A version of the following story appeared in the 2016-17 third edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
Calvin Pickard heard a voice yelling at him loud and clear as he arrived at the rink.
The sound was Lake Erie Monsters head coach Dean Chynoweth asking Pickard if he had his passport. It was a Thursday morning, and the Monsters, then the American Hockey League affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, were about to take the ice for a practice in Chicago ahead of a back-to-back set against the Wolves.
A little confused about the question, Pickard responded that he did have his passport, and Chynoweth let him know why he needed it - the goaltender had two hours before he needed to be on a flight to Ottawa where he would back up Reto Berra in Colorado's game against the Senators that night. The Avalanche had put starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov on injured reserve with a groin injury earlier that morning and was in need of Pickard's services.
What Pickard didn't know as he boarded a nearly two-hour flight to the Canadian capital was that this already crazy day would end with him taking the ice in his first NHL contest.
The Moncton, New Brunswick-born goalie landed in Ottawa around 4:30 p.m. and, powered only by adrenaline and a Tim Horton's sandwich he grabbed at the airport to tide him over, arrived at Canadian Tire Centre at 5:45 p.m. While arriving just an hour and 15 minutes prior to puck drop might cause some anxiety in players - who typically arrive two to two-and-a-half hours before a game - Pickard wasn't expecting to see any action and was just enjoying the experience.
"I get to the rink, and I'm just happy to be there," the 24-year-old goaltender recalled.
Less than three minutes into the game, Berra suffered an injury.
"I was [thinking] 'He's going to be fine. He'll get up.' And then he wasn't getting up. Then I started to get nervous. Then he started to get up, and I was like 'OK, he should be OK,'" Pickard recollected. "And then the trainer here gave me a signal that I was coming in, so that's when it really hit me that it was actually happening and that was my first action."
A completely routine day on Oct. 16, 2014 for Pickard had begun with a 6 a.m. flight from Cleveland to Chicago. It continued with pancakes and eggs with some teammates at a Chicago IHOP prior to practice. And here he was now, taking the ice for his first NHL game.
"A million thoughts going through my head," Pickard said. "But I really had no time to think about it. It was pretty crazy."
The Avs led 3-1 after the first period and 3-2 after 40 minutes of play, but the Senators scored four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 win. Pickard finished with 23 saves on 27 shots.
He made his first career NHL start two nights later in Montreal, a 3-2 Avalanche loss. Pickard describes that game, which was also a Hockey Night in Canada national broadcast, as his "welcome to the NHL" moment.
"I remember looking up and being like, 'Wow, it's actually happened now.' It was pretty cool," Pickard recalled. "That game against Montreal really helped me. Then I came back the next time and played really well and stayed consistent, and every game gave me more confidence to play well in this league."
Pickard earned his first win on Nov. 22 at home against the Carolina Hurricanes. Coming into the game late in the first period with the Avalanche trailing 3-1, he stopped all 16 shots he faced and Colorado came from behind to win 4-3.
Pickard played 16 games for the Avalanche that season, finishing 6-7-3 with a 2.35 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. He started the 2015-16 campaign with Colorado's new AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, and was recalled in mid-November, playing in two NHL games in relief before being reassigned.
His big break came at Christmastime that year, as Berra suffered an injury before a game, and Pickard was recalled for what was supposed to be about a 10-day recovery period for Berra.
He made the most of the opportunity, stopping 35 shots in a 6-3 win over the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 28 and then denied all 15 shots he saw in a relief effort five days later, essentially earning a spot on the roster as he stayed with the big club for the remainder of the season. In 20 games, he posted a 7-6-1 record, a 2.56 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. That included his first NHL shutout, a 27-save performance against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 14.
"I got so close so many times my first year, and it got to the point where I didn't know if I was ever going to get one," Pickard said of his first clean slate. "It was nice to finally get that first one under the belt. I don't know what it was, my 30th or 40th career game, so it took a while for sure."
During the 2016 offseason, Pickard was rewarded for all his hard work by signing his first NHL one-way contract, a two-year deal with Colorado on July 5. Entering into the 2016-17 campaign with a little more stability and the knowledge that he would be in Denver for the entire season came with some comfort, particularly for his life off the ice.
"This year coming in and having a place, being able to cook my own meals and knowing I'm one of the two goalies on the team, it makes me feel good about myself and gives me confidence that I belong here," he said. "With that being said, it's a business. You always have to prove yourself every game."
Pickard was thrust into the team's starting role after Semyon Varlamov underwent season-ending surgery in late January. Through April 2, he had a 14-29-2 record with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage. He's earned two shutouts--Nov. 5 against Minnesota and Feb. 7 versus the Montreal Canadiens--and recorded two assists, putting him in a five-way tie for the league lead in points among goaltenders.
While he's achieved the goal of earning a full-time NHL role, his sights are now set on becoming a No. 1 goaltender.
"I want to continue to play well and take advantage of my opportunities," Pickard said. "You never want to be the backup in the NHL. You always want to strive for more and you're always working to play a lot of games and be a starting goalie, so that's what I'm focusing in on. You wouldn't want to be in the NHL if you didn't want to play, so I want to play as much as possible and help your team get into the playoffs and eventually win the Stanley Cup."