Tales of an Emergency Goaltender
As you most likely know by now, I was the beneficiary of some interesting events on Friday, February 16th 2018.
As the Emergency Backup Goaltender at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, I was called upon to dress for the visiting Colorado Avalanche when one of their goalies was unable to finish the game.
This is something that, while I knew was a possibility, I never expected to come to fruition and had never really even considered an option. Anyone in the press box can tell since you can often find me stuffing my face with the free popcorn in the first intermission, but that’s a story you’ll hear later on.
It’s happened in other rinks to other guys just like me, but not me. I’ll never get that lucky.
Unfortunately, this fairytale ends in a very anti-climactic matter, with nothing but a ‘thanks for coming out’ as I left the tiny equipment room I was banished to thanks to the thumping the team took from Winnipeg. Nonetheless, it was a moment I’ll never forget – having the opportunity to pull a real NHL jersey over my head in a real NHL locker room.
They say that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and I think there are some great lessons to be learned through this experience and how I ended up getting there.
I know there are literally hundreds of goalies they could have chosen to do this job and they may even choose them next year. But this year, they chose me, and I truly believe there’s a reason for that.
Stay Within Striking Distance
It was a fall day and I received an odd text from a friend.
“Zinger wanted your number, he’s going to be calling you today.” This was, of course, referring to Craig Heisinger, the assistant General Manager of the Winnipeg Jets.
Even though everyone in Winnipeg seems to play hockey, the elite hockey world here is actually very small. Most guys around the same age that played at similar levels know each other, and you get to know people like Craig if you’re around rinks long enough, usually through friends of friends.
It also helps that I was working at a gym inside the Jets practice facility during the 2012 NHL lockout and skated with the guys who lived in Winnipeg almost every day, making my name known in NHL circles, at least as a nice guy who could stop a few pucks and handle himself around ‘celebrities’.
So when Craig called, I painstakingly waited for the second ring and picked up. After exchanging pleasantries, he got right to it and asked me if I was still playing at all.
I of course was (and still am) skating with a group aptly named Shake and Bake; a bunch of former junior, college and pro players who go for a good wheel every Saturday. It’s become known as one of the best skates in the city.
If not for that, the conversation may have been over right then and there.
Secondly, because the guy he got my number through is a fellow trainer whom I work with, he knew I kept myself in good shape, at the very least because it’s part of my job.
Chalk that up as two points for Gav, to go with my elite hockey history and lack of any serious injuries hampering me from continuing to play my favourite game.
So the point is that I don’t think this opportunity would have even been an option for me had I not stayed within striking distance of it since I stopped playing “real hockey” three years ago.
And, as I’ll tell you in the next section, this whole thing, in particular, Friday night’s fateful game may not have ever happened had I not made some major life decisions then as well.
If It’s Not a Hell Yes, It Should Be a No
It was the summer of 2015 and I knew the decision I had to make, but it was a difficult choice and an even harder phone call.
For the first fall in nearly twenty years, I would not be playing organized hockey.
It had come to a point where I didn’t even enjoy going to the rink anymore. This wasn’t because of my senior team in Warren or the guys on the team – they were great.
This was a combination of issues, including my short-lived university playing career and some off-ice shenanigans from opposing teams that you wouldn’t even believe were true if I told you.
I had fallen out of love with hockey, and playing was no longer a ‘hell yes’ for me, it was more of an ‘okay, yeah I guess.”
It took an entire year of turning down offers from other senior teams, consistently making up excuses to not play for beer league teams and even trying to play a few times as a defenseman for me to actually feel the fire to go back to the rink in the fall of 2016.
For the first time in a long time, I actually wanted to go to the rink on Saturdays. I looked forward to stepping on the ice, having some laughs and making some big saves, all the while letting in a few goals and being completely okay with that.
I finally loved the game again, and if not for quitting senior hockey and taking some time away, I may have turned down Heisinger’s offer outright.
Even though it was an incredibly difficult decision, I had to make the choice to take a step back from the game, before learning to love it again. I can tell you that when I got that call, I was coming off a full season of enjoying the game again, and I was truly rejuvenated and ready for this opportunity.
For anything in your life, if it’s not a “Hell Yes” it should always be a “NO, thank you”.
Consider Derek Sivers’ comments on the Tim Ferriss Show:
“Most of us say yes to too much stuff, and then we let these little, mediocre things fill our lives. So the problem is, when that occasional big, ‘Oh my God hell yeah’ thing comes along, you don’t have enough time to give it the attention that you should because you’ve said yes to too much other little, half-assed kind of stuff.”
And to finish my point, Friday’s fateful game wasn’t even originally mine, but thanks to a scheduling quirk in the senior hockey schedule (the same league I used to play in), Steve Christie had to play Friday night in a playoff game, forcing me to cover the game (you’ll find out why in a minute).
So, if I hadn’t made the difficult decision to quit three years ago, I may have still been playing, meaning I would have been forced to bow out when they asked me to cover for him.
Make Your Intentions Known
I realized that in December and January, I had received the booking schedule after a couple other guys. There are only five of us, but I’m going to be honest; I like having the first pick of which games I want to do.
So, when I knew I’d be sans girlfriend for a couple months (Kelly’s working in Australia), I picked up the phone and messaged our liaison, Katie. I told her I was available for extra games in February and March if needed.
So, she sent me the schedule for the first pick of the month, asked if I could do any leftover games (which I could) and obviously put me on the list to call in case of a late cancellation.
What’s important and transferable as a lesson is I had a clear vision. I knew I wanted to work more games and give myself the best chance to suit up.
I then made my intentions known, telling her before the month that I was fully available whenever she needed me.
Lo and behold, when a cancellation inevitably happened for that fateful game, I was ready and waiting, even though it was my third game that week.
If I hadn’t sent that message before the month, she may have just used an alphabetical list. She may have just called the first name she saw or thought of, I don’t know.
But I made sure she called me, with the simple act of sending one text.
A Hilarious Tidbit
Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman is known to those around him as an intense competitor. Having worked for True North in my first fitness industry job, Mark and I know each other by name – at least well enough to exchange pleasantries.
However, I generally leave him alone when I see him up in the press box, knowing that he has a lot of work to do and people to see – and the emergency goalie generally isn’t one of them.
Everyone who sits in the press box for the game is given dinner before the game. It’s generally a pretty good spread, and something I look forward to. But the most exciting part is that after the first period, they set out popcorn and candy, for which all the media line up to get.
I usually take one or the other and have trouble saying no to free popcorn. I’ve always thought about the fact that I may have to go into the game at a moment’s notice, and a full stomach may not serve me well.
Nonetheless, it’s free popcorn. And the chance of going in is so slim that I figured it wouldn’t be a problem.
Anyway, my guest Colin Hodgson and I were standing in the press box, watching hockey highlights and munching on our popcorn when Mark walked by. This time, he stopped and said hi to me, and asked if I was in the queue. Remember, this wasn’t supposed to be my game.
When I confirmed, he said, “Hey man, I’ve seen it happen before. You better lay off that popcorn.”
To which, of course, we all laughed. But I could tell there was a touch of seriousness in his voice. There was a touch of, “Don’t be an idiot here – it could happen.”
So one thing leads to another and a little over an hour later I’m walking back upstairs from the Avalanche locker room to the press box, where Colin is waiting. As I pass the Jets compound, I happen to see Mark again, chatting with someone who looks important.
When he sees me, he stops the conversation mid-sentence, turns to me and says, “I told you to lay off the fuckin’ popcorn Gav!”
Lesson learned I guess.
All the love in the World to everyone who supported me,
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