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NHL's emergency goalies live on edge

Entering a game can be scare of a lifetime

by Kevin Woodley @KevinisInGoal / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Roberto Luongo can't help but chuckle as he describes how goalie coach Robb Tallas looked as he put on his equipment to go into a game in March, pointing to the white Florida Panthers' road jerseys hanging in the locker room. 

"When I came back from the hospital and walked into the locker room, he was getting dressed and his face was white as a ghost, like that jersey," Luongo said, lowering his voice to a serious whisper. "I was like, 'Bud, you can't go in there, you are going to die.'" 

Luongo had been at the hospital getting scans on his shoulder after a shot found a gap in his equipment and forced him to leave that March 3 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. While Luongo was away, backup Al Montoya was injured too, and after originally considering putting a forward in goal, the Panthers completed the paperwork to instead dress Tallas, 42, whose pro career ended a decade earlier with 99 NHL games. 

Luongo didn't want him to hit 100, so he finished the game despite the fact his hospital visit revealed a fracture in his shoulder. Tallas was grateful. 

"I joked that the first guy walked off, the second guy limped off, the third guy would have been carried off," Tallas said. "I wear forward skates. I barely put on the pads now." 

Tallas may not have wanted anything to do with that game, but it was a dream scenario for a group that proudly wears the label EBUG … Emergency Backup Goaltender. 

When the Panthers turned their close call into a promotion looking for a practice goalie, the tryouts attracted 65 candidates, including several from as far as Canada. 

They were all eager to become one of the many EBUGs in the NHL spotlight over the past decade, most often to sit on the bench because of a last-minute illness or injury that didn't leave enough time for a call-up to arrive from the minor leagues. It's a list of mostly college goalies signed to one-day amateur tryout contracts, but one that also includes the Minnesota Wild dressing Paul Deutsch, a 51-year-old beer league goalie who didn't even start playing goal until he was 37, for warmups in 2011. 

The best stories often are reserved for the minor leagues, where emergency goalies are needed more often. Florida's No. 3 goalie, Mike McKenna, remembers one EBUG during his time with Las Vegas in the ECHL whose day job was being Neil Diamond in a tribute act at a local casino. Another got into an American Hockey League game, made "like 40 saves," and won. 

"The most improbable thing I ever witnessed," McKenna said. "His only pro win." 

The rules for EBUG eligibility have changed in the NHL, allowing more former pros to dress and leading to goalie coaches like Dwayne Roloson, Arturs Irbe and Tallas putting their gear back on in an emergency in recent years. But that hasn't kept others from chasing the EBUG dream, even if it's only to fill in during practice and be on standby, with their gear nearby, just in case a goaltender gets injured in warmups. 

Dave Zarn understands the attraction better than most. 

In addition to being the Vancouver Canucks' assistant athletic trainer, Zarn has become a regular fill-in at practice whenever one of the regulars needs a rest, sometimes even splitting drills with Ryan Miller as a third goalie early this season. Zarn also is the emergency backup option for games, and his goalie gear travels with the team. 

"The best part is just living the dream," Zarn said. "Any kid who loves hockey had the dream to play in the NHL. I've never been able to step into a game, but to be able to step into a practice and say I have faced NHL-caliber shots and made some saves, that's unbelievable. It's awesome, and it's not something everybody gets to do, one of many perks of my job, and to be able to do it as often as I have is pretty special." 

Zarn, who played at a level he described as between Junior A and B while going to school, has yet to make it into a game or even onto the bench. That puts him three behind Rob Laurie, a 45-year-old who played 10 years in the minor leagues. 

Laurie started by skating in the summer with local pros in Los Angeles, and already had a relationship with then-Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller through his work with a goalie equipment retailer in the area. Halfway through the 2011-12 season, Laurie got a call from Hiller to fill in at practice and quickly became the Ducks' regular fill-in. 

"I thought I had the greatest thing in the world going," he said. 

It got better the following season, when Hiller got sick and Laurie was asked to back up until call-up Igor Bobkov arrived. Laurie took warmups, sat on the bench until Bobkov got there in the first period, was undressed in time for a television interview during the first intermission, and back in the stands for a beer with friends by the second period. 

Laurie got to stay on the bench for his next two emergency gigs during the 2013-14 season, first for Vancouver and later with the Minnesota Wild. During the Canucks game, Eddie Lack was knocked into his net and stayed down. 

"He was lying there like he'd been shot," Laurie said, "and I was like, 'Is this just going to keep going until I actually get into a game? When is this craziness going to stop?'" 

Laurie immediately thought of Chris Levesque, a third-string university goalie called on to back up for the Canucks in 2003. When starter Johan Hedberg crumpled to the ice after a collision, the cameras quickly turned to Levesque, who looked as white as those Panthers jerseys while chewing his gum into submission on the bench. 

"I knew the cameras would be on me too," Laurie said, "so I tried to act calm." 

It might have been tougher if Laurie actually knew how close Levesque was to getting into that game; Hedberg broke his wrist in the collision but, like Luongo, kept playing in large part because he knew the alternative wasn't ready for the NHL spotlight.   

Being that alternative drives the dreams of most EBUGs, even if the reality is enough to leave experienced NHL goaltenders like Tallas looking a little pale.

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