The greatest thing about winning the most beautiful trophy in sports is your name gets engraved on it. Some guys get really greedy about it. Jean Beliveau is on it 17 times, while Raymond Bourque had to play 22 years just to get his name on it once. Jacques Plante has his name on the trophy five times, and it’s spelled differently every time. If you play 40 regular-season games or just one in the Stanley Cup final, you and your kids and your grandkids can go to the Hockey Hall of Fame and run your fingers over each letter in your name. In many ways, it’s a brotherhood. It’s a place where Danny Schock can be immortalized in the same place as Bobby Orr, where Larry Melnyk can co-exist with Wayne Gretzky, where Mario Lemieux and Jeff Chychrun get equal billing. This is one place where they don’t really ask either how or how many.
When Louise St-Jacques gets around to punching the names of the winners of the 2018-19 Stanley Cup later this summer, letter by letter, she’ll eventually arrive at the fourth one on the list, just after ‘IVAN BARBASHEV’ and before ‘SAMMY BLAIS.’ She will pound ‘JORDAN BINNINGTON’ into the silver and nickel alloy and even though it will eventually come off one day, the way Maurice Richard’s and Gordie Howe’s and Bobby Hull’s did when the top ring was replaced last summer, that won’t be for another 64 years, which will take him to sometime around his 90th birthday.
Perhaps by then we’ll know Jordan Binnington a little better. As he skated around with the Stanley Cup over his head on a late spring night in Boston, we all knew about his story. But we didn’t really get to know him, because he didn’t allow us. He played a little cat-and-mouse with questioners who wanted to be let in, but that was about as far as it went. “I like the mystery of it,” he said. “Keep people wondering.”
The red-headed stepchild that it seemed nobody wanted a couple of years ago had finally scaled the top of the mountain, and it seemed to take him forever to get there. Through it all he was placed on waivers by the Blues, sent to the minor-league affiliate of another organization because they had no place for him on their own, and called up to the NHL in December only because St. Louis was a complete mess and had an opportunity to get backup goalie Chad Johnson’s $1.75-million cap hit off the books.
That’s an amount of money some guys in this league have stranded in their couch cushions, but it matters when you’re the Blues and you’re the 31st-best team in a 31-team league. By calling him up to the NHL, the team got a warm body to sit on the bench and more playing time in the minors for Ville Husso, the fair-haired child of the organization.
But then something happened. The overnight sensation hidden in plain sight pulled himself off the scrap heap and started winning games. The momentum built and Binnington rode it, backstopping the Blues into the playoffs and then through the first three rounds, which put Gloria on a continual loop in St. Louis. Forget that Gloria is the 1982 Laura Branigan remake of a 1979 Umberto Tozzi song whose rewritten lyrics reflect a star-crossed lover going off the deep end. The story goes, five members of the Blues were watching an NFL playoff game at a pub in Philadelphia Jan. 6 when the DJ played Gloria during a commercial break. A patron yelled ‘Keep playing Gloria’ and the DJ did and the crowd loved it. The Blues in attendance found it amusing, because the pop hit was a relic from two generations ago. The players decided they should play it after their wins and before you knew it, 11 consecutive victories later, Gloria replaced Runaround Sue as the St. Louis win song. The first win of that streak was the Blues defeating the Flyers 3-0 in Binnington’s first NHL start, at 25. That win gave the Blues 38 points, three more than last-place Ottawa, two more than the Flyers and one more than Los Angeles. And it started one of the most unlikely stories in NHL history, both for the Blues and Binnington.
Both of them captured the imagination of a fan base that went from watching another lost season to showing up in the streets of St. Louis 50,000 strong, some of them wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Just one before I die” for Game 6 when the Blues had the chance to clinch their first Stanley Cup in 52 years on home ice.
You’ve got to be bold when people aren’t giving you the benefit of the doubt. I went that route and I believed in myself
– Jordan Binnington
In the Midwest, Binnington’s story was compared to that of Kurt Warner, an undrafted journeyman who went from bagging groceries for $5.50 an hour to the Arena Football League to NFL Europe and back to the NFL, where he led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title in 1999 en route to two MVP awards and a Hall of Fame career. Binnington had no idea who Warner was, because of course he didn’t. “Sorry,” he said, with his usual economy of words. “But it sounds like a pretty awesome story.”
Binnington’s is as well, but it’s not exactly rags to riches. First, it’s more along the lines of hand-me-downs. Second, the riches haven’t come yet, but that should be taken care of this summer when Binnington either signs a massive long-term contract or gets a healthy bridge deal in arbitration.
Yes, Binnington played 205 games in the AHL, but Corey Crawford played 245 before catching on with the Chicago Blackhawks, and look how that turned out. We’re hardly looking at Johnny Bower or Tim Thomas 2.0 here. Binnington is 25, not 125. He was a second-round pick in the OHL and a third-rounder in the NHL. He won an OHL championship, was named the most outstanding goaltender in the Memorial Cup, he played for Canada’s world junior team and played in an AHL All-Star Game. That doesn’t happen by accident. “So he’s played a few years in the minors,” said Dale DeGray, GM of the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, where Binnington played four seasons. “Honestly, I sit there and I go, ‘Whoop dee doo.’ Good for Jordan. Good for somebody finally giving him an opportunity. Maybe more goalies should do that, so when they get a chance, they don’t have a two- or three-year career, they have a 12-year career.”
But it’s still a pretty good yarn, and here it is, accompanied by some of the lyrics from the Blues’ now-famous theme song:
Was it something that he said? All the voices in your head calling, Gloria?
Regardless of whatever obstacles were placed in front of him, the voices in Jordan Binnington’s head continued to tell him he was better than they thought. That was why when the Blues tried to send him to the ECHL in 2017 after Husso outplayed him, he exercised an option in his contract that said he could not be assigned to the lower league without his permission and instead went on loan to the AHL’s Providence Bruins. He worked his way back into the organization, and just before he was called up, Binnington texted Blues assistant GM Bill Armstrong with the message: “I’m ready.”
The Blues needed almost five full seasons to figure out what they had in Binnington, and, for whatever reason, this was the moment he was going to be decisive. In a surprise move, Binnington was called up Dec. 10, one day after a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Vancouver. If the Blues had known how good Binnington would be, they would have put him in the net sooner. But they didn’t, and he continued to back up with two mop-up appearances for Jake Allen before getting his first start almost a month later. “I was confident, I wanted to put myself out there,” said Binnington of his text to Armstrong. “You’ve got to be bold when people aren’t giving you the benefit of the doubt. I went that route, and I believed in myself and wanted to give myself an opportunity to be a part of the solution because I knew things weren’t going well up here.”
Whether it was here or somewhere else, I believed I was preparing myself for what was to come
– Jordan Binnington
There were times when the voices in Binnington’s head were telling him other things. Things such as, “Hey pal, you have a bachelor’s party/wedding/golf tournament to attend this weekend, so maybe it’s OK to blow off a workout. Let loose and live a little. You’ll catch up later.” In that respect, Binnington was not unlike a lot of other gifted kids his age. Kids like Connor McDavid and Carey Price and Carter Hart come into the NHL as teenagers with a maturity that belies their years. Others turn pro and they’re clueless about what it truly takes. Binnington was probably somewhere in between. But the most important thing was that he had the capacity to learn, something he did with his summer goaltending coach, Andy Chiodo. The talent was always there, but it was a matter of aligning everything together. “Part of it is not knowing,” Chiodo said. “You want to have structure in your life, structure in your training, have another level of structure in your game, and sometimes you just don’t know how to get there. He’s hungry and competitive, and he really wanted to find that. He’s been on a journey the past couple of years really searching for that.”
After that first game, when he pitched a shutout in his first start in the NHL, the Blues didn’t know exactly what to think. NHL players are in such a bubble and so concerned with their own performances that they often have no idea what’s going on in the minors. This kid shows up and you’re languishing in last place, so you’re not going to go poking around to find out what makes the kid tick. At this point, you’re drowning and you’re grasping for a life preserver. After that first game against Philadelphia, Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo had no idea whether Binnington was a stopgap measure or the answer to all their problems. “We didn’t get a whole lot of information back from him, but that’s just the way he is,” Pietrangelo said. “It’s always one of those wait-and-see scenarios. We waited and we waited and nothing changed, so we were OK with that problem.”
The voices probably came back to talk to Binnington after Game 3 of the final when he was pulled for the first time in his NHL career. Blues fans had waited 49 years for this moment, a Stanley Cup game on home ice, only to see their goalie give up five goals on 19 shots in a 7-2 drubbing. Three of those goals came on three power-play opportunities on three shots. The Bruins feasted on the rookie, and it looked as though the armor had been pierced. But as he had done previously in the playoffs, Binnington came back in the next game and treated it as if it owed him money, displaying his calm demeanor and methodically beating the Bruins 4-2.
To that point, it was the most important game in the history of the Blues and in Binnington’s career, until it was supplanted by Game 5. When asked how he managed to regroup and come up with that performance after such a disastrous outing, he turned his head to his inquisitor and said two words: “Same old.” He had the same look he had on his face in late February when he was in the midst of leading the Blues to a streak in which they won 13 of 15 games. He was asked if he was nervous and he replied, “Do I look nervous? There’s your answer.” The Blues will probably be able to pay Binnington next season with the revenues they generate from their “Do I look nervous” T-shirts alone.
Gloria, don’t you think you’re fallin’? If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?
The first thing you need to know is that every player who’s in the minors thinks he’s getting a raw deal. Jordan Binnington was no different. Nobody who plays in any league below the NHL is being treated unfairly, largely because regardless of what your level of talent is, you are playing in the league where you belong.
It’s like a team’s performance. No matter how good you think you are, you are what your record says you are. The record said the Blues were awful and Binnington’s five-year run in the AHL was where he belonged. From time immemorial, there has been a search on for that GM or coach who refuses to assemble his best lineup because he has it in for a certain player and he has yet to be found.
That being said, the years were starting to pile up for Binnington. And the worst part of it was he was moving down the depth chart, not up. Husso was the No. 1 goalie for the San Antonio Rampage, the Blues’ AHL affiliate, to start the year. But in true Binnington fashion, he took the net and kept it. Even though Husso was hurt at the time of the call-up, Binnington was next man up because he was playing so well. More than anything, it illustrates the fine line that exists between the best league in the world and the ones below it, a line that is even more slender when it comes to goaltending.
DeGray, Binnington’s GM in major junior, should know. He spent 17 years as a pro, only two of them in the NHL. “In the minors, it’s about putting the time in,” DeGray said. “And I know everybody thinks when they’re there that they’re getting screwed. But the thing you always have to remember is that every single year, there’s a new crop of studs that are coming through that are going to be put in front of you. Not only do you have to maintain a better level of play than all the guys you’ve come in with, now you’ve got to prove you’re better than the kids who are coming through.”
The biggest thing with him is he keeps us in every single game and he bounces back every single time. Every single time
– Colton Parayko on Binnington
Remember a guy by the name of Bill Houlder? He was an offensive defenseman drafted by Washington in 1985 and spent six years bouncing between the NHL and the minors. “He used to say, ‘Digger, I’m the most f—in’ underpaid defenseman in the AHL, I’m the most underpaid player in minor-pro hockey,’ ” DeGray said.
Then came manna from heaven in the form of the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Ducks in 1993. The Ducks plucked Houlder from Buffalo in the expansion draft and offered him a three-year deal at $300,000 a year. The previous season he had played with DeGray for San Diego of the defunct International League. Both were offensive defensemen – DeGray had 82 points, Houlder 72. Houlder called DeGray a 2:30 in the morning telling him about the Ducks’ offer and how he was contemplating turning it down in an effort to get more money. “I said ‘Here’s what I’m going to tell you,’ DeGray said. “ ‘They probably have a list of 15 defensemen and they’ve come to your name and this is what they’ve offered you. I’m going to guarantee you this. If Dale DeGray’s name is next on the list and they offer me that, I will tell them as soon as they offer it to me, ‘When do you want me to show up?’ He called me two days later to tell me he signed with the Ducks.”
Houlder, who had played 111 NHL games in six seasons to that point, went on to play 735 more games in the big leagues and never saw the minors again. Career earnings: $8.5 million.
There is never one thing that turns a player’s career, but Chiodo remembers one of the hallmark moments very, very clearly. It came on a hazy Thursday night last July when some of the BioSteel players got together for their weekly game at St. Michael’s College School Arena. It’s a beautiful throwback barn with perfect ice in mid-town Toronto, a place where there’s barely enough room on the walls to accommodate pictures of all the players who have gone on to play in the NHL.
It was in that rink that many NHL dreams germinated and where, as Chiodo recalls it, Binnington’s was revived. It was the first game of the summer for the BioSteel players, including Tyler Seguin and Tom Wilson. “It was incredible, the performance he had,” Chiodo said. “It was his first game of the summer, and it mattered to him. There was something special and a lot of guys took notice. He had everybody talking. There was something different in that game. It looked like some of the performances he’s had this year.”
So much of dealing with being stuck in the minors is how a player deals with it. When you accept that there are probably three or four guys in every organization who are stuck in the same situation and you decide you’re going to play your way out of it, that makes all the difference. When Binnington didn’t have the net, he wanted it. And when he got it, he did everything he could to keep it. A lot of goalies Binnington’s age have already moved on from the organization that drafted them. So when Binnington showed up with the Blues in December, he knew he was at a crossroads, but he had some level of control. “Whether it was here or somewhere else,” Binnington said, “I believed I was preparing myself for what was to come.”
I think you’re headed for a breakdown, so be careful not to show it.
Did you know that in his first OHL game, Jordan Binnington allowed nine goals? The night was Sept. 17, 2009, at the Barrie Molson Centre. It was two months after Binnington’s 16th birthday and the first game of the season for both teams. The Barrie Colts torched the Attack and Binnington for a nine-spot on 48 shots. Luke Pither, an overager who played this season for the Nottingham Panthers in the British Elite League, personally took Binnington out to the woodshed by scoring four goals on him. Of course, he was 20 at the time, four years older than Binnington. “I had seven goals in my first two games,” Pither recalled. “(Binnington) was part of the reason I was named OHL player of the week.”
Binnington lost the net, coming in to clean up for the starter a couple of times before getting his next start, and his first OHL victory, more than a month later in a 5-4 shootout win over a Windsor team that included Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Cam Fowler and Austin Watson. “I’ll never forget it,” DeGray said. “We lost 9-1 and the only thing NHL scouts wanted to talk about was how much Jordan battled when the game was 7-1, 8-1 and 9-1 to keep the next shot out of the net.”
It was clearly an omen of things to come. Binnington continued to battle with varying degrees of success, and some setbacks, in major junior. By the time he graduated, he had played in a Memorial Cup and was Canada’s No. 1 goalie at the world juniors. Even in the Stanley Cup final, Binnington had to battle, no more so than in Game 7 when he faced a barrage of Bruins chances in the first period and turned every one of them away.
When he was pulled in Game 3, it seemed as if his magical run was done. Then in Game 6, with the Stanley Cup in the building and a fandom waiting to have its dreams realized, he let in a bouncer from the blueline. “The biggest thing with him is he keeps us in every single game,” said Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, “and he bounces back every single time. Every single time. He just shows up, and that’s the most impressive part, every single game he brings it.”
Leave them hangin’ on the line, oh-oh-oh, calling Gloria
Gloria, I think they got your number
I think they got the alias that you’ve been living under.
There are some things we know about Jordan Binnington. He switched from forward to goalie when he was eight, and the first shot his coach took on him in the first practice hit him in the head. He never flinched. We know that he’s poised and relaxed, and we really know that he’s all business. We know he’s very good at reading plays and that he plays the puck like a seasoned veteran. “There are times he’ll throw out a pokecheck, there are times when he’ll make a save in an unorthodox way,” Chiodo said. “There’s improvisation in his game, and there’s not much cookie-cutter about him. He’s not a robot.”
He became the first rookie goalie in NHL history to win 16 playoff games. And, of course, his calmness is legendary. “Eddie Belfour had that, too,” said Blues GM Doug Armstrong. “He has a lot of Eddie in him, just in the sense that he believes in himself. And he’s not surprised when he has success. I’m not putting him in Eddie Belfour’s category yet, but I see that in him.”
And that just about covers it. You could see as the final went on that he was growing more and more tired of the redemption story being rehashed. The more people tried to draw things out of him, the more he closed up. But he did leave some crumbs. The day before Game 6, he talked about how great it was that he walked into a St. Louis restaurant and received a free meal when one of the staff members recognized him. It was a place called Brio Tuscan Grille, where executive chef Travis Brooks let his manager know that Binnington was in the house and they might want to pick up his tab. “When people come in, whether it’s Mr. Binnington or his teammates, we want to make sure they can enjoy themselves here like an ordinary person,” Brooks said. “We just thanked him for everything he’s been doing and took care of his meal. He’s done a lot for the city. He was a very kind person. He was very appreciative and super polite.”
All right, maybe we’re onto something. Somebody then asked about the game-day routine. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “Whatever I’m feelin’, I’m feelin’. I got no answer for you there.”
I’m not putting him in Eddie Belfour’s category yet, but I see that in him
– Blues GM Doug Armstrong on Binnington
Another inquisitor takes a stab by following up with a day-in-the-life query. “Great question,” Binnington said. “Just come to the rink. Either you practice or it’s an optional and you feel it out. Then you eat, you have a nap and you go to the rink. It’s pretty simple, you know. Watch video, watch yourself, watching my own video, so there you go. Way to dig.”
When the clock ticked off at the end of Game 7, Binnington threw his stick and then his gloves before he was bombarded by teammates. While most of the Blues hung around the ice with family and friends and soaked in the moment, Binnington was about as economical with his time as he was with his words. He hoisted the Cup, took a few pictures, did a couple of television interviews and talked briefly again about his non-linear journey to hockey’s highest pinnacle. He joked at one point that he hadn’t done an upper-body workout in two months, so lifting it was actually a little difficult. “We’re champs,” he said. “That’s it. I’m out of here.”
And just like that, Jordan Binnington skated away, exiting the scene as quickly and mysteriously as he entered it last December. Perhaps one day we will all get to know him better. After all, his body of work over the last little while suggests that after years of toiling away in obscurity, he’s here to stay. It will be fun to see where all this goes.