Over the past couple of years, USA Hockey has done an outstanding job implementing their American Development Model in an attempt to provide more opportunity for young players, curb economic barriers, increase development, and eliminate the "win at all costs" attitude that often unnecessarily takes over players and coaches at the youth level. The model is tried and true and with the dedicated efforts of many hockey professionals and volunteers, USA Hockey has made great strides since its inception.
Growing up, I liked winning as much as anyone, but at the core, what I truly loved was playing. It didn't matter if it was on a back yard pond or in a state championship game, I always just wanted to play. As I got older and moved to new teams in more competitive leagues, I always dedicated myself to ensuring I would do whatever it took to get in the line up and prove to my teammates and coaches I deserved to stay in the line up, and hopefully contribute to the success of the club. This is especially true for any athlete in their first year with a new team.
After high school, I moved to Long Island to play for New York Applecore in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. I had played center for my local team for the previous four years, but again, being new to the team, I would have played just about anywhere they asked me when I arrived, as long as I was on the ice.
Mid way through that 2000-2001 season, that willingness to do whatever it took to be in the line up went to a whole different level in what may have been the most bizarre game I have ever been a part of. Our team was playing well and I had settled in and was enjoying my time in New York with a great group of teammates. We headed north for a weekend series with the Bridgewater Bandits, but did so without the services of our back up goaltender who had an unusual injury that morning. The minor team was on the road so without the luxury of a back up, we decided to proceed cautiously with one keeper for the weekend....tighten things up a bit in the D-Zone, block a few extra shots, be sure to clear the crease, what could go wrong? Besides, how many goaltenders can you play at once anyway?
Game one was a good one with Applecore prevailing with a hard fought victory in a fairly physical game. The next night in game two, we got off to a great start and were up 6-1 heading in to the third period. I had a goal and an assist and was feeling good about my efforts and great about the team’s success. But the time for patting one another on the back was short lived. As often happens in a one sided affair, emotions ran high and things boiled over with just under seven minutes to go in the game. A Bridgewater player crashed the net looking for a loose puck. Our goaltender (yes, still the only goaltender) lost his helmet in the ensuing scrum, and shortly after took a vicious spear just above the eye, resulting in a concussion, numerous stitches, the arrival of an ambulance, and the temporary calling of the game as things had officially gotten out of hand in the moments that followed. We were instructed to pack our bags, head back to New York, and await the leagues decision on the suspensions to come and the official outcome of the game. I had assumed that the Bridgewater player who speared our goaltender would get ten games for the violent act and the game could be called due to forfeit or something given the circumstance and the fact we had a 6-1 lead with 6:42 to go in the third....I was pretty close on the former. As for the latter, the decision came down and we were told we would finish the final 6:42 where we left off, with the same roster, when we were back in Bridgewater the following month.
Fair enough, we thought. We will go back in a month, wrap up the one sided battle in what was expected to be a passion filled finish, and then play a regular 60 minute game before getting the heck out of Bridgewater. The problem came with that note about finishing the game with the team on the ice the night that we had started in January. Our back up goalie that hadn't made the trip was now healthy, but not on the roster from the original game. The starting goalie was officially done for the season as a result of the concussion sustained in that game. We had a 6-1 lead with less then seven minutes to go, and nobody to put between the pipes to protect it.
In the weeks that followed, we prepared for other league matchups and spoke occasionally about the unfinished business in Bridgewater, with one major question in mind. Who was going to play goal?
So I volunteered. This was officially the craziest thing I had done in a career of full of "in" at all cost moments. I was 19 years old and hadn't strapped on the pads since I was a tear filled child chased from the net after giving up 5 goals in the first in a Mite tournament in Troy, NY at age 7 and vowed never to do that again. But now, I didn't really care, I just wanted to play.
The day before we left for the game, I skated up front in my regular equipment in practice for 30 minutes before changing in to the goalie gear for the only 15 minutes of prep work I would get before my Junior hockey goaltending debut. It became clear fairly quickly that we would need to keep pucks to the outside (preferably outside of the rink) and our defenseman would need to block more shots in those seven minutes then Dikembe Mutombo would in a season.
Finally, game night was upon us. What had started out as a seemingly normal game on a Sunday afternoon in January was about to culminate in just under seven minutes of hockey I will never forget in February. I took the ice for warm ups wearing considerably more equipment then I was accustomed to or comfortable in. I soon realized the gear was hot, my mobility was limited, and no amount of "practice" or "warm up" was going to help me. I headed to the locker room for a water and a stretch with plenty of time to spare. Besides, it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to show off any of my “strengths” in net prior to the game when the team lacked any sort of scouting report on me, right?
As the puck dropped to start (finish) the game, each team's game plan was obvious. Bridgewater would shoot from everywhere, including from there own side of the red line, and our defensemen would lay down and block everything. And they did. In all I would guess Bridgewater fired about 30 shots in those seven minutes....six of them got through....none of them got by. That was it, a six save (none of the spectacular variety and I fell three times if anyone was scoring at home) shutout in my goaltending debut to help the club preserve the 6-1 win and a well deserved two points after a 30 day wait.
I officially finished the two part game with one goal, one assist, 6 saves, a 0.00 GAA, and memories that have clearly stayed with me and a few of my teammates for years.