There’s an amazing movie out right now starring Mickey Rourke called The Wrestler.
It’s about a broken-down old wrestler coming to grips with his waning years in the sun and trying to repair some old emotional wounds, while still re-opening some physical ones in the ring.
It’s hard to think of pro athletes, with their innate talents and bags of money, being cast in any woe-is-me tales. However, if there is a hockey equivalent of The Wrestler, I have to believe it would be called The Backup.
And who better to play the role of a guy just trying to squeeze into his share of the spotlight than career understudy Manny Fernandez?
The 34-year-old is one of about 1,000 feel-good stories floating around Beantown these days. But despite the good vibes, it’s somehow fitting his tale of perseverance through injury the past couple of years is overshadowed by the story of Tim Thomas, journeyman extraordinaire turned viable Vezina candidate.
Fernandez came to Boston before the 2007-08 season after being bumped from Minnesota’s crease by Niklas Backstrom. He battled knee problems in his final year with the Wild and they followed him to Boston, where he played just four games for the Bruins last year before knee surgery ended his campaign in December of 2007.
With Thomas asserting himself as the No. 1 man and prospect Tuukka Rask being the heir apparent, Fernandez was, in some ways, the forgotten man among Boston’s masked men.
That’s not the case anymore. Through 19 games Fernandez had a 2.07 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage, the third- and fourth-best marks league-wide.
Needless to say, it’s been a long road back.
“Baby steps, I guess, is the best way I can describe it,” said Fernandez, whose latest challenge has been a nagging bout of back spasms. “I just practised as hard as I could and the rest has been a story about the team and how well we’ve played so far and how easy they’ve made our job.”
It’s always an interesting dynamic when two goalies are playing well enough to merit starts and Fernandez sees it as a motivating factor for both himself and Thomas.
“There’s a lot of respect between us and I think it just benefits the team that we got this little challenge in our game and we play (as well) as we can,” Fernandez said of his relationship with Thomas. “Usually that’s the case, one guy plays well and the other guy seems to be a little bit challenged, plays even better and that’s how it’s been and I think that and the team doing so well, I think that’s the big story this year.”
On two occasions in his career, it appeared Fernandez was about to become the No. 1 man in town. The first was during the 2005-06 campaign, when he played 58 games for Minnesota, the highest single-season total of his career. Fernandez split duty with Dwayne Roloson that year, but ‘Rolie’ was dealt to Edmonton at the ’06 trade deadline and Fernandez signed a contract extension with the Wild.
Then Backstrom came to town and one year later, Fernandez was in Boston looking for a fresh start.
The opportunity to be a starter was again there with the Bruins, but then the knee injury struck, Thomas came in and the B’s made the playoffs for the first time in the post-lockout era.
So, with unrestricted free agency about to hit in July, does Fernandez think about finding that situation where he’ll finally be the guy to get 60 starts as he enters the twilight of his career?
“Not really,” he calmly said. “At this point I just want to get by, through this season and see and put everything back in balance again. It hasn’t been easy these last two years for me, so right now my main focus is to help this team as much as I can with the few starts I do get and try and do the best I can. I’ll have plenty of time to think about that later.”
For now, he’ll keep playing the same role he’s grown accustomed to over a career as defined by watching as moving.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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