Call Of Duty

Emergency Backup Goaltenders Remain Ready To Step Into The NHL Spotlight
By: 
Jason Kates

When Scott Foster stepped out of the shadows of anonymity and into the NHL spotlight this past March, it sent the hockey community into a frenzy.

It was early in the third period of a game against the Winnipeg Jets when Chicago Blackhawks backup goaltender Collin Delia went down with an injury. The call was quickly placed to Foster, who came on in relief to stop all seven shots he faced to seal the win. 

It was a rare moment in the sun for the 36-year-old former college goaltender turned accountant, who was used to facing local beer league shooters at Johnny's Ice House than the top players in the game. 

For fellow backup goalie Alex Bjerk, it was a momentous occasion seeing one of their own become the talk of the league, even if it were only for a day.

"I didn't get to see it until I got home and went on social media and it was all over," said Bjerk, who is currently an USA Hockey goalie development coordinator with the Nevada Amateur Hockey Association and also serves as the emergency goalie  for the Vegas Golden Knights. 

A graphic designer and goalie coach for the Las Vegas Jr. Golden Knights by day, the 29-year-old Minnesotan admitted jealousy set in when he saw the attention Foster was being given.

"I wanted it to be me," Bjerk said. "Being a hockey player my whole life I'm a competitive person and it was an exciting moment for your average Joe. It's cool when one of us could get in the spotlight like that, even for the little time that there is."

The NHL rulebook opens the door for an "average Joe" to live out his NHL dreams. According to Section 5.3 of the collective bargaining agreement, "In regular league and playoff games, if both listed goalkeepers are incapacitated, that team shall be entitled to dress and play any available goalkeeper who is eligible. This goalkeeper is eligible to sit on the player's bench, in uniform."

Some organizations have tryouts for the position, but for Bjerk, it was all about being in the right place at the right time that landed him the emergency backup for the league's newest expansion team. 

While helping with a commercial promo shoot for Cirque du Soleil, Bjerk used his connection with Gabe Gauthier, the then-hockey director for the Jr. Golden Knights, to inquire      if Vegas had someone waiting in the wings if necessary. Fortunately for Bjerk, "there's not a big pool for men's goalies" scattered along the Vegas Strip.

Four days after that, Bjerk's phone rang with the news he was hoping for.

"I got a call from our senior VP asking if I'd be interested and we talked about some details and it all kind of happened pretty quick and unexpected," said Bjerk, who played two seasons at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. "I was elated to jump on board and the rest is history." 

While Bjerk used connections in his quest to becoming an EBUG, the same can't be said for Zane Kalemba, the USA Hockey goaltending development coordinator for the Atlantic District.

After the New Jersey Devils posted an online application to their website and social media channels for the position, Kalemba was one of around 400 applicants interested in the position. From there, the list shrunk to four, with his previous experience at the professional and college level landing him a spot as EBUG.        

              

Following an injury to Winnipeg Jets netminder Steve Mason in a practice and his replacement Michael Hutchinson running into travel issues before a March game versus the Devils, the former four-year starter at Princeton University was the next man up.

"It was pretty awesome, I got a call around 1:30 in the afternoon just saying be ready because Mason got injured in the pregame warmup and they couldn't guarantee that Hutchinson would fly in in time with all of the delays,"  Kalemba recalled. 

"I got dressed after the short warmup and I went out on the ice for the on-ice warmup with the Jets so it was pretty amazing."

With the element of unknown a major part of the equation, both Bjerk and Kalemba touched on the importance of the preparation needed to stay in shape and focused in case their services are ever needed.

"You're always sort of ready as a goalie, whatever level you're playing at you're on the bench ready to hop on," Kalemba said. "I was able to skate with a few men's leagues teams here and there just to stay in shape. In the playoffs I actually skated with the Devils' Black Aces for a few days so it was good just to keep the fitness up and get a daily sweat going."

"It's a constant juggling act," added Bjerk, who uses his position as goalie coach to keep up his fitness. "I try to get extra ice when I can and try to stay focused in that way. The other part of it is staying sharp mentally." 

Although the chances that they play in an NHL game are low, Bjerk is fixated on one thing: giving back to the game that has given so much to him.

"We get to go to all these games, we get to watch these guys every night, nobody else in town can really say that," he said. "I feel like a part of that family culture that the team has here. All the guys are super friendly. I know my part, and I'm happy doing it for what I'm supposed to be doing." 

 

Issue: 
2018-06

Poll

Which is the best NHL rivalry?: