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NHL adds another unique emergency backup goalie

NHL adds another unique emergency backup goalie
Tom Fenton for AIC Goalie backs up in Phoenix

Tom Fenton, seen here playing for AIC, suited up for Phoenix as an emergency backup.

For more great Shots of Fenton in action check out Scott Slingsby’s photostream.

It isn’t everyday you go from the barber shop to an NHL bench as the backup goalie, but that’s exactly what happened to Tom Fenton, a former college goalie almost two years removed from playing, when Ilya Bryzgalov came down with the flu and couldn’t play for Phoenix against the Rangers on Thursday night.

It’s hardly the first time an NHL team has needed to find an unlikely emergency back up. In fact, it’s not even the best story – we recap those below.

But when Phoenix couldn’t get their minor-league goalies from AHL San Antonio to Madison Square Gardens in time – and because goalie coach Sean Burke, who regularly fills in at practice, required a 24-hour waiver period because he’d played in the NHL – the Coyotes tracked down Fenton, who played the last of four years at American International College in 2009 and never turned pro.

Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke and his Stomp pads are a regular at practice, but his past in the NHL forced Phoenix to look in an even less likely place to find an emergency backup for Thursday's game in New York.

That allowed 26-year-old Fenton, who originally missed the call because he was getting his hair cut in preparation for a trip home to Ontario for the holidays, to sign a one-day amateur contract and dress as Jason LaBarbera’s backup.

“At first I didn’t believe them,” Fenton, who lives in nearby Purchase, New York and works as a coach/community relations/team operations head for the hockey team at Manhattanville College, told the Coyotes’ broadcast (video below).

“I thought I was a couple buddies playing a prank. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once I got the call it was a no-brainer I was going to be here.”

Fenton’s story was eerily similar to one in Washington two years earlier, when Jose Theodore hurt his hip flexor and Semyon Varlamov couldn’t get to the rink in time to back up Brent Johnson when the game started. So the Capitals turned to a worker for their web site, Brett Leonhardt, a former college target who sometimes filled in as the spare goalie at practice, and he took warm ups and sat on the bench before being relieved by Varlamov in the first period.

Both were feel-good stories that got a lot of attention for the NHL. But two of the league’s more memorable emergencies have taken place in Vancouver, perhaps because it’s the extreme left coast of the NHL and can be a tough place to get to on short notice. Funnily, both involved the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The most recent was just 11 months ago, when Penguins’ starter Marc-Andre Fleury broke the ring finger during a win in Edmonton the night before playing in Vancouver. With regular backup Johnson already out with a lower body injury, the Pens started John Curry, and signed 19-year-old Alexander Pechurski, a Russian prospect playing junior in Tri-City, to a one-day amateur contract.

But after curry was lit up for five goals on 14 shots less than five minutes into the second period, Pechurski, who had played the night before in the Western Hockey League, took over. Despite wearing Fluery’s leg pads because his junior pads were not approved by the NHL, Pechurski stopped 12 of 13, many of them brilliant saves and was named the game’s third star.

“It wasn’t (comfortable),” Pechurski said with translation from Sergei Gonchar. “I was excited I had a chance to play. It was like a dream for me coming and playing in the NHL. I was surprised, but happy I had a chance to play.”

That may be true, but guys like Fenton, who admitted sweating bullets when LaBarbera was favoring his groin after one bug save, sit on the bench praying they don’t have to go into the game. It almost happened to an emergency fill-in in Vancouver way back on Dec. 9, 2003 – the most memorable of call-ups.

When oft-injured starter Dan Cloutier injured his groin during the morning skate, the Canucks farm team was traveling in the east and they couldn’t call anyone up in time for the 7 p.m. start. So they called the local university instead. But the top-two goalies from the nearby University of British Columbia were both ineligible under the NHL’s amateur contract rules because of past pro experience (ironically one was once a Canucks draft pick that had gone back to school), so they settled on a little-used third-stringer named Chris Levesque.

The only problem was no one could find him.

Turns out Levesque had a big geography exam early the following morning, and had buried himself in one of the campus’s more than half-dozen libraries to cram. The team scattered players all over looking for Levesque, and when they finally found him at 4:30 p.m. they had a hard time convincing the 23-year-old he wasn’t part of an elaborate prank. After all, he hadn’t played in almost three months and had a 0-4-1 record, 4.77 goals-against average and .855 save percentage playing about five levels below the NHL.

After a lot of persuasion, Levesque finally made it down to the rink, signed a one-day amateur agreement, and took to the ice for warm up shots from Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund wearing No. 40.

Little did he know the real excitement was yet to come.

Canucks starter Johan Hedberg went charging towards the blue line in pursuit of a loose puck and ended up in a violent collision with Pittsburgh forward Konstantin Koltsov, sending Hedberg’s mask flying down the ice as he law motionless in a heap. Camera’s quickly found Levesque on the bench, chewing his gum so hard and fast it looked like he too might soon require medical attention.

“Don’t worry, he’ll get up,” veteran Mike Keane yelled to Levesque.

After an agonizingly long delay, Hedberg did get up, and stayed in the game.

“I was a little frightened,” Levesque, now a chef in Vancouver, admitted after the game. “I tried to play it cool on the bench, just kept chewing my gum and looking up at the scoreboard with a camera right in my face. But luckily Hedberg wasn’t hurt seriously and he shook it off.”

At least that’s how it appeared at the time. It wasn’t until a few days later that we found out how close the third-string university goalie was to getting a taste of NHL action: Hedberg had broken his wrist in the collision, but knowing that he had no real backup on the bench he decided to play through it.

The ending was happier for Levesque. After entertaining a media scrum bigger than the one in front of Naslund, who scored all four goals in a 4-3 overtime win over a World Junior Championship-bound Marc-Andre Fleury, Levesque went home and, still wired from his six-hour NHL study break, hit the books until the wee hours and got 88 per cent on his test.

He kept the jersey, signed by the team, and a game tape with memories as one of the NHL’s most unique goalies.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.