I have watched a LOT of hockey games over the past three years. No, I’m not talking about NHL games on NBC, although I have watched my fair share of those too. For the majority of the last three seasons, I have been a backup goalie in the ECHL. Yes, there are times where the clichés of being a backup goalie apply. It can be a very taxing job mentally. Let in a 10-spot like Al Montoya against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov.4 2016 and that can haunt you until your next spot, which may not be for three weeks, particularly if Jesus Price is your starter. Al isn’t alone, last year I got wrung up for 9 goals, it’s part of the gig when the starter needs a rest. Waiting for the next start can feel like an eternity. It’s a continuous mental grind. For those familiar with the tv show The Office, I am frequently the Dwight K. Schrute to Michael Scott, hence the article title. But, being a backup is a job worth talking about because often times, the voice of the 2nd netminder gets left unsaid and I’d like to share what it takes to be a (semi)successful backup.
My path to being a minor pro backup goalie is a little unconventional. As a 5’10 goalie (on a good day), I am what most NHL teams consider vertically challenged. With exceptions being studs like Jussi Saros, Jonathan Bernier, and Jaroslav Halak who all hail in the sub-6ft club. I was never a top recruit or threat to play NCAA D1 or Major Junior hockey. So, playing pro hockey out of D-III college hockey was not much more than a pipedream. I knew I had to adapt and adjust my mindset entering into pro after playing nearly every game during college. In three seasons of pro hockey since graduating I have backed up in three leagues: SPHL, ECHL, AHL on a total of 7 teams. I have played in 71 games, which means I have watched roughly 120 games from the bench, stands, and tunnel and still counting. You have to keep yourself entertained and fill many roles.
Being a backup or even a third goalie also means you must be a man of many traits, in the three years I’ve played I’ve filled in as: team cheerleader, color commentator, video coach, target practice, among others. I’m curious if I can start adding those to my resume when I start applying for big boy jobs. One of the big things I’ve learned is that you can’t throw a pity party on the days you aren’t playing. No one wants to be around a moping backup who sits with his head in his jersey on the bench. Being supportive and engaged with your teammates, staff, and community goes along way in earning respect and playing well when your opportunity does arrive. Would you play harder in front of the guy trying to lift the spirits of a team on a 19 day road trip or a guy who sits and sulks when he’s not in the lineup? Cracking a joke, picking up a guy when he’s in the dog days of the season, or staying on for extra shots are the little things that help build relationships that translate into performance on the ice. I am a big numbers and analytics guy, but these are items that are not quantifiable. And hey, my teammates have been there for me too during the tough times, there’s certainly a level of give and take. The locker room is a true sanctuary where lifelong friendships are built out of battling the highs and lows of a season.
The ECHL is a developmental league. Don’t get me wrong, we play to win every game, but NHL and AHL clubs want to see the prospects get better. As a backup goalie, a key role is to help your teammates and goalie partner reach higher levels. And if you want to be a great backup, you cherish and give a couple clicks when you see them reach their dreams. This year alone I got to witness two of my former teammates reach the highest level, the National Hockey League. Ken Appleby (New Jersey Devils) and Ryan Lomberg (Calgary Flames) both reached hockey’s premier league and you know what, it was one of the most rewarding things I have witnessed since . As Apple’s goalie partner and personal cheering section (the guy is nasty) during our rookie years in pro hockey and Lombo’s shooter tutor for his disgusting wrister, I was able to be a minor part in their hockey journey which culminated in them reach the top level. I’ve been very fortunate to see dozens of players reach the top leagues in Europe, the AHL and beyond and I am so proud of getting to be a part of their journey. If you don’t take pride in that, why show up to the rink? But, I digress. You want to know what it takes for an undersized goalie to have played multiple seasons in one of the most cutthroat hockey leagues in the world? Perseverance and opportunity.
Opportunity is a pivotal word in the ECHL. It’s all a player can hope for; more ice-time, special teams, or for a goalie, more games. In only three years I’ve gotten to witness some wild roster turnover and the clichéd “next man up” saying more than applies. In my first year, Apple and another goalie were called up and I got the opportunity to play 15 of 16 games. This year the same thing happened and played 9 straight games. You need to take care of your body and be a “pros” pro in order to be ready for anything. As you play more, your confidence builds, routines become more familiar. You persevere the three week stretches where you don’t play in order to be ready for the month long stretches where you get to play 3 games in 3 days or 4 games in 5 days. The Coast has some of the most interesting and taxing schedules of any professional sport, so you have to treat your body and be ready for any and all situations.
I’ve been asked by numerous people why I continue to fill this role? More than anything, it’s because I love hockey and the relationships that are being built on a daily basis with my peers and the coaching staff. I’ve been a starter for stretches and a backup for the majority, in addition to the other roles I mentioned above. And you know what, I’ll keep grinding for each and every opportunity until there’s no more to had.