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Unusual Circumstances Have Helped Make Hockey Dreams Come True

Looking for a silver lining for all the fallout of the pandemic? Check out these nuggets of pure gold. They are proof that NHL (and AHL) dreams can come true. All it takes is a little blood, sweat, tears…and a spot to open up because of COVID protocol.
Joe Snively

Let the record show that six days before Christmas, at 7:58 of the first period of his first NHL game, Joe Snively went from being a Little Cap to a Big Cap. That was the precise moment, in a game against the Los Angeles Kings, that Connor McMichael completed a give-and-go on a pass from Snively that resulted in a Capitals goal and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. And if not for the pantyhose industry, it might never have materialized. 

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In 1958, Richard Snively Sr. was just starting his career as a textile executive at Burlington Industries in Burlington, N.C. Six weeks after his son Richard Jr. was born, the elder Snively took what was supposed to be a temporary gig at the company’s women’s hosiery factory in Lachine, Que., when the guy who ran the factory had a heart attack. The company asked him to stay and he accepted, settling with his wife and infant son in Beaconsfield. Growing up in a suburb of Montreal in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup parades would follow “the usual route,” young Richard Snively took the hint. Although he was never good enough to play any higher than outdoor house-league hockey, he fell in love with the game. (His younger brother, David, who was born in Montreal, took up diving and had his Olympic dreams shattered when Canada joined the boycott of the 1980 Olympics.)

Richard loved the game so much, in fact, that when he became an optometrist and settled in Herndon, Va., he put his boys into the local hockey program and began coaching them. It wasn’t long before his son Joe showed himself as an elite player, good enough to join the Washington Little Caps AAA organization. “It was really cool having one of the best teams in the league 30 minutes away and to be able to go to the games,” Joe said. “I was a huge Caps fan. My favorite guy was (Nicklas) Backstrom. I still love to watch him. I love his passing ability and creativity.”

So much is made of Canadian kids from small towns who have to leave home young to chase their dreams, but that’s exactly what Snively did, going 1,200 miles northwest at the age of 16 to play for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. His play there earned him a spot at Yale, where he led the Bulldogs in scoring each of his four seasons. By the time he was ready to turn pro at 23, two-thirds of teams in the NHL were interested in signing him. He narrowed his choice down to five, then chose the Capitals.

So when the Capitals got hit hard by COVID-19, with Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Garnet Hathaway and Michael Sgarbossa landing in virus protocol, the organization rewarded Snively for his breakout season in the AHL with a call-up and an appearance on the fourth line. “I think this year I’m feeling pretty confident in my game, a lot more confident with the puck,” Snively said. “Just looking to make more plays and to showcase my skills and ability a little more. I’m definitely feeling more comfortable with the pro game, this being my third year. It’s been going well and it’s nice to produce.”

The Capitals called Snively up again in mid-January to replace Sgarbossa on the taxi squad, which meant whether or not he played for the team again this season would once again be dictated by COVID-19. By the end of January, Snively had gotten into one more game, counting another assist. When he was called up for the second time, Snively was leading the Hershey Bears by 10 points and was tied for third in AHL scoring, which is going to give the Capitals something to think about. The team should have no trouble keeping Snively, who becomes a restricted free agent with arbitration rights after this season. All the Capitals have to do is offer him a salary of $750,000 in the NHL and $90,000 in the minors to retain his rights.

But fuelled by his audition and his play this season, Snively may be developing into a late-blooming NHL player. At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, he will always have to answer questions about his size, but he’s doing everything he can to prove to the Capitals, and other NHL teams, that he can play a role in the best league in the world. Relatively inexpensive, reliable players who can move up and down are valuable parts of any organization. As far as what the future holds, Snively is not terribly consumed with it. “Obviously, the hometown story is cool,” he said, “but when it comes to playing in the NHL, I think anyone would play anywhere.”

In three years as a professional hockey player, Joe Murdaca has been an Enforcer, Ice Bear, Thunder, Nailer, Bobcat, Cyclone, Wing, Maverick, Gladiator and, most recently, a Canuck. By the time you read this, he might be back to being a Gladiator. But given the precarious and nomadic nature of minor-league backup goalies without contracts, he might very well be something else entirely.

As you might imagine, the journey to Murdaca becoming the sixth goalie on the Vancouver Canucks’ depth chart and playing the first two games of his AHL career was a long and winding one. “You want to hear the story, man?” asked the 23-year-old, who has played for 15 different teams in eight leagues since starting junior hockey. Hell, yeah, we want to hear it.

Before appearing in a weekend series for the Abbotsford Canucks in mid-January, Murdaca had already been with six teams in the ECHL and Federal League. His time in ‘The Fed’ was short, just two days with the Vermilion County Bobcats, who were looking for a place to practise because their arena in Danville, Ill., was occupied with a Festival of Trees. But on a stop to get some ice in Cincinnati on a road trip to Roanoke, the ECHL Cyclones watched him in practice and signed him to a professional-tryout contract.

“It’s been a grind, man,” said Murdaca, who won a Memorial Cup as a backup goalie with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan in 2018. “But I love the game. I’ve been playing hockey my entire life. I kind of opted out of the school route and I went pro. I always told myself that if I didn’t make the ‘A’ before I was 25 or 26, I’d look to go over to Europe or pick up a trade.”

The odyssey for Murdaca began when he was sitting at home in Niagara Falls, Ont., waiting for the phone to ring. And it did on a Saturday afternoon when the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers were looking for a goalie for their intrasquad game that night. So Murdaca grabbed his gear and drove five-and-a-half hours to Wheeling, W.Va., and played in a 2-1 shootout loss. The team released him a couple of days later, but allowed him to stay in the team apartment while he looked for another squad. On a bus heading to their season-opener in Fort Wayne, Nailers goalie Louis-Philip Guindon had a seizure and had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance. That left only one goalie, so the Nailers had a booster pick up Murdaca and drive him to Fort Wayne. When he got there, he discovered that a non-COVID bug was going through the team and the other goalie had it, which meant Murdaca was starting. “The coach says to me, ‘(Alex) D’Orio is puking right now and you’re going in,’ ” Murdaca said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been sitting in a car for five-and-a-half hours and I haven’t even had a decent pre-game meal.’ ”

Murdaca allowed four goals in that game, got released and ended up in Vermilion County, then caught on with Cincinnati. He played and got a win, then backed up for the next couple of weeks and was starting to feel like he might be able to stick around a while, then was dealt to Kalamazoo. After getting released there without playing a game, he got a call from Kansas City just before Christmas and he backed up a couple of games before, you guessed it, getting released. While he was home with his family at Christmas, the Atlanta Gladiators called and offered him a PTO. Later, he finally got into a game against the Florida Everblades and won in overtime. “It went to OT because of goalie interference on the goal,” Murdaca said. “Guy spears me, takes my stick away and they pass it to the front and score.”

Just when he thought things might be a little more permanent in Atlanta, the Vancouver Canucks called out of the blue, needing a someone to help fill their COVID-ravaged goaltending ranks. So off Murdaca went to Abbotsford for a two-game weekend series against San Diego. The intention was for him to back up Arturs Silovs, but that changed when Spencer Martin, who was backing up Michael DiPietro in Vancouver because both Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak were already in COVID protocol, tested positive on the Saturday morning. Thinking Silovs would have to go up to Vancouver the next day, the Canucks decided to put Murdaca in net for his first AHL start that night. Silovs never did go to Vancouver because he tested positive the next morning. Murdaca stopped 13 of 16 shots in his first game and picked up a win, and with a kid by the name of Talor Joseph backing him up as an EBUG, Murdaca stopped 19 of 21 shots and was named second star in another win.

Murdaca still doesn’t have a contract, nor is he likely to get one anytime soon. “I guess I keep doing it because I really don’t know what else I would do,” Murdaca said. “I just want to play hockey for as long as I can. And with this opportunity, who knows? I’ve got two wins, so I can play at this level.”

Kyle Shapiro

It struck Kyle Shapiro as a little odd that he was sitting there all tongue-tied and starstruck by Jack Hughes. Not only was he eight years older than the New Jersey Devils star, but Hughes is still young enough to play for the New Jersey Titans team Shapiro coaches in the North American Jr. League. “It was crazy that I could be starstruck like that,” Shapiro said. “He gets it. He has a lot of moxy to him, but he was never too big to interact with me. He’s just a dude who gets it.”

As one of the Devils’ EBUGs, Shapiro always has to be ready to suit up, either for the team he grew up idolizing or the opponent on the nights that he’s assigned to games. And while David Ayres is the patron saint of all EBUGs and has the best story of all-time, even he packed up his gear and went home after backstopping the Carolina Hurricanes to a win in 2020. Shapiro got a 72-hour whirlwind that gave him a glimpse of every facet of playing in the best league in the world, including a road trip.

With Jonathan Bernier and Nico Daws injured and Mackenzie Blackwood and Akira Schmid in COVID protocol, the Devils needed a goalie to back up Jon Gillies for their road game against the New York Islanders Jan. 13. So they called on Shapiro, a 28-year-old assistant coach with the Titans who played four years of NCAA Division III hockey. After practising with the Devils the day before the game, Shapiro jumped on the bus and travelled with the team to Long Island. He watched Gillies stop 22 of 25 shots in a 3-2 loss to the Islanders, then came back and took the net for a skills practice in which he faced Hughes and the Devils’ No. 1 power play.

“I think it’s a compliment to the hockey world and especially to the way the Devils are run,” Shapiro said. “They were great. They made me feel like I was one of them from the moment I got there. They could have brushed me off and said, ‘This kid is going to be here for a couple of days, and then he’s going to be out of our lives,’ but they did everything right.”

To be on an NHL bench was one thing, but what made the experience for the aspiring coach even more satisfying was the opportunity to be part of the Devils’ game-day routine and preparation. That included being in on all the meetings and watching how the Devils’ coaches divided their duties and approached their work, things he definitely plans to take back to his junior team. It was certainly a lot more involved than the usual EBUG experience, where he shows up for home games at about 5:30 p.m., then gets a free meal in the media room before taking his seat for the game. Shapiro is working 12 games this season. He usually brings his father with him, which is fitting since the two of them were in the stands for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final when the Devils defeated the Anaheim Ducks in 2003.

During the game against the Isles, Shapiro swallowed a little hard when Mat Barzal went hard to the crease and took the net off its moorings, forcing Gillies to avoid him. And again when Gillies had to jump over another Islanders forward. Knowing that he was possibly an awkward Gillies landing from becoming the next David Ayres, Shapiro held his breath and hoped his parents, aunts and uncles and players who were on hand would not have to see him play.

Even though he’s happy to continue serving as an EBUG for the Devils, Shapiro is definitely more comfortable behind the bench than on it. After finishing his college career in 2018, he tried to find work in minor-pro hockey, but nothing materialized. So he then tried to do the adult thing and find another job. But hockey kept pulling him back. The epiphany for him came a couple of weeks into a new job when he was sitting behind a desk and realized he really didn’t belong there. “It was a business thing with a credit card company,” he said. “I didn’t really understand much of it, to be honest with you. My brain has always been so locked into hockey. If I can’t do hockey, I don’t know how I’m going to make it in the next 30 or 40 years.”

When your wife’s aunts are still playing pro hockey at 43 and 38, it’s pretty easy to get yourself up and to the rink for practice at the age of 29. And Ethan Prow still gets as excited as he ever has to play hockey, but until this season, the dream seemed to be getting further away and not closer. For five years, Prow toiled in the AHL as a puck-moving defenseman in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers organizations, but the call to the NHL never came. And he began to wonder if it ever would.

“I think you’ve always got to hope, right?” Prow said. “I mean, that’s why you stay in (the AHL), to try to fulfill that dream of playing in the NHL. I’ve been trying to put good seasons together, trying to stack a few and hopefully it was coming. And I was kind of just able to stumble upon that opportunity this year.”

Ethan Prow

That opportunity came in late December when Sabres coach Don Granato and six players entered COVID protocol. In fact, Prow was originally called up from the Rochester Americans along with Mattias Samuelsson, who couldn’t play that night because he had also tested positive. It all started when Prow got a call in Rochester the morning of Dec. 29, telling him to grab his hockey bag and drive to Buffalo for a game against the New Jersey Devils that night. Not only did Prow play, logging almost 16 minutes with two hits and two blocked shots, he scored the first NHL goal of his career when he snuck in for a Victor Olofsson rebound.

The Sabres’ bench erupted and so did the Brodt family in Minnesota. When Prow was playing hockey at St. Cloud State University, he met Hanna Brodt, who was playing for the women’s team, and they fell in love and got married after college. If the Brodt name is familiar to you, it’s only because there are all kinds of them who either play or have played hockey in Minnesota. Hanna’s aunt, 43-year-old Winny Brodt-Brown, is the captain of the Minnesota Whitecaps of the Premier Hockey Federation, where she plays defense alongside her younger sister, Hanna’s 38-year-old aunt Chelsey Rosenthal. Hanna’s grandfather, Jack, is the coach of the Whitecaps.

“She always tries to tell me what I should be doing better,” Prow said of his wife, who is expecting the couple’s first child, a girl, in April. “But it’s always good to have someone who knows the game.” When it was suggested to Prow that the next time his wife tries to give him hockey tips he might want to ask her how many NHL goals she’s scored, he said, “I’ll keep that in my back pocket.”

After playing in Germany last season, Prow came back to North America and signed a one-year deal with the Sabres in an attempt to see if he might be able to get an opportunity to play in the NHL. That’s not as easy as it sounds, particularly when you’re three years older than the oldest players who are eligible for the Calder Trophy. But as a reliable pro and a solid player in the AHL, Prow has managed to carve out a good living for himself. His NHL salary is $750,000 and he spent eight glorious days in the NHL, which means he earned just north of $27,000 to go along with the $250,000 he’s making in the minors. He’ll once again be a free agent this summer, but he has no intention of slowing down. In fact, his four-game run in the NHL has him more energized than ever before. And he’s still playing at a high level in the AHL. “There’s plenty of fuel left in the tank,” Prow said.

When you watch Prow’s goal, the way he jumps into the open space and pounces on the Olofsson rebound, you swear you’re watching an NHL player at work. The margin between the bottom players on an NHL roster and the top ones on an AHL team is razor thin, so why would he not think he still might be able to get back up to the best league in the world? “You get around enough good players and they make good plays,” Prow said. “Being 29 and getting the opportunity to go up there and get my first game was special alone, and then getting that opportunity to cash in on your first goal is something you can look back on. And they can’t take it away from you, right?

He was asking the question rhetorically. Probably. 

This originally appeared in The Hockey News' Rookie Issue, available now.

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