Which stories tugged at our heartstrings most in 2014-15? Here was our favorite five…
1. ALL HAIL THE ‘HAMBURGLAR’
Things didn’t exactly go the way Andrew Hammond had it scripted in his mind.
The 27-year-old minor-leaguer was having a perfectly dreadful time tending goal in the AHL when Craig Anderson went down with a bum hand. So here Hammond was being called up to the big club and asked to, uh, not play.
Just sit. Practice, but don’t play. Make NHL money while sacrificing your development. At least that’s how it was playing out in his head as he watched from his seat at the end of the bench. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not stupid, and I understood this was a contract year for me and things had not been going well,” Hammond said. “The longer I was up there the more frustrated I got because I knew I had to play, either in the NHL or AHL. I had to prove to the organization I was still a goaltender who would play at this level.”
Hammond wished he could redeem himself from his 7-13-2 record, 3.51 goals-against average and .898 save percentage with Binghamton. And after serving as Robin Lehner’s backup for eight games, he was pressed into duty against the Carolina Hurricanes Feb. 16 when Lehner suffered a concussion. Hammond allowed two goals in 20:46 of action in a 6-3 loss that was pinned on Lehner.
Not a great start to his NHL adventure, but, hey, the crease was now his. When you’re No. 3 on an organization’s depth chart of goaltenders, you’ll take whatever comes your way.
Hammond won his first five games before the Senators dropped a shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild. So he was still undefeated in regulation. Then he just kept winning and winning. And winning.
The Senators had all but given up on their season when they found themselves 14 points out of a playoff spot Feb. 10, but Hammond’s heroics changed their attitude. He went 11-0-1 and was the second goalie in history to allow two or fewer goals in his first 12 starts. Frank Brimsek did it in 1938-39.
Following his run for the ages, Hammond finished 20-1-2 and got the Senators into the playoffs. Even though they lost in the opening round, and he eventually gave way to Anderson, it was a dream season.
Along the way, there were many highlights, but none brighter than recording back-to-back shutouts on consecutive days against the Ducks in Anaheim and the Kings in Los Angeles during a three-game sweep through California. “People thought that I wasn’t necessarily cognizant of what was going on around me, but I knew very well what was happening,” Hammond said. “The biggest thing is I was a little older while this was happening and I had a better grasp of how to handle things. I understood what would happen with the added attention than if I had been a kid. At the end of the day, I was having just as much fun as the fans were having with it.”
Hammond said the few weeks he spent as Lehner’s backup provided him with valuable practice time with goalie coach Rick Wamsley. So even though he wasn’t playing, he was still learning. By the time he took over as the starter he felt comfortable and acclimatized to the NHL. “We spent that time just trying to settle his game down,” Wamsley said. “We worked on it and talked about how we could apply his skills. Once he started to get it, he became an NHL goalie.”
Wamsley admitted he and the Senators coaching staff weren’t exactly being geniuses. “I think it’s fair to say if we knew he was going to win 20 in a row we would have played him earlier,” Wamsley said with a hearty laugh. “At the front end of his call up, we felt if he had to play we might be in trouble, but by time Robin got hurt, there were major signs of improvement, and we were comfortable with him playing.”
Hammond’s final numbers are impressive: 1.79 GAA and .941 SP. He parlayed that into a three-year, one-way contract worth $4.05 million. Not bad for a guy who, in the first half of last season, was wondering if he’d be re-signed. Lehner, meanwhile, was traded to the Buffalo Sabres.
This summer, Hammond has been training harder than ever in preparation for his second act. “One of the big things they harp on in Ottawa is making sure that you are training to be athletic rather than just training to get stronger or faster,” Hammond said. “A lot of that is doing more foot-related stuff.”
While he’s comfortable with his game, Hammond plays his best hockey when he’s biting his fingernails. “This might seem a little weird, but I think I try to get myself nervous for games because I play a little better when I am nervous,” he said. “Being nervous is not who I am naturally, but before games I do whatever I can to become nervous.”
Hammond might be nervous while playing games, but his teammates and management aren’t. They know a good goalie when they see one.
2. PLEASE TRADE FOR MY DADDY
Jordan Leopold’s 11-year-old daughter, Jordyn, was missing her father, so she wrote a letter to the Minnesota Wild coaching staff asking if they could arrange a trade.
Lo and behold, the Wild acquired Leopold for Justin Falk and a fifth-round pick. Leopold had been living away from his family during the season. “My dad is very (lonely) without his family,” Jordyn wrote. “We are living in Minnesota right now, and I am lost without my dad and so is my mom, my two sisters and my brother.”
Leopold’s wife, Jamie, said she didn’t know her daughter had written the letter and when she found it, “I read it and I just started bawling.”
3. THE BUTTERFLY CHILD
Fourteen-year-old Jonathan Pitre loves sports, especially hockey. But because of a rare skin condition, epidermolysis bullosa (EB), he can’t play the game. There is no cure for the disease, and those who have it live with constant, excruciating pain. In an emotional documentary on TSN, Pitre explained that people with EB are called Butterfly Children, “because our skin is as fragile as a butterfly’s wings.”
On Nov. 20, 2014, the Ottawa Senators signed the youngster to a one-day pro scouting contract, and he spent the entire day with the team. He watched the Senators game with assistant GM Pierre Dorion and interacted with the players. “I’d like to play sports all day,” Pitre said. “And I wouldn’t suck.”
4. METHOD TO HIS MADNESS
Alex Ovechkin desperately pleaded to be the final player chosen in the annual NHL All-Star Game draft so he’d get the car that goes to the last pick. But It didn’t work.
However, even though Ovechkin wasn’t the MVP of the game, Honda did donate a car to ‘The Great 8,’ who turned around and donated it to the Washington Ice Dogs hockey program. ‘Ovie’ was introduced to it through his friend, Ann Schaab, a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome who he took on a sushi date last September. “It means a lot,” Ovechkin told NHL.com. “Honda connected with my agent, and they just gave me a car so I’m going to donate it to the Ice Dogs and that sweet little girl.”
5. OH, HOW THEY DANCED
Former NHLer Mathias Tjarnqvist made Sofie Ruther’s day when he took the girl, who has Down syndrome, to her prom in May.
Tjarnqvist, who played 173 NHL games with the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes before returning home to Sweden to play, said the date was arranged by the girl’s father, Joakim, who knew Tjarnqvist when his daughter was just five years old.
“It is always special going to the prom,” Joakim told the local media in Helsingborg, Sweden. “But to be escorted by a star makes it even more special.”
Added Tjarnqvist: “To experience the prom again is fantastic fun. There was no doubt in my mind when I was asked.”