To be fair, when you consider Alabama, ice hockey is hardly the first thing that comes to mind. The Crimson Tide, perhaps. Maybe boll weevils. The birthplace of Joe Louis and Willie Mays. Or segregationist governor George Wallace.
But it was Wallace, in fact, who in 1987 called Huntsville, Ala., "the hockey capital of the South."
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And it was in Huntsville, playing with the University of Alabama-Huntsville's NCAA Division I Chargers, that Cameron Talbot, born in Caledonia, Ontario, figured that against all odds, he just might have a chance to play in the NHL.
"It wasn't until the last week of my college career that I thought this would be a reality," Talbot said when he learned that he will make his NHL debut in Philadelphia with the Rangers Thursday night , subbing for Henrik Lundqvist, who is sidelined by what the team is calling a minor injury.
For Talbot, 26, the turning point in that 2009-10 season came in winning the College Hockey America tournament, with a shutout of Robert Morris and a 43-save overtime defeat of Niagara to clinch the final NCAA berth, and then almost upsetting the No. 1 seed, Miami of Ohio, but falling, 2-1.
"He was our MVP," said Danton Cole, who coached Talbot for three years in Huntsville and now helms the Under-18 team of the U.S. National Development Program. "I first saw him in the Ontario League; a very big [6-3], athletic guy with a lot of upside. He had the tools and was willing to put in the work in practice, in conditioning, in the technical parts of his game. He's a pretty driven guy, great attitude; he won a lot of games for us by himself."
Opening the 2009-10 season, Talbot stopped 39 shots in a 3-2 upset at highly regarded Notre Dame, and the next night he made 48 saves in a 3-1 loss to the Irish. Some scouts, including those with the Rangers, who signed him as an undrafted free agent on March 30, 2010, started paying attention.
Last year, with the Connecticut Whale, a team that missed the AHL playoffs, Talbot had a 25-28-1 record, posting a hard-earned 2.63 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
"He just battles, he doesn't give up," said Rangers forward J.T. Miller, who played with Talbot. "I think he's going to be up for the task. I think the guys can be real confident playing in front of him."
During preseason games, Talbot impressed coach Alain Vigneault, but the front office decided to stick with tested veteran Martin Biron. That is, until Biron imploded in two regular-season appearances, and was waived last week.
Enter Talbot, who grew up a fan of the Canadiens and their brilliant goaltender Patrick Roy. "I liked his work ethic and love for the game, his passion," Talbot said. "I like to play the game the same way, with passion and enthusiasm. He was always the big-game goalie, and I tried to focus on that; when the game was on the line, I always liked to think if it comes down to it, I'll be there."
It's early, but the 2-5 Rangers have a big one Thursday night. Maybe Talbot, who admitted that he was surprised and a little shocked to be given a backup role so suddenly, can channel a little of the Montreal Hall of Famer once again.
"Actually, I'm not surprised," Cole said. "What you see is a progression. Timing is everything, and it's his time. I'm pretty proud of him."