NEW YORK, N.Y. – Of all the things Tom Fenton had to do before heading home to Canada for Christmas, suiting up for an NHL game didn’t crack the list.
Not even in his wildest dreams.
Little did he know while getting a holiday haircut Thursday that the wheels were already in motion to give him his one day of NHL glory. And that’s all it was for the former college goalie. Fenton, a native of Sarnia, Ont., earned the story of a lifetime, but not one penny of pay from the desperate Phoenix Coyotes.
The 26-year-old graduate student and hockey coach from Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., couldn’t care less.
Fenton signed a one-day amateur contract to be an emergency backup for the Coyotes. He never got into the game—a 4-3 shootout loss to the New York Rangers—but he was the most sought after interview subject during and after it.
“Oh, I don’t know. I just signed the paper,” Fenton said when asked if he would be paid. “I think it’s like a tryout contract, so I’m not even sure if there is anything involved there.”
Fenton found the spotlight when Ilya Bryzgalov, the Coyotes’ No. 1 goalie, came down with the flu Thursday, hours before a game at Madison Square Garden. That left the starting assignment in the hands of Jason LaBarbera and created a void behind him. With no time to summon another backup goalie from their AHL affiliate in San Antonio, the Coyotes were left scrambling.
“Somehow my name got thrown out there,” Fenton said after the game, still smiling broadly. “I got the call, and I guess I just called back quicker than the other guys.”
Once Bryzgalov was ruled out of the game, Frank Effinger—the Coyotes’ director of professional scouting—scurried to uncover some spare goalie to get the club through the second game of a six-game road trip. Ability was a secondary priority, because no one expected anyone but the veteran journeyman LaBarbera to handle the playing duties.
The first thought was to suit up goalie coach Sean Burke, but waiver rules and contract issues quickly quashed that plan. Burke, who won 324 games over 18 NHL seasons for eight franchises, would’ve had to be signed to a full-season deal and clear waivers to be eligible to play.
So Effinger, the winningest hockey coach Iona College history, reached out to one of his former players. When Effinger called Steve Ketchabaw—another former goalie—he was told Fenton was the perfect man for the job. About 2 p.m., Ketchabaw phoned Fenton, who was already involved in his haircut. So the call went unanswered.
Fenton called back and was asked by Ketchabaw if he wanted to play hockey that night. Fenton figured it was for a men’s club game and was shocked to learn the Coyotes were looking for him.
“Obviously, I didn’t believe him,” Fenton said. “I first thought everyone was just playing a big joke on me, a couple of my buddies playing a prank.”
Ketchabaw, the president of the Rye Rangers Youth Hockey Program, has known Fenton for about 18 months. Fenton serves as head of game operations and community relations at Manhattanville and is a volunteer coach for the men’s hockey team. He also assists the Rye Rangers, which put him in the forefront of Ketchabaw’s mind at the right time.
“If you had 100 kids to pick from, this is the kid you’d pick,” said Ketchabaw, sounding like a proud papa. “He totally deserves it.”
But still there were details to work out. Fenton had to be signed, sealed and delivered at the Garden by 5 p.m.—two hours before faceoff.
Once Fenton was convinced this was legit, he headed to Rye to get his goalie gear and then needed to find his way into Manhattan. His car was out of service, so he made a frantic phone call to his roommate, who had already headed home for the holidays, to ask if he could borrow his car.
Fenton, along with Ketchabaw and a couple of people from Manhattanville, got through rush-hour traffic and arrived in New York in time for a night no one expected. In fact, Fenton skipped a final exam for this once-in-a-lifetime chance.
“They basically said I have to get my butt down to MSG as soon as I can,” Fenton said.
Fenton’s goaltending experience consists of a four-year stint at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He won 14 of 81 games with a 3.87 goals-against average—including a 1-12-1 mark with a 3.60 GAA in the 2008-09 season.
When he strolled into the Coyotes’ dressing room with his equipment, the ribbing started in full force.
“One of them mentioned I have to change my stick immediately,” Fenton said. “I have a yellow stick from my college days, and they said that wasn’t going to fly. They quickly gave me a stick. There was a couple of more jabs.”
His pads and mask were given the OK. Fenton donned a No. 35 Coyotes sweater with his name on the back—a nameplate, not stitched—but his mask sported the No. 30 and the colours of his college club.
Although he and his new teammates knew he wouldn’t be with the Coyotes even as late as the time the bus left the Garden, for one night he was one of the guys. An NHLer for a few hours.
“It was good. It was fun,” Coyotes defenceman Derek Morris said. “We were all kind of a little bit confused as to what went on there, but he did a good job. He came in, he had a good attitude, he was fun to be around, he was quiet. He took it with a grain of salt and had a good time with it.”
Fenton was interviewed on both the Coyotes’ and Rangers’ telecasts and became an instant hockey sensation as the game went on. There was a brief moment when it appeared LaBarbera might have been injured, but any anxiety quickly passed.
“I wasn’t even trying to think about that,” Fenton said of the possibility of playing. “I was just trying to take everything all in. There was one point Barbs came across and made a pretty good save and he was kind of favouring his groin. I immediately started sweating on the bench.”
Until then, the only thing Fenton marvelled about was how good the ice was at the Garden.
“I wasn’t expecting that to be honest with you,” he said. “It was great. This whole place was electric. I know we always say that cliche, but once you’re out there, it’s a totally different experience. Words can’t really describe it.”
While unique, the situation isn’t unprecedented.
Two years ago, Washington Capitals goalie Jose Theodore was injured before a game, and Semyon Varlamov couldn’t get to the arena in time for the start to back up Brent Johnson. The Capitals used Brett Leonhardt, a producer for the team’s website, to stand in. Leonhardt practiced with the club sometimes as a spare goalie and turned that into an even shorter NHL stint than Fenton.
Leonhardt was gone from the bench during the first period when Varlamov arrived.
Unsure earlier in the night if he would be able to keep his Coyotes jersey, Fenton made sure to stuff it into his equipment bag.
That’s not all he carried out of the building dubbed “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
“It’s a great story just to go home with for Christmas and tell all my friends and family,” he said.