Of all the ways to return after nearly missing an entire season.
Imagine a chart-topping band needing to use a fan who's really good at Rock Band as their drummer. Or a NFL team putting an offensive lineman under centre after running out of healthy quarterbacks. Then you would have some idea of what happened in St. Catharines, Ont., on Sunday after the Erie Otters' only available goalie, Ramis Sadikov, was injured after being run by a Niagara IceDogs opponent just two minutes into the game.
With their other goaltender, Devin Williams, sitting out with a head injury he suffered two days earlier, centre Connor Crisp was drafted to go in goal. Crisp, gamely jamming his wide double-E feet into Sadikov's narrow goalie skates ("my coach said if I wore player skates, I'd break my foot"), allowed 13 goals on 45 shots in a 13-4 loss to Niagara. IceDogs management was hardly amused, with owner Bill Burke calling it "brutal" that the last-place Otters did not dress a backup goalie. But no one could fault Crisp for taking one for the team. His valiant effort led to him being named the game's first star and a trending topic on Twitter, with some joking that the goalie-deficient Toronto Maple Leafs should draft him.
"On Saturday they told me I was coming on the road and that I would be the backup goalie," Crisp, who just resumed full-contact practices with the Ontario Hockey League team and was itching to get in a game, said from the Otters' team bus. "Me and the guys were laughing about it on the bus coming up. Then just after warmups, Mikey [Hildenbrand], our equipment manager, made up a jersey for me.
"The next thing I know I'm skating out to centre. It was funny at first and then it just escalated from there."
Crisp had just found a spot to watch the game when Niagara's Alex Friesen barreled into Sadikov 1:45 into the contest. While Sadikov received medical attention, Crisp's cell phone buzzed. Before he knew it, he was donning Sadikov's gear, including his Popeye-motif goalie mask, to face one of the highest-scoring teams in junior hockey. The IceDogs have four skaters who were on Team Canada at the world junior hockey championship, including New York Islanders first-rounder pick Ryan Strome, who ended up scoring five goals. Conversely, the Otters are in last place.
Erie Otters goalie Ramis Sadikov"I was just hanging out in the stands and I saw Rammer [Sadikov] got run and I got a call from [Otters assistant general manager] Dave Brown saying, 'Are you ready?' " Crisp said. "I was like, 'Seriously?' And he says, 'Oh no, I think he'll be fine." And the next thing I know he's being helped off the ice.
"I pretty much sprinted to the change room and started gearing down. [Coach] Robbie [Ftorek] walked in and I asked, 'Am I going in?' He said, 'We need a goalie.' I've never been dressed up as a goalie before. I had no idea what I was doing. I had [teammate] Dane Fox strapping one pad on, our equipment manager doing up the other one, the goalie coach telling me what to do. It was a hectic 15 minutes of getting dressed. I've never been so nervous in my life.
"As soon as I got the nod from the coach, I was like, 'Jesus, this is becoming so real right now.' As soon as I stepped on the ice and could barely skate at first with the goalie skates on, I was thinking this could be a long day."
Once play resumed after a 20-minute delay, the IceDogs scored on their first three shots against him and seemed to ease off the throttle. There were a couple of 3-on-2 rushes when Strome, one of the best attackers in junior hockey, seemed to very slowly bring the puck over centre ice before passing off as he entered the Erie zone. However, the Otters were only down a goal after the first period. Realizing they couldn't lay back, Niagara came out harder in the second period and soon enough, the score mounted. The IceDogs players declined to raise their sticks after scoring.
Trended on Twitter
Meantime, Crisp became a hot social media topic as hockey fans buzzed about the oddity of a skater being conscripted as a goaltender. Meantime, other junior hockey players shared their solidarity. Lethbridge Hurricanes captain Brody Sutter was envious ("The things I would do to play goalie for a game"). Kamloops Blazers star defenceman Austin Madaisky called Crisp his hero.
"I don't have Twitter, but all the guys were really excited and telling me about it," the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Crisp said. "I thought that was pretty cool once they explained to me what trending meant. It was a pretty cool experience overall.
"I had a ton of of texts when I checked my phone after the game," the 17-year-old native of Alliston, Ont., added. "My parents [Sheila and Steve Crisp] loved it. They went over to a friend's house to watch the game when they heard when I was in goal and when I called them they were cracking up about it."
Understandably, Crisp, who told The Canadian Press he had only been a goalie in road hockey, let in a few goals on shots he would have liked to have back. Granted, the IceDogs' complaints about Erie not having a second goalie might ring truer if first-liners Strome and Freddie Hamilton had not been on the ice to score the final goal with less than four minutes to play. After the IceDogs reached double digits, TV Cogeco Ontario commentator Ed Burkholder expressed sympathy for Crisp by saying, "He must feel like his pants are down in front of 3,000 people."
Crisp got a standing ovation at game's end. IceDogs players skated over and tapped his pads, while the Niagara goalies, Chris Festarini and Mark Visentin, came over and offered some compliments. Crisp, actually sounding no worse for wear, credited his teammates for playing hard in a no-win situation.
"[Adam] Pelech and [Troy] Donnay were blocking shots left, right and centre," he said. "The guys were behind me 100 per cent. It got embarrassing at points and you feel like you're letting the guys down and hurting their statistics. I know Pelech took a hard one off the ankle and is in a lot of pain right now.
"I have so much respect for goalies now. By the end of the second period my feet were just killing me."
A pro team which is hard up for a goalie can usually find a local amateur netminder. For instance, in 2008, the Washington Capitals dressed their website producer, Brett Leonhardt, a former NCAA Division III 'tender, for a game. Some Canadian NHL teams have called upon a goalie from a local university squad.
A major junior team has to find someone available who is 16 to 20 years old, not engaged with her/his current team and not planning on playing at a U.S. college. Dressing for one Canadian Hockey League game means forfeiting NCAA eligibility. But as much as this is something that has not happened in many years, it's probably something that shouldn't happen again. This was actually the second time this year the Otters have had only goalie suited up.
"I'm sure the league is going to think of something that you have to have a backup goalie or at least one on standby," Crisp said.
Meantime, come Monday it's back to the business of trying to crack the lineup at his full-time position. Crisp said his shoulder held up well.
"Everything felt great when I was out there in goal, so I imagine it will when I get in there as a skater," he said.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photos: Joel Smith Photography; video: TV Cogeco Ontario).