Game Day: Interview with Calgary Flames Goalie Curtis McElhinney
Every netminder has their own way to prepare for a game, their own habits and superstitions that dominate the hours leading up to the puck drop. In the coming weeks, InGoal Magazine will explore some of these rituals with the NHL goaltenders that swear by them. As part of our continuing series, InGoal sat down recently with Curtis McElhinney of the Calgary Flames.
McElhinney, 26 years old, is serious-minded and thoughtful. He was selected by the Flames in the 2002 NHL Entry draft and made his NHL debut on October 22, 2007. Since joining the Flames, McElhinney has found himself caught in a curious niche – backing up Mikka Kiprusoff, a world-class netminder who rarely takes a game off. In his three seasons in Calgary, McElhinney has appeared in 30 games, 14 of them as the starter.
With InGoal, McElhinney talks about his back-up status, the special challenges that it presents, and his hopes for the future.
InGoal: What is your typical game day routine?
CM: Morning skate, pretty light breakfast in the morning, pre-game meal around noon and then a couple of hours sleep. I’ll be at the rink at least two hours in advance of the game, and from there it’s not too exciting, just pretty straight forward; relax and try to get ready for the game, regardless if I’m starting or not.
InGoal: Speaking of routine, do you try to eat the same meal before every game day?
CM: My game day lunch is not too exciting. I’ll have chicken, some pasta, and some vegetables. That’s about it. Before I leave for the rink I’ll have at least a liter of water before I leave the house, and once I’m at the rink I’ll drink another liter. I’ll drink more water throughout the game as well.
InGoal: When you’re in the locker room before a game, do you prefer to be by yourself or are you social?
CM: If I’m playing in the game that night, I’ll keep to myself and just kind of get ready, otherwise, if it’s not my turn to go out, I’ll try to be a little bit more social, but you never know what happens so I always stay focused.
InGoal: Do you consider yourself to be superstitious in any way?
CM: No, but I have a routine and it doesn’t vary very much. It’s more or less the same for every game and it’s been that way for a couple of years now. I guess that once you find something that works, as a goalie, I usually stick to that. It’s more how I get dressed for a game; it’s the same way every day. For instance, with my pads, it’s always the right side first – I don’t know, it seems so normal to me but if you watched me on a day to day basis you may think I’m a little strange.
InGoal: Is there a big difference in your preparation whether you’re starting or not?
CM: Sure, obviously. A couple of years ago when I was first up in the league, I’d never really been in the situation as the back-up, so it was a bit of a learning experience. A couple of years later, it’s still something I’m learning. It’s an extremely tough job, especially playing behind Kiprusoff. He plays a ton and he can handle it; he does very well with it, so, as the back-up you have to remain sharp and be focused because there are going to be a few instances where you need to mop up or where you’re going to be needed to start, as well.
InGoal: What does “being focused” mean for you? During the day of a game, does it mean thinking about the game or not thinking about the game?
CM: You know what, I usually don’t think about the game a whole lot. It’s kind of one of those things that once you get to the rink, that becomes your mind set. Obviously, I’m always getting ready throughout the day but I don’t sit at home stressing about it or worrying about who I think is going to shoot where. I try to put the upcoming game out of my mind. I know the general tendencies of teams and we obviously go over that a little bit before the games, so I have a rough idea of what’s going to be done and what to expect but other than that, I find that if I focus too much on an individual player and where I think he might shoot, I’ll get caught and he’ll burn me in other ways.
InGoal: How far in advance do you get the word that you’ll be starting?
CM: It’s tough to say. Some days I just come to the rink in the morning and the coach is like, “tonight’s your night.” They want to keep you on your toes and surprise you. Other times, they give me a day notice or something. It’s tough to say. I guess it’s all how the coach feels and what his situation is with the goalies at the time.
InGoal: But your routine won’t vary, even if you know in advance that you’re starting?
CM: I try to keep what I do exactly the same. I don’t like to vary very much and I think that’s helped me out a little bit.
InGoal: How do you recover from a bad goal?
CM: I try to put it behind me. The next biggest thing, I guess, is to move on and worry about that next save. If I make that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s out of the way. Just move on. You don’t really have a choice. I’ve been playing this position for quite some time now so I’ve had my fair share of bad goals going in over the years. It’s never a fun time, especially at this level with the amount of pressure that is put on you. Bad goals are tough, but I guess I’ve had the opportunity to learn from one of the best – not that Kiprusoff gives up bad goals very often – but his mental focus and preparation during a game is just unbelievable.
InGoal: Does Kiprusoff talk with you much? Does he help you much?
CM: It’s not so much in the verbal side of things, but just watching him and his manner and how he carries himself on the ice, it’s unbelievable. It just looks like there’s an icy glare over him and there’s nothing else going on around it.
InGoal: Some goalies have said that the post-game time is tougher for them than the pre-game time, especially if they have had a rough outing. Is that so for you?
CM: I’m kind of in that hole right now. I had a tough game my last game I played against the Anaheim Ducks (5 goals on 26 shots in a 5-4 loss) so yeah, you feel awful about it but there is a game the next night and sure enough you’re back in there. I’ll go over the tape of the game. I like to see it at least once and sometimes you have a different opinion of things when you see them on film and sometimes it changes a few things so that’s a good way for me to put the game behind me and move on.
InGoal: You have a unique niche, because you truly define the term “back-up goaltender” with Calgary and Kiprusoff plays so many games. Where do you see yourself in the future?
CM: Being a starter is still the goal. I’m technically labeled as a back-up right now and I know what my work load is going to be, but the objective is still to be that number one. I want to be standing in Kiprusoff’s shoes one day and I’d love to be playing 70 + games. I’ll just continue to push and continue to work and when those opportunities do come, and hopefully there will be a string where I can play a few games and get a good handle on things, hopefully someone will see that and believe in me and one day give me that shot.
Lonnie Herman is a writer for Tampabaylightning.com and contributes to several other hockey publications.