Tom Fenton was in a barber’s chair when he got the call. Nathan Schoenfeld was giving his 5-week-old twin boys a bath. Eric Semborski was teaching kids to play hockey at a suburban rink.
Within hours, each was wearing a mask, pads and an NHL uniform as an emergency goaltender, perhaps the most unique position in all of sports.
Calling up someone with a bit of playing experience and saying, “Get your gear together, we need you,” is a storybook scenario for amateur athletes everywhere and it is incredibly rare in U.S. professional sports. But it has already happened a handful of times in hockey this season, most recently when longtime Carolina Hurricanes equipment manager Jorge Alves made history as the first emergency goalie to play in an NHL game in the modern era.
“To actually get out there, all of a sudden the lights seemed brighter,” said Alves, who played an unforgettable 7.6 seconds at the end of Carolina’s game at Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve. “The lights were brighter out there and it was just like, ‘OK this is crazy.’”
Alves, a 37-year-old former minor league goalie and Marine, faced no shots and couldn’t care less as he happily joined an exclusive club of emergency goalies. He had watched weeks earlier as Semborski, a programs coordinator and youth hockey coach at the Philadelphia Flyers’ practice facility, dressed for the Blackhawks on Dec. 3 when Corey Crawford needed an emergency appendectomy.
He didn’t play against the Flyers, but the 23-year-old former Temple goalie was on the bench in a No. 50 jersey with his own name on it instead of Crawford’s and he called facing shots from Patrick Kane and Co. during warmups “the best 15 minutes of hockey ever.”
“It’s definitely a unique situation in sports that really only happens in hockey,” Semborski said.
While the emergency goalie situation might seem a bit chaotic, it used to be even more nebulous. Then came March 3, 2015, when the Florida Panthers were in a bind: Starter Roberto Luongo left a home game against Toronto with an unspecified upper-body injury, but then backup Al Montoya suffered a groin injury.
Play was stopped while goaltending coach Robb Tallas, a 41-year-old former NHL goalie, prepared to go in, as did forward Derek MacKenzie as a last resort. The NHL was asked if Tallas could take the ice, but the red tape was avoided when Luongo rushed back from a nearby hospital to return to the game.
The NHL instituted a rule beginning the after season requiring each team to have a list of local emergency goalie options for themselves and for visiting teams — and they’ve been needed.
After hearing rumors on a group chat with his teammates that Ryan Miller might not be able to dress, University of British Columbia goalie Matt Hewitt got the call to be the backup for the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 18. His coach told him, “You’re going up to play in the big leagues.”
“I kind of just woke up not knowing anything and all of a sudden here I am, I’ve got to get ready to gear up for the Canucks,” Hewitt said.
While Hewitt was at least an active goalie at the time, Fenton’s pads were bone dry. He hadn’t played goal in months after his time at Division I American International College when the Coyotes called him to back up in December 2010.
Preparing to fly home to see his parents in Ontario, Fenton was getting a trim at a Supercuts in White Plains, New York, when his phone kept vibrating. He finally picked up the sixth call from a local president of youth hockey who told Fenton: “Pick up your phone, you dumb idiot. You’re going to play for the Phoenix Coyotes at Madison Square Garden.”
Driving a friend’s SUV, Fenton made his way into Manhattan, parked in a public lot, dragged his equipment into the Garden and enjoyed what he considers one of the best days of his life even though he didn’t play in the game. Near the end, Fenton said, Coyotes captain Shane Doan tried to persuade the referees to give the backup goalie a penalty just to get him on the scoresheet.
Fenton had to settle for a game puck, but the Coyotes this past February again turned to Schoenfeld, a financial adviser and son of former coach and player Jim Schoenfeld. An injury to Anders Lindback took Schoenfeld from a President’s Day off with family to the rink, where he got to back up Louis Dominque and enjoy the camaraderie of a winning locker room.
“I was sitting there and I stayed fully dressed because my [2-year-old] son was coming down to get some photos and I’m just listening to the guys talk and Shane Doan gives me the [team’s] MVP belt,” Schoenfeld said. “When that happened, that was kind of the icing on the cake of the whole thing.”
Dave Ayres, who is a Zamboni driver among other duties as manager of operations for Mattamy Athletic Centre at the old Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, has dressed twice for the American Hockey League’s Marlies. Ayres had been pranked so many times by the Marlies’ equipment staff that he didn’t believe he was really needed last season in Rochester, New York, until Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas told him: “Dave, no, we’re serious. We need you. So get your stuff in the truck, get driving.’”
Ayres arrived 20 minutes before warmups.
Brett Leonhardt got a few hours’ notice in 2008 that Washington’s Jose Theodore was hurt. A website producer at the time after playing at Division III Neumann University, Leonhardt was the backup only until Semyon Varlamov could make it to the rink but said of taking warmups: “It’s like the greatest memory of your life.” Leonhardt backed up for an entire game in 2013, too, and is now the Capitals’ video coach.
Another one-time emergency goalie is now living out his dream.
Undrafted goalie Carter Hutton was playing during the weekends on an AHL amateur contract while finishing classes at UMass-Lowell when the Flyers made him the backup for one game in March 2010. Hutton thinks that exposure helped him land a contract with the San Jose Sharks and now he’s a veteran of 88 NHL games and serves as the full-time backup for the St. Louis Blues.
Hutton happened to be on the ice for Hewitt’s big day and got to congratulate him.
“It is very surreal, but make sure you soak it in but still work hard and you never know,” Hutton said. “It’s such a unique situation where you get a guy, just a local guy or someone in the area that can play to be up there and you’re one situation away from stepping on the ice to play in the NHL.”