in that.

He set a goal to make 2019-20 his best pro season yet after signing a free-agent deal with the Salzburg Red Bulls.

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"I definitely pay attention to save percentage," Lamoureux said. "I've always had in the back of my head that .930 is a really high-end number. My goal for the season was in the .935 ballpark. That depends on what sort of shots you face -- it's a broad-based statistic -- but that was a ballpark goal. It would have exceeded my career high in the league, one percentage point better than the best finish I've had in the league."

It was a lofty goal, but Lamoureux did even better than that.

At age 35, he had the best season any goaltender has ever put together in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, Austria's top league.

He smashed the EBEL's single-season save percentage record by posting a .946, blowing by the two previous bests of .940 and .937, set by teammates Andrew Verner and Dan Cloutier in 2004-05 -- an NHL lockout year, allowing Cloutier to come over from the Vancouver Canucks.

He set the league's single-season goals-against average record by posting a 1.75, edging the previous best by three points.

And he won the Ron Kennedy Trophy as the league's MVP, becoming just the second goaltender ever to do so and the first in a decade.

"How would I even describe his season?" said former UND captain Matt Smaby, who served as Salzburg's assistant coach. "Honestly, he was unbelievable. Looking at our team, we had a mixture of a lot of young guys and a lot of experienced guys. We introduced a new system to the guys who were there and there's a learning curve that comes with that. It was an aggressive system. When working great, it was awesome. But in the learning process, those breakdowns tend to be big. Right from the get-go, Phil was a rock for our team."

Although Salzburg finished with the league's best record, the Red Bulls didn't make it easy on Lamoureux. He faced 40-plus shots five times and 50-plus once.

He had two games where he stopped 41 of 42 shots. He had another where he stopped 46 of 47. And he had one where he stopped 54 of 55 in a 2-1 win.

"The games weren't necessarily layups for him, let's put it that way," Smaby said. "We had a tendency, at times, to get in penalty trouble. We had a tendency, at times, to get a little loose with our game. That, in turn, caused a lot of work in his game. I know part of him loves seeing a lot of shots, but on the coaching side, you sometimes want to pull your hair out. We were so thankful to have him in net, because he was really, really, really good this year."

Grand Forks native and former UND star goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux celebrates a victory with Salzburg Red Bulls captain Thomas Raffl. Submitted photo.
Grand Forks native and former UND star goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux celebrates a victory with Salzburg Red Bulls captain Thomas Raffl. Submitted photo.

A surprise signing

Lamoureux has consistently been a star player in Austria since he joined the league in 2011.

In a decade, his save percentage has only dipped below .920 once -- and barely at that. He was at .916 that year. Three of the top nine save percentages in league history belong to Lamoureux. The year-by-year rundown of his save percentage shows remarkable consistency: .922, .926, .920, .934, .929, .923, .932, .916 and .946.

But he never expected to sign in Salzburg when he became a free agent in the spring of 2019.

As an older North American player who had long been in the league, he didn't fit the mold of the typical goalie signing for the Red Bulls, who previously had ex-NHLers like Marty Turco, Alex Auld and Arturs Irbe or younger players.

That changed after Lamoureux knocked the Red Bulls out of the 2019 playoffs in the semifinals as a member of the Vienna Capitals. It was an epic, seven-game series. Five went to overtime. When new Red Bulls coach Matt McIlvane found out that Lamoureux was a free agent, he pursued him.

Lamoureux said he was flattered to be targeted by Salzburg and jumped at the chance to play there.

"It was huge expectations," Lamoureux said. "It's like playing for North Dakota. We expect to be in first place. We expect to qualify for Champions League. We expect to win the playoffs."

They did nearly all of that.

The Red Bulls, the league's regular-season champions, were up 2-1 in a quarterfinal playoff series when the season was called off due to the coronavirus outbreak. Lamoureux's last start was a 37-save shutout. He finished the year with a 27-5-2 record.

"We were the first team to qualify for Champions League in our league," Lamoureux said. "We won the regular season. We had the best road record in the history of the league. We had the best regular season in Red Bulls history. We were up 2-1 in the first round and we felt really good about our chances."

Grand Forks native and former UND goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux stands in net for the Salzburg Red Bulls this season. Lamoureux was named the league's MVP, smashing the save percentage record. Submitted photo.
Grand Forks native and former UND goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux stands in net for the Salzburg Red Bulls this season. Lamoureux was named the league's MVP, smashing the save percentage record. Submitted photo.

A change in style

Lamoureux said a change he made back in his college days has made a huge difference.

During the summer of 2007, prior to his senior season, Lamoureux worked as a bartender to save up money to train with Vancouver Canucks goalie coach Ian Clark.

"In my generation of goalies, there was nobody to work with during the season," Lamoureux said of his college days. "There was nobody managing the mental side or technical side. The assistant coaches did their best, but it's different. If someone like Karl (Goehring) was there, I wouldn't have felt the need to look for instruction on my own in the summer. I desperately wanted that."

Clark asked Lamoureux to send video of three games. Lamoureux picked a shutout, a really bad game and a middle-of-the-road game. Then, he flew out to Vancouver to meet up with Clark.

"What stuck with me," Lamoureux recalled, "is that he said, 'Do you want to learn how to make 30 saves out of 32 shots or give up four goals and make 36 out of 40 and have an extra eight shots because you're putting out rebounds you shouldn't?'"

Lamoureux began working on depth management, his feel for putting out rebounds, developing more consistency on dead-angle shots and having a different approach to reading the game.

"We restructured how I read the game," Lamoureux said. "It was huge. I went into that season with so much confidence.

"If people weren't paying close attention, they might look at my senior year as a fluke. But there was no mistake in the jump I made technically. It allowed me to play at a higher execution rate more consistently. I had the structure that I was so badly craving as a goalie. My first three years, I had good instincts and read plays naturally but I lacked a lot of structure."

After posting save percentages of .914, .911 and .913 his first three years, Lamoureux posted a .932 as a senior and was named a Hobey Baker Award finalist.

"It changed everything for me as a player -- technical structure, it showed me different ways to evaluate my performance," Lamoureux said. "I've used that model continually through my years in Europe. I'd say if you watched my games now, you'd see someone who is technically really dialed in. You know what you're going to get on a nightly basis: compete, athleticism, technical structure and a really high level of consistency and flat-out execution."

Holding onto a dream

Lamoureux has rolled that success into a pro career that will begin with Year 13 in the fall, coronavirus permitting, with Salzburg.

He will soon be 36. He is the oldest goalie currently signed in the league and the second-oldest player overall. But Lamoureux feels as sharp as ever.

"I have that same urgency I've had since college," Lamoureux said. "Hey, I'm still holding onto that NHL dream. Maybe someone will see what I'm doing here and give me that opportunity. I know we're talking about a .01 percent chance that's going to happen for an undersized goalie from Austria, but I still have the drive. I'm very open-minded.

"I've had some really good goalie coaches in Europe. I think that's helped with development. I feel really good about practice plans. I feel like I've been in a really good place, playing for an organization like Salzburg. They expect to win. I'm surrounded by great people and players. I felt like I came into the season on a mission. I wanted to undoubtedly be the best goalie, the cornerstone of the team that adds stability they've lacked for some years, and I knew I was going to get supported offensively."

With Lamoureux in net, Salzburg was just fine defensively, too.

"I always kept an eye on what the guys I played with are doing in the pros," Smaby said. "I knew how good of a goalie he was. I was following along and watching his dominance. This year, it was fun to see.

"He's the consummate professional. He has his routine and he sticks to it. He is prepared and ready for every practice, for every game. He's a workhorse. He's older than me and he's still playing and playing a tough position that's hard on the body. And he's going to play for as long as he wants the next handful of years here."

Lamoureux said that's his aim.

"The goal now is to get to 40 and be playing really good hockey at that age," he said. "I think that's really attainable right now."