Sports reporters are drawn to NHL emergency goalie stories like food bloggers to sliced ketchup. Because NHL emergency goalie stories have everything: The drama of waiting to see whether a drywall installer-slash-refrigerator-repairman will actually get into an NHL game. The shared glory of seeing an Everyday Joe or Everyday Gord become a proxy professional athlete. The emotional thrill of seeing gleeful teammates pat the emergency goalie on the head, or shoulder, or rump. The intellectual jolt of interviewing someone on the happiest day of his life, someone who will never ever tell you that this was “just another game” or that “we’re on to Winnipeg.”
Accountant-turned-emergency-goalie-turned-Chicago-hero Scott Foster authored one of the best of these stories Thursday night, when his typically uneventful night as the Blackhawks on-call emergency (third) goalie turned into something quite different. The 36-year-old beer league player, pressed into service by a pair of injuries to the team’s real goalies, played 14 minutes, made seven saves, closed out a Chicago win, and then was feted by both his teammates and the national press.
(NHL teams dress two goaltenders and typically would call on a minor league goalie due to injury or other emergency. If logistics make that impossible, teams are allowed to dress and play any available goaltending option, which is why local goalies with ties to the team or the sport are often on call, sometimes winding up on the bench and — in extremely rare cases — on the ice. “It’s definitely a unique situation in sports that really only happens in hockey,” Eric Semborski once told the Associated Press. Semborski, a programs coordinator and youth hockey coach at the Philadelphia Flyers’ practice facility, suited up for the Chicago Blackhawks last season when one of their goalies required an emergency appendectomy.)
But if Foster on Thursday became a hero to accountants across the world — especially for finding time to goof around on March 29, with tax day looming — he also added his name to a long and storied list of regular ol’ dudes who rose to brief fame through emergency NHL goaltending.
Floyd Whitney, father to NHL star Ray Whitney, suited up for the Edmonton Oilers in 1999, when starter Bill Ranford was injured. The team drew up an amateur contract for Whitney — a local police officer — and gave him a sweater, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
“I was hoping I would get in, maybe when it was 6-2 in the last 30 seconds,” Whitney said, according to the paper. “I figure I could have contained them for that long.” (Yes, the Blackhawks final score on Thursday was also 6-2.)
Edmonton Coach Kevin Lowe said he debated using Whitney in the waning seconds, but didn’t want to rub it in on the visiting Capitals.
Joe Schaefer, an office-equipment staffer and longtime Rangers statistician, suited up twice for the Rangers in the early 1960s, according to his New York Times obituary.
The first time, starter Gump Worsley tore tendons in his hand after a collision with Bobby Hull. Schaefer, whose playing experience came primarily with the amateur Sands Point Tigers, was summoned.
“The game was delayed for 23 minutes while Schaefer donned a Ranger jersey,” the Times reported. “He was 35 years old and something on the paunchy side, at 5 feet 8 inches and evidently about 200 pounds. Now he would be facing blistering shots from the likes of Hull. His counterpart in the Chicago goal happened to be Glenn Hall, a future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
A 1-0 Rangers lead turned into a 5-1 Rangers loss. Schaefer, who made 17 saves, “had little to offer except courage,” Joe Nichols wrote in the Times.
He later played in a second game, making 27 saves in another loss to the Blackhawks. He continued keeping stats for the Rangers until 1986, according to the Times, although he was never again needed in a game.
The Bank Manager
Nathan Schoenfeld, whose father-in-law was the equipment manager for the Arizona Coyotes, served as the team’s emergency goalie during a 6-2 win two years ago. (Yes, that’s another 6-2 win.)
Schoenfeld’s father Jim was the team’s former coach, and he had skated with the team in the past. He worked at the time as relations manager at a bank, according to the Arizona Republic, and was fortuitously off work on game day because of Presidents’ Day. He didn’t skate with the team in warmups, according to the paper, but did sit in uniform on the bench.
“I don’t know if I have the words quite yet,” he said after the game. “It will probably take a bit to soak in. Just go home and sit with my family and just enjoy the night.”
The Vending Machine Worker
Tyler Stewart, a Blues season-ticket holder and former junior hockey player, signed a contract with St. Louis this season after the team’s emergency call-up was delayed arriving at the rink. Stewart, 25, skated with the team in warmups and watched the first period from the dressing room, according to the Associated Press. He was the team’s backup for the first period, until the real backup arrived.
“It was like a dream come true, obviously,” Stewart said.
Stewart, who played club hockey in college, had started his shift for his dad’s vending machine company at 5 a.m. that day, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He received the No. 98 sweater, and got to parry a few shots during pregame drills, according to the AP.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said. “This was my Christmas present.”
“Just nuts, is how I’d describe it,” he told the Post-Dispatch.
The Equipment Manager
Former N.C. State club hockey goalie Jorge Alves had often filled in during Carolina Hurricanes practices, because he worked for the team as an equipment manager. But last season, the then-37-year-old former Marine was sent into a game in the waning seconds of a Hurricanes loss. The team’s normal backup was ill, and Alves served as the emergency backup; his brief on-ice appearance was a sort of thank-you for his years of service.
Before Foster’s star turn this week, Alves had been the modern model of an emergency backup actually hitting the ice.
“I’m going to cherish that jersey. I’ll have it up in my house,” Alves said, via the Raleigh News & Observer. “I’m truly humbled.”
Starting goalie Cam Ward asked Alves to lead the team onto the ice for pregame warmups, usually the starter’s duty.
“I said to him right before the game, they don’t ask how or why, but you made it to the NHL,” Ward said, according to the News & Observer. “It’s a memory he’ll cherish for the rest of his life. It turned out to be a great story, too, for a great guy.”
The Web Producer
Brett Leonhardt is more than just a Web producer; the longtime Caps employee (and, full disclosure, a personal friend) now works as an assistant coach with the team, after a stint with the league office.
But his first brush with national fame came in 2008, when his job was indeed as a Web producer. Starter Jose Theodore was injured, call-up Semyon Varlamov was unable to arrive by puck drop, and starter Brent Johnson needed a backup. The 6-foot-7 Leonhardt, then 26 and known universally as “Stretch,” became the guy.
“I should pay the team for being able to do this,” he said. “It was like every dream come true.”
Leonhardt had played Division III hockey and had often filled in with the team during practice sessions, but he was still thrilled with his brief turn, which later led to a trading card. He also left the bench after about 10 minutes and worked the dressing room with his video camera as usual after that game.
“It was a great view,” he joked to the Associated Press. “Usually I’m up here with you guys in the press box.”
Leonhardt served as an emergency backup again in 2013, although by that point he was already an assistant coach.
The Grad Student
Tom Fenton was a 26-year old grad student and hockey coach in 2013, when the Coyotes called him up for a game at Madison Square Garden. Starter Ilya Bryzgalov had the flu, and the Coyotes couldn’t get a backup from their minor league outpost in San Antonio to New York in time.
Fenton, who never played in a 4-3 shootout loss, had played four years of college hockey at American International College.
“Somehow my name got thrown out there,” Fenton said after the game, via the AP. “I got the call, and I guess I just called back quicker than the other guys.”
Fenton said he thought the call from the Coyotes was a joke, some friends playing a prank on him. At the time, he also served as head of game operations and community relations at Manhattanville College, according to the AP, and as a volunteer hockey coach. He borrowed a roommate’s car and skipped a final exam for the game.
“I was just trying to take everything all in,” he said, via the AP. “It was great. This whole place was electric. I know we always say that cliche, but once you’re out there, it’s a totally different experience. Words can’t really describe it.”
The Turncoat Trainer
There are many more of these stories, each with its own charms. But the story of Lefty Wilson is particularly charming, because Wilson — a longtime trainer for the Detroit Red Wings — actually got the call-up as an emergency goalie against his own team.
This happened two times, according to Wilson’s New York Times obituary. Wilson had played in the minors and filled in during Red Wings practices, according to the Times, and also suited up for the team in a 1953 game. But things got weirder in 1956, when he was asked to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Red Wings, after starter Harry Lumley got sick. He played 13 minutes in a loss.
It happened again in 1957, when he played almost an entire game for the Bruins against the Red Wings, after starter Don Simmons separated his shoulder. Wilson allowed one goal, and the Bruins tied the Red Wings.
“There was no way I wanted those guys to score on me,” Wilson told author Dick Irvin, according to the Times. “It would have been terrible to go to work in the dressing room the next day and have them give me the needle about how many they scored.”
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