If Isaiah Saville wasn’t a 2019 fifth-round pick of the Vegas Golden Knights and one of the top goaltending prospects in college hockey, he may have been able to carve out a career as a professional video game streamer.
“Honestly if he wasn’t playing hockey, he could damn near be a professional gamer,” said Omaha goaltender Austin Roden. “It’s actually pretty impressive how good he is. Maybe that’s why his eyes work so well on the ice, because he’s so used to seeing everything coming at him.”
From Saville’s standpoint, he jokes that it’s neurological training. When it comes time to stand between the pipes, it’s just tracking pucks instead of bullets.
“I don’t do it over hockey and school, but I would play all day, every day if I could,” Saville said. “I like video games a lot and I would say I’m the best at every game I play.”
In addition to racking up the kills while playing Apex away from the rink lately, Saville is currently tied for the NCAA lead with six wins, has a 1.55 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. He’s already been named the NCHC Goaltender of the Week three times this season.
Saville is one of four NHL draft picks on the Omaha roster. Two years ago, he was selected for Team USA at the World Junior Championships and he’s regarded by many as an all-conference caliber goaltender in the NCHC. It’d be easy for the Alaska native to carry an ego around Baxter Arena with him. However, that’s not the case.
“We’re all here with one common goal and that’s to win,” Saville said. “That’s part of the culture here in Omaha and nobody is better than anybody else. Nobody has an ego and that’s why you’ve seen how much our team has grown even since our freshman year.”
That ‘our’ refers to Roden, the person sitting by his side during a recent interview with The Gateway. He’s also the person Saville spends the most time with both at Baxter Arena and away from the rink. Two of the three junior goaltenders on this Omaha roster, along with Jacob Zab, Saville and Roden are eight games into their third season playing together and their second year living together.
After coming to Omaha from Anchorage and Sidney, British Columbia respectively, the two had never met or even spoken to each other until their first day on campus. Ever since they arrived in the summer of 2019, you’d be hard-pressed to find two goalies with a better relationship.
“This is our second year living together and we have a really good friendship,” Saville said. “All three of us goalies do, which makes it way more special than most people probably realize. Most of the time it’s such a competitive position and having goalie partners that you trust and are pretty much brothers with makes it so much easier to show up to the rink. You want your partners to play well too.
“And honestly, you don’t often see goalies living together either because there’s always that competitiveness. We’re still super competitive with each other, but it’s in a way that makes us both better instead of wanting the other person to suck so one of us can play more.”
All three goaltenders, including Zab, have worked their way up together since they arrived as freshmen. They’ve learned from each other, both on and off the ice, the entire way as well.
“We knew right away when we came in that first summer that our bond was going to be special and all three of us just clicked really fast,” Roden said. “And like Savvy said, it can go both ways too. Sometimes you have a goalie partner that wants you to play bad so they can get in because only one guy plays. We’ve never had that with us though.”
In those three years, it’s spread beyond just being teammates and it seems as if Saville and Roden are together 24/7. They share an apartment in Omaha and are roommates on the road. They also have classes together this semester. They even act as each other’s assistant general manager in the Mavericks’ fantasy football league.
More importantly, they’re each other’s biggest supporters, something that isn’t always common with the goaltending position.
Although they both say they don’t classify a starter or backup on Omaha’s roster, there’s no denying that Saville, who started 23 of Omaha’s 26 games last season and seven of the first eight games this year, is the guy. It’d be easy for there to be a little bit of a sense of entitlement to the crease, but that’s also not the case.
“You know when the other guy is cheering against you and when he’s with you,” Roden said. “And you always know he’s (Saville) with you. You don’t want to go in the net knowing the other guy is pissed off at you or something and that’s one of the special parts about our relationship. I know Savvy is right there to support me and I do the same for him, so it really helps our game from a mental standpoint too.”
Life as a backup goaltender isn’t always the easiest job in the world either. In many situations, it mainly consists of practice reps and countless hours at the rink. That’s only to potentially get a spot start or thrown in at a moment’s notice due to an injury or poor performance.
“Some days are harder than others,” Roden said of the backup role. “I’m not going to say it’s easy because everybody wants to play obviously, but I get a lot of confidence from my practice and I’ve had some good games here so I know I can play. I think it’s just the confidence though because once you lose that you’re in trouble. The biggest thing is making it as easy as I can and you want to make the most of every opportunity you get.”
Opportunity is the key. This past weekend is a perfect example, as Roden made 16 saves and backstopped the Mavericks to a 7-1 win over Long Island. One of the first people to greet him off the bench after the game was Saville, with a smile from ear to ear.
“If I’m not playing in a game I’m just as excited about it for Rodes and engaged as I would be if I was playing,” Saville said. “It goes back to our relationship. We’re a unit and we’re all working together towards a common goal so of course I’m going to be jacked for the guy when he goes in there and gets a win for us.”
On top of the relationship the two have forged on the ice, the most interesting part of their bond comes away from the rink. It’s where the personality starts to show. Roden said they’ve actually never fought in the two years living together, granted they have their boundaries and still find time alone.
The secret to those boundaries is simple — try not to focus on hockey.
“When we get to the rink we have that drive and want to be the best goalie during practice and win every game, but when we leave the rink, hockey barely gets talked about,” Roden said. “The focus isn’t ever on hockey and we just try to live our lives as if we’re any other college kid.”
As Roden said himself, you won’t ever find two goalies that play the same way and you won’t find two personalities that are identical either. He and Saville are no exception.
The cleaner roommate? Roden. More organized? Roden. Better student? To use Saville’s answer, “that’s Rodes 100 percent.” The better cook? That’s also Roden, something he took a significant interest in during the pandemic. Chicken fried rice is the go-to cuisine while he and Saville occasionally make a “pretty good” pesto pasta together.
Who’s funnier though? That’s up for debate.
“I have a really dry sense of humor,” Roden said. “He just kind of laughs at everything.”
“Okay, I would say Rodes is funnier because I think I laugh at him more than he does at me,” Saville said.
“Yeah. He just does funny things too,” Roden said. “Not on purpose sometimes and he might embarrass himself a little more than he wants to, but we both have our moments.”
They’ve both had their share of fun moments together during the three years too. Some of the best ones came last December during the NCHC Pod.
“I would do the Pod every year if we could,” Saville said. “Seeing every team around the hotel and rink felt like you were in a youth hockey tournament with a bunch of NHL prospects. You had no idea what day it was or what time it was, you just went to meals, went to practice and played the games.
“Plus the drama that happened on Xbox. Since we weren’t in school the last two weeks we played a bunch of football and there was a lot of intense gaming. The last night a bunch of us were playing Call of Duty and the fire alarms went off, and I honestly thought some people were going to cry.”
Saville wasn’t kidding when he said how intense some of those games were.
“I thought you were going to cry too,” Roden said to Saville. “I remember some of you guys wanted to stay in there and play while the fire alarms were going off.”
At the end of the day, they’re still athletes. Even though competition doesn’t cause a rift between the two at the rink, competition still exists in some places. One of which is on the golf course, which is one of their favorite and most competitive hobbies away from the rink together. Well, sort of.
“We’re pretty competitive on the golf course and we play a lot during the summer,” Roden said.
“But we’re not really competitive because we both kind of suck,” Saville said.
“Well we’re not good enough to be competitive and we’re always trying to help each other because we’re shaking them all over the course,” Roden said.
“Little fun fact, when we do a team 2-on-2 scramble, we’re like 0-10 together. We’ve never won one, so I guess we’re a pretty mediocre golf team,” Saville said.
“Yeah I guess we’re not good teammates after all,” Roden joked.
Besides those debates on the golf course, there’s no denying the bond is strong between the two. For two kids who came to Omaha without even meeting the person they would eventually be living with, it’s crazy to think about how good of friends they’ve become since. It’s a unique bond that neither would trade.
“It’s way bigger than hockey,” Roden said. “It’s about the culture and the relationships here, and we’re both so fortunate to be in this situation. We’ll be here for four years at the most, but we’re going to be friends for life.”