The goalie goes down. The puck stops and the trainers rush the ice. The whole arena goes silent. A voice calls out from down on the ice.
“Help! Is there a goalie in the house?!”
… Okay, so that’s not really how it happens. But that’s what it feels like when you’re an emergency backup goalie in the NHL and you get the call on game night.
The NHL requires each team to have a house emergency goalie on standby in case either the home or the visiting team needs one. For the Minnesota Wild, I’m that guy. And last week, I got the rare call that turned a pretty average Thursday night into one I’ll probably be talking about for a long time.
I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. It was Grizz. His real name is Nick, but we call him Grizz because he’s huge, like a bear. We played hockey together growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I was supposed to go to his place to sample his latest batch of home-brewed beer and watch the Wild game. The Rangers were in town.
“Hey,” he said, “are you still coming?”
I’m a goalie by trade. I played semi-pro in the Czech Republic and a couple seasons of college hockey in Division III. But these days, I mostly coach. I was running late to Grizz’s house because I was out doing some dryland training with a couple of kids I’ve been working with.
“Yeah, I’m coming,” I said. “I just gotta stop home real quick and I’ll be over.”
I walked into my house, threw my chest protector and helmet on the radiator to dry and turned on the TV. The Wild game had already started. I sank into the couch just in time to see Antti Raanta, who was starting in goal for the Rangers to give Henrik Lundqvist the night off, take a hard puck to the head. They were only 6:11 into the first period, and Raanta came out of the game, leaving Hank as the Rangers’ only available goalie.
One of the guys at the Wild I know really well is Kirk Olson, the strength and conditioning coach and house goalie manager. At the beginning of the season, he called me and wanted to know if I would be the house emergency goalie. With that comes the very small chance that if a team’s first two goalies weren’t able to play, I could potentially see the ice in an NHL game, which would be a dream come true.
So I said yes, definitely.
Ever since then, it has been kind of a running joke with my buddies. Like, “You sure you can come out tonight? What if the Wild call?” or “In case of emergency, call Tino!” It’s all in fun. They don’t mean anything by it. We just get on each other about stuff like that.
Sitting there on my couch, watching Raanta go down, I remembered all those jokes. You gotta be ready! It was like they were in the room with me. You never know! I could hear their voices in my head. Tonight could be the night!
Then I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket.
“Hey, Tino. What are you doing?
“I’m sitting here watching the game.”
“How fast can you get down here with your stuff?”
“I’ll be there shortly.”
I played it cool, but I was almost in a panic. Tonight was the night.
I grabbed my chest protector and helmet off the radiator, stuffed them in my bag, threw on one of my suits, tossed my bag in the trunk of my car and hit the road. I only live about two miles over the bridge from the Xcel Center, so it was maybe 10 or 12 minutes before I was pulling into the players’ parking lot. The valet guys— Rick and Joe — are buddies of mine. We used to play softball together.
All of us — me, Rick, Joe, Grizz — are from an area of St. Paul called West Side. Everybody knows everybody in West Side. It’s a tight little community. So when Rick and Joe saw me, they immediately started giving me crap, like, “What are you doing here?”
But I didn’t have time. I just laughed with them as I parked my car, grabbed my bag and ran into the tunnel and waited for someone on the other side to walk me back to the locker room.
Just across from the visitors locker room at the Xcel Center, there’s a small utility locker room. That’s where they took me. Inside, there was a TV. The game was on. They were two minutes into the second period when I got there. Hank was in net. A guy poked his head into the room and said, “Could you get your stuff on, just in case?” So I got my bottoms on and went through my normal pregame stretches. I didn’t know what was going to happen next — if I was going to the Rangers bench or not, if I was going to get on the ice or not.
From the time I hung up with Kirk to the time I got into the locker room, everything was so hectic. Grabbing my stuff, rushing to the rink, running up the tunnel. And it suddenly all came to a halt, and I was just sitting there in the locker room, alone, half-dressed, watching the game on TV, just waiting for somebody to come in and say, “Okay, kid, you’re on.”
My phone started blowing up. A bunch of people texted me when they heard I got the call and had to go to the rink — thinking it was a joke. A couple of buddies of mine were actually at the game, and they texted me: “Are you really here?” So I sent them snapchats of me in the locker room as proof. I was like, “Dude, it’s real … I’m here.”
After the second period, the Rangers came in for the intermission. The door to my locker room was open, and I could see the guys walking by. But when Derek Stepan — who wasn’t playing because he’s been out with broken ribs — walked by, he did a double-take. He poked his head in and just started chuckling.
“You’re the emergency goalie?”
I’ve skated with Derek a bunch. We used to train together with a hockey program called Impact in high school. He also trained with Kirk Olson in the offseason, and I joined them a few times.
I had seen NHL shots before, and I knew if I got on the ice, they weren’t going to score on me every shot.
He sat with me and we made some small talk — I asked him how his ribs were doing, and a couple of the other guys came in and thanked me for coming. And just before the puck dropped to start the third period, they cleared out and I had my own private locker room to myself again, where I could watch the game that was happening on the other side of the concrete walls on my little TV.
Honestly, I wasn’t even nervous. I used to work as a goalie instructor at a place called ProHybrid Training, and the owner — a guy named Zach Sikich, who played at St. Thomas University and played a few years of minor league hockey — would skate with a lot of the top NHL guys in Minnesota sometimes, and when they needed a goalie, he’d bring me along. I was maybe 16 or 17 years old the first time I stepped on the ice with NHL guys. I’ve skated with Derek Stepan. I’ve skated a bunch with the Wild when they need an extra goalie.
So it wasn’t this big intimidating thing I was getting myself into. There were no butterflies. I wasn’t nervous. I was actually pretty excited. I had seen NHL shots before, and I knew if I got on the ice, they weren’t going to score on me every shot. I knew the chances of me going in the game were pretty small, but if they needed me, I was ready to go.
But once it got down to about the five-minute mark in the third period, it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to see the ice unless Hank got hurt in the last few minutes. The novelty sort of wore off and I slowly started getting undressed.
I guess the way it works is that if you’re the emergency goalie, and you get the call and you either make it out to the bench or, if you’re lucky, into the game, you sign a tryout contract before you go out. You get paid $500 and you get to keep your jersey with your name on it.
It actually happened to Zach Sikich — who I used to coach with — back in 2014. The Ducks were in town and one of their goalies went down while warming up, and Zach got the call. He got to the arena, suited up, warmed up on the ice and was on the bench when the game started. He didn’t get on the ice during the game, and he only sat on the bench for about 14 minutes before somebody came to relieve him as the backup, but he got to sign the tryout contract and got to keep the jersey with his name on it, which is probably the coolest part.
I always say that when I get to skate with the Wild, it’s like living the dream without the money.
As time wound down in the game and I got undressed, I wasn’t thinking about whether or not I was going to get paid. I wanted to know if I was going to get that jersey with my name on the back …
I packed my stuff up and put on my suit, and when the game ended, a few of the guys came off the ice and into the locker room to stretch out. They thanked me again for coming, and I wished them luck at their next game in Winnipeg. I walked out to the parking lot — without a souvenir jersey — and told Rick and Joe how it all went down.
Just like that, I got in my car, left the rink and I was back to a normal reality, stuck in postgame traffic. I ended up picking up my night right where it left off before I got the call from Kirk.
I drove over to Grizz’s house.
When I walked in, Grizz and my cousin Carlos were watching the football game that came on after the Wild game. Grizz was sitting in his chair drinking his home brew, and Carlos was on Twitter. He looked up and said, “Dude, people are talking about you left and right. Your stats from college are all over the place. They all wanna know who you are.” And he started reading what people were tweeting about me. It’s pretty crazy how fast the whole thing spread.
I always say that when I get to skate with the Wild, it’s like living the dream without the money. I’m not an NHL player. But I get to skate with NHL guys. Not a lot of guys can say that. Sure, it would have been a dream come true to play some minutes in an NHL game, and I’m still waiting for that. But for now, I’m honored to have had the opportunity, and I’ll go back to watching the games at Grizz’s and even from behind the glass at the Xcel Center every now and then.
In fact, on Saturday, a bunch of my buddies and I are planning on going to the game against Pittsburgh. And I’ll probably end up driving, so I can make sure I have my gear with me. You know … just in case.