COLUMBUS -- Curtis Sanford
entered a game Jan. 13, 2009, for the Vancouver Canucks
after the New Jersey Devils
had already grabbed an early 2-0 lead. Sanford replaced starter Jason LaBarbera
, stopped 19 of 21 shots and kept his team in the game for them to stage a third-period comeback before an empty-net goal sealed a 5-3 defeat.
Pretty standard stuff, really -- except it wasn't for Sanford. Vancouver's franchise goaltender, Roberto Luongo
, was ready to return from a groin injury. Sanford had been with the Canucks as Luongo's backup since the beginning of the previous season, but his own groin injury caused him to miss a few games just before that contest in New Jersey.
The Canucks needed a goalie when Sanford got hurt and chose to trade a seventh-round pick to Los Angeles for LaBarbera instead of calling up 22-year-old prospect Cory Schneider
. Now with Luongo back there was a logjam, and on Jan. 14, 2009, Sanford was waived. The next day he cleared waivers and was sent to Manitoba of the American Hockey League.
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It would be 33 months before Sanford returned to the NHL.
"Obviously I wasn't happy or thrilled that Vancouver put me on waivers and sent me to Manitoba that year, but things happen for a reason," Sanford said. "I went down and worked on my game. I wasn't playing a lot in Vancouver, so I got back to playing a lot of games again and feeling comfortable again, confident in myself. I was just waiting for the opportunity to bring it to the NHL level again."
Sanford finished the 2008-09 campaign splitting time with Schneider for the Moose and their coach, Scott Arniel
. The team made it to the Calder Cup Finals, but Sanford watched as Schneider played in the postseason.
He signed with Montreal in the offseason, but spent 2009-10 with Hamilton in the AHL. Last season was a repeat of the previous one with the Bulldogs. After splitting starts in the postseason the first year with Hamilton, he was forced to watch the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs after season-ending shoulder surgery in March.
It shouldn't be surprising that a 31-year-old goalie who had just spent two-plus years in the AHL and wasn't a No. 1 guy in the playoffs was starting to doubt his future in the game he loved.
"There's time where you are questioning yourself," Sanford said. "I have a family back in Ontario and this year has been difficult living away. There's been some times when it was like, ‘Is this the route I still want to take?' but the support from my wife has been clear from the beginning. She's in it until we both decide that it is time."
Sanford went into the offseason looking for an organization with a better chance for advancement. The Canadiens have Carey Price
, and they gave Peter Budaj
a two-year, $2.3 million contract to back him up.
This is the life of a guy on the fringes of the NHL, and it is especially tough for goaltenders. There are only 60 jobs available at the highest level, and nearly every team has one or two prospects developing in the minor leagues or in juniors that is earmarked steady playing time regardless of performance.
For a veteran like Sanford, opportunity to play regularly is paramount. That's why when he canvased the 30 NHL organizations, Columbus was one that immediately popped up as a good fit.
"I think the main factors were I wanted to give myself the best chance I could of playing in the NHL. I felt that this was the organization that was going to give me that possibility," Sanford said. "Then, of course, having a history with Scott [Arniel] played into and having a history with Ian Clark played into it. Those were the main factors."
Arniel was the coach of the Blue Jackets and Clark was the team's goaltending coach -- a role he had filled with the Canucks when Sanford was there.
has been Columbus' No. 1 goalie since he claimed the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2008-09, but two straight substandard seasons made him something of a question mark as the 2011-12 campaigned approached. The Blue Jackets traded for Mark Dekanich
to be Mason's backup, but Dekanich had all of 50 minutes of NHL experience on his resume.
Sanford was added on a two-way contract to be the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency guy -- a veteran No. 1 at the AHL level and someone who could fill in if injury struck at the NHL level.
"Coming into training camp I just wanted to be able to do whatever I could for this team," Sanford said. "I was coming in to compete for a job and that's the way I looked at it. I wasn't taking anything the way you could look at the depth chart. I was third on the depth chart, but I wasn't going to just settle for that -- I wanted to earn a job here."
Goalie - CBJ
GAA: 2.54 | SVP: 0.912
All that has transpired since is one of the feel-good stories of the 2011-12 NHL season.
Dekanich went down with a sprained ankle during training camp, so Sanford was called upon to back up Mason at the start of the season. A groin injury in practice knocked Sanford out for almost a month, so Mason was in net for 16 of the first 17 games before Sanford finally started Nov. 17 and made 26 saves in a 2-1 shootout loss to the defending champion Boston Bruins
That loss dropped the reeling Blue Jackets to 3-13-2 to start the season, but there was something that day against the Bruins -- a bit of a spark Sanford helped provide. He ended up starting 12 straight games for Columbus, and after a stretch of nine contests where he only started twice in part because of a couple of minor ailments, Sanford has now started the past seven contests.
"He's been really good for us," Columbus forward Derek Dorsett
said. "He is our No. 1 right now, and he's a guy who has worked to get there. We knew he was going to battle for the job, and he's proved that he is worthy of it. … He's a true professional. He comes to the rink with the right attitude and prepares himself. He deserves everything he's getting right now.
Added captain Rick Nash
: "It really is something. When we brought him into camp as the third goalie, we kind of had our No. 1 and No. 2 marked out. By now he's definitely stole the show and by far our No. 1."
Sanford is 8-10-3 with a 2.54 goals-against average and .912 save percentage this season. Both his GAA and save percentage are inside the top 30 in the NHL. There are nine No. 1 goaltenders in the League right now that do not have a .912 save percentage, and it would be 10 if Sanford hadn't taken Mason's job.
Considering the Blue Jackets are 5-17-2 in the other games and have allowed nearly a goal per game more when Sanford doesn't play, it has been a pretty remarkable run for a goaltender who wasn't considered to be one of the top 60 at his position in each of the past three offseasons.
"His work ethic is one [reason] and that is probably the most important thing. His confidence is another, but I also think it is the type of person he is," interim Columbus coach Todd Richards
said. "He wins his teammates over. I've been always been a firm believer that you want to see good people do well, and it doesn't matter what profession it is.
"Curtis is right up there, with his approach to the game, with his professionalism. He's prepared, he works hard, he supports his teammates, supports the ideas we want to get across, so it is easy to cheer for a guy like that. If I feel that way, I'm sure if you talk to the guys in the locker room, they will say if you feel that way about somebody, I think you work harder."
The 32-year-old Sanford will, of course, be an unrestricted free agent again this offseason. He's signed a one-year contract in each of the past five offseasons, and during the past three they have been two-way contracts.
There is clearly uncertainty in net beyond this season for the Blue Jackets. Mason has one more year on his contract at $2.9 million, and that is certainly more than any team wants to pay a guy unless he can be a clear-cut No. 1.
For now, Sanford can focus on the remaining few months of this season. He's never played more than 34 games in an NHL campaign, something he did in 2005-06 with the St. Louis Blues
. His work this season has proven he can still play at this level, but for a guy like Sanford there isn't really ever a time to feel secure about his job status.
"I've always been able to come back from times when I thought I was down, and it is in my character not to give up. I just wanted to get back on the horse and get going on," Sanford said. "I'm not looking at the past and I'm not going to look too far into the future, either. It can't be more than a day at a time or a game at a time. That's the attitude that I have to have at this point."