Los Angeles Kings goaltending development coach Dusty Imoo was trying to keep his emotions in check while he drove to the American Hockey League game between Ontario and San Jose on Saturday, but he wasn't trying too hard.
Imoo was getting ready to make hockey history as the emergency backup goaltender to his son, Jonah Imoo, in his AHL debut for Ontario, and figured it would be better to reminisce on the drive to Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California, instead of letting those emotions show once he arrived. For all the outside focus on becoming the first father-son goaltending tandem in professional hockey, this was an important game for Jonah, a 22-year-old on a professional tryout with the Kings' AHL affiliate. The last thing his dad wanted him to see was his goalie coach fighting back tears on the bench.
"Old man crying, even as I think about it I kind of well up," said Dusty, 46, taking a moment to compose himself. "It's emotional. It's weird. I watched him play exhibition games with us this season, the rookie games. I saw him put on a NHL jersey and it was all heartwarming to see, but this is different. I am going to have my hat down low on the bench."
Video: Dusty Imoo on NHL Now
It had already been an emotional day for the elder Imoo. He was with the Kings in Los Angeles when goaltender Jeff Zatkoff had to be helped off the ice with a groin injury. Already without No. 1 goalie Jonathan Quick because of a lower-body injury, the Kings recalled Jack Campbell to back up Peter Budaj against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
That meant Jonah, who signed a PTO when Budaj was called up to fill in for Quick, would get his first AHL start, but the Reign were still short a backup goalie.
"I found out I was starting after morning skate," Jonah said, "and as I was getting undressed, one of the trainers said, 'Guess who is backing you up tonight?' And he put in another Imoo nametag in the stall next to me. I couldn't believe it. It was pretty surreal."
His dad thought about declining, worried about becoming a distraction for his son, who attended the Kings' summer development camp as an undrafted free agent and earned an invite back to main camp. But after Dusty's wife, Rhonda, told him Jonah had called her excited about it, Dusty decided to embrace it as a "once in a lifetime opportunity."
So Dusty took the car ride to reflect on all those early morning rides to the rink and calls home when his son was playing junior hockey, all in the hopes he could keep it together for his son once he got to the arena. Then he walked into the locker room and saw "Imoo" on the back of two jerseys hanging in stalls right next to each other.
"I walked into the dressing room before anyone was there and I see the two jerseys and our nameplates," Dusty said after Ontario's 5-4 overtime loss to San Jose, pausing again to collect himself. "You think back. I've had those little moments already, like when you see him playing junior the first time, but this was right in your face. This was over the top. And the warmup was surreal."
For Jonah, the weird part was having Dusty, whose 15-year career included a decade playing professionally in Japan and playing for Japan at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, waiting for him to indicate when he wanted a break in warmup; backing him up.
"It's pretty funny considering how long a career he had and now he's jumping in after me and sitting on the bench," Jonah said. "It's really tough to describe my emotions.
"My dad has been my goalie coach-slash-mentor my whole life, so having him on the bench, I knew every TV timeout he was going to have something reassuring to say, some great tips. A lot of people are saying we made hockey history, but just playing my first game at that level, just getting the opportunity was huge, and I was just really excited to get my first game under my belt. I felt really good, more calm than I thought I would be. I'm confident with my game and having my dad there as kind of a cheerleader but also as a coach and my dad, it's hard to describe. It was surreal."
Jonah finished with 26 saves in the defeat that ended with a breakaway goal, and though the circumstances made the outcome a sidebar for many, Dusty knows how important the game was for Jonah.
Once planning to play NCAA hockey before an opportunity fell through because of a coaching change, Jonah was left with little option other than to turn pro last season. Instead of continuing to develop in college, and with tier-2 junior in the BCHL as a high water mark on his resume, he split three games between Port Huron of the Federal League and Louisiana of the Southern Professional Hockey League. His first season ended after three games with a broken finger that required surgery.
All of which made getting a start in the AHL this season a good story on its own. Having his dad on the bench as his backup made it historic, and an even bigger story. But Dusty, who got so into the game that he "started chirping" from the bench, was more impressed his son wasn't overwhelmed by it all.
"He has gotten this far and I have gotten this far in this relationship because I managed to keep him business-like and myself business-like through it all," Dusty said. "I said I was not going to try to treat this any differently but inside … man … it was hard. It was way, way, way worse for me, and that's actually a good sign."