There have been stretches during the season where Curtis Sanford
felt like the loneliest man in the world.
But not now.
The Vancouver Canucks
' backup goalie has been pressed into service following a groin injury to Roberto Luongo
, and he understandably feels the pressure of stepping in for the game's pre-eminent goaltender and a workhorse who has averaged 74 starts over the past four seasons.
"There is a lot of pressure," Sanford said, "but this is what we play for. It is something that you embrace. It gets you on your toes and you go out there and play as best you can."
Embracing the pressure is one thing. Wilting under it is another. Don't expect the challenge of bearing the goaltending load to get the better of Sanford. He is a highly motivated and battle-ready goalie who graduated from the school of hard knocks.
Undrafted after a solid junior career in his hometown of Owen Sound, Ontario, Sanford fought his way through eight seasons in the United Hockey League, ECHL, American Hockey League and a couple brief stints with the St. Louis Blues
before signing with the Canucks as a free agent in the summer of 2007. Often characterized as a career backup, Sanford relishes the opportunity to show he has the same qualities typically attributed to a No. 1 netminder.
In Sanford's case, he is patient in the net and controls rebounds with effectiveness. While not a large goalie at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Sanford is quick, competitive, and has the ability to inspire his teammates with spectacular saves. And most importantly, there is a burning desire inside him to prove he is worthy of being considered the main man.
"I'm 29," said Sanford. "Tim Thomas
came over when he was 29 and at 34 he is a starting goalie. Ozzie (Chris Osgood
) was a starting goalie, then he wasn't a starting goalie, and now he's a starting goalie again. I played with Manny Legace
in St. Louis and he was a backup for a number of years. It's just a matter of keeping things in perspective, working hard, and being ready for my opportunities."
Like Joey MacDonald
of the New York Islanders
, an injury to a prominent starter has provided Sanford the opportunity to step into the spotlight. An injury to a teammate is never anticipated or welcomed, but backup goalies have to be ready physically and mentally to answer the call of duty.
"Anything can happen," said Sanford. "Joey MacDonald
has been playing a bucket load of games with the Islanders and the same with Kevin Weekes
in New Jersey. You hope it doesn't come to that. But those are situations that backup goalies have to be ready for and you are going to be ready physically. The big thing is keeping yourself mentally sharp. As a backup goalie, mental sharpness has to be the strong part of your game. We practice every day, we're working out, so we're in shape. Keeping in shape mentally is the hard part."
Former Vancouver coach Marc Crawford
feels that teams can help backup goalies stay mentally sharp through their assignments.
"It's a lonely job," said Crawford, now an analyst with Hockey Night in Canada. "Craig Billington
was the backup to Patrick Roy
the years that I was in Colorado, and Craig had a great mindset for the game. He served as a real good sounding board for Patrick. I think Patrick used Craig more as a goalie coach than anything. And we used to keep Craig motivated by always giving him big games. We found that with Craig, it was most effective if we gave him a game against Detroit with that Detroit-Colorado rivalry. You don't always want to give a backup goalie the weakest sister in the League to play against, but you want to give him a challenge.
"The players appreciate those backup goalies because they know that they have to take extra work and get a lot of bruises and bumps from all the stuff they put up with at the end of practice which allows players to get their skills a little sharper. When they become part of a huge victory, that builds team chemistry and team unity because they want to see that backup guy doing well. That's the case with Curtis here in Vancouver. Everybody knows that Roberto is the (main) guy and fortunes are going to live and die with him. But they also appreciate what a great attitude Curtis brings to the rink every day."
The great attitude and belief in himself is manifested in Sanford's focus on team victories over personal accomplishments, or in the goalie's vernacular, by seeking wins rather than shutouts.
"I think it's important to not put too much pressure on myself to get a shutout," Sanford said. "I want to get a shutout, but that would be putting too much pressure on myself, so my expectation is to go out and compete well enough for us to win. I want to show that we can with Curtis Sanford
in the net, too."
Crawford understands Sanford's determination to show people he can get the job done.
"That's why you gravitate to the professional level -- because you have a strong belief in yourself," said Crawford. "If you get a break along the way, play on a good team and the chemistry is there, some good things can happen. I think a lot of people would like to see Curtis Sanford
continue to improve so that one day he could be looked at as a guy that maybe can share the number-one role or take it outright someplace else. I don't think it's going to happen here because Roberto is going to be in Vancouver for a lot of years. But that doesn't discount how much Curtis believes in himself."
Teammates believe in him, too.
"We have tremendous confidence in Curtis," said forward Alex Burrows. "He has been unbelievable for us … and we know that he is a really hard working guy on the ice, and even in practices. There is no reason not to have faith in him. He is going to play well for us. We know that. But we are going to have to make sure that we play well in front of him, too."
True. At the end of the day, it is the team that wins or loses.