University of Toronto goalies get taste of the big league as Leafs emergency backups

TORONTO – Who says Canadian university hockey doesn’t lead to the NHL?

Two University of Toronto goalies got a taste of the big leagues this week, summoned by the Maple Leafs as emergency backups. It made for some pretty special memories for Brett Willows and Michael Nishi.

Willows got a call to get to the Air Canada Centre pronto Thursday night after James Reimer was forced to leave 32 seconds into an NHL game against Carolina. Jonathan Bernier took over in goal, with Willows waiting backstage after getting to the rink and suiting up.

A nervous Nishi seemed in awe Friday after taking part in a Leafs practice that saw a healthy Reimer and Bernier both take part.

“It felt great out there,” said the 19-year-old Nishi, his lip trembling as he was surrounded by reporters in the Leafs dressing room at the club’s practice facility. “It was a very great experience. I’m happy to be here, I’m honoured.”

Nishi skipped an English study session to face shots from the likes of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” he said of facing NHL-calibre shooters.

Asked who had the hardest shot, Nishi paused and said: “I’ll have to see the shots first.”

A Toronto native whose family has Maple Leaf season tickets, Nishi grew up as a “on and off” member of Leaf Nation.

The whirlwind started for the U of T goalies when Reimer went down.

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Willows, a Habs fan, was out with some teammates after dinner when he got a call from Varsity Blues coach Darren Lowe.

“He told me that one of their goalies went down and that they needed me,” Willows said in a U of T release. “I sprinted down Bloor Street in the next 45 seconds and we jumped in the truck and got down there right away.”

A third-year kinesiology major, Willows recorded a career-high 50-save performance in a 7-3 win over the Ryerson Rams on Wednesday night.

Willows, a native of Rivers, Man., previously played for the Dauphin Kings in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

“What I dreamed about playing mini sticks in the basement just came true, Thanks @Maple Leafs for the hospitality,” tweeted the 23-year-old.

Nishi, a first-year arts and sciences student also got a call from Lowe, telling him he might be needed for the Leafs’ practice in the morning.

Nishi has spent time with the Windsor Spitfires, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Ottawa 67s and Guelph Storm in the OHL and Gatineau Olympiques in the QMJHL.

He has yet to play for the Varsity Blues this season. Toronto was 2-1-0 going into Friday’s game against Western.

Canadian Interuniversity Sport hockey alumni who spent time in the NHL include Steve Rucchin (Western Ontario), Cory Cross and Randy Gregg (Alberta), Mathieu Darche (McGill), Bracken Kearns (Calgary), Mike Ridley (Manitoba) and P.J. Stock (St. Francis Xavier).