Every season, dozens of players get their first chance to play in the NHL. Playing in that first NHL game is something they’ll always remember.
Randy Exelby certainly will never forget his NHL debut.
In January 1989, Exelby got the call to join the Montreal Canadiens after starting goaltender Patrick Roy got sick. Exelby was playing with the Canadiens' American Hockey League affiliate in Sherbrooke. Quebec, and was the farm team's No.1 goalie.
Exelby had no chance at supplanting Roy, now a Hall of Famer, as the Habs’ No. 1 netminder. Nor was there much chance that he would dislodge Bryan Hayward, who was a solid backup with years of experience between Montreal and the Winnipeg Jets. He figured to do nothing more than sit on the bench and watch for a few games before heading back to the minors.
But on Jan. 27, 1989, Exelby got his chance to play -- briefly -- in an NHL game, against the Sabres in Buffalo. The tale of how Exelby got into the game may be the oddest story of a rookie finally hitting the ice in NHL history: He entered the game because Roy had to go to the washroom.
Talk about a “relief” goalie.
"It was a strange situation," Exelby said. "I was up with Montreal because Patrick Roy had tonsillitis, so I was there as Bryan Hayward's backup. I was up there for about five or six days — and just when Patrick was ready to come back, Bryan got sick and so it allowed me to stay a little bit longer. Patrick was taking medication for his tonsillitis, and it just so happened that I wasn't sure whether I was going to start the game in Buffalo, and I ended up not starting. I thought that was going to be my NHL debut."
Exelby went through the pre-game warm-up, then took his accustomed seat on the bench for what looked like another night off. He was at the end of the bench when he finally got the call to play — thanks to a little help from Mother Nature.
"In the second period, all of a sudden, the linesman came to the bench just like a student in the classroom and looked at (Montreal head coach) Pat Burns, and he says 'Pat, Patrick Roy has to go to the washroom.' Pat Burns looks around and says ‘What?’ He says 'Yeah, Patrick Roy has to go to the washroom.'
"So Pat looks over at Patrick and Patrick is nodding like ‘Yes, is it OK for me to go?’ And the whole Montreal bench is just cracking up and Pat Burns is dying laughing himself. So here I am, a 23-year-old rookie just happy to be on the bench, and that’s just a thrill enough for me. And then the next thing I knew, Coach Burns looks down at me and says; 'Well, you are going to have to go in. So, I put on my mask, grabbed my stick and just skated in there.
“I was in there for three minutes, I had one shot, Rick Vaive, off my pads and (Canadiens defenseman) Rick Green cleared the puck and Montreal received a penalty. They were just about to drop the puck for a faceoff and out from behind the net (from the dressing room) comes Patrick from his washroom episode. He kind of like taps me on the pads and (I was) back on the bench, more or less before I can get hold of the situation. I think I was nervous sitting back on the bench because I didn't have time to be nervous when I got in there."
In the end, Exelby’s NHL debut lasted three minutes and one shot. But those three minutes certified him as an NHL player — something no one can ever take away from him. But the situation that led to his playing time has become a legendary tale.
"They were giving me some static," he said of his Montreal teammates. "Russ Courtnall, after the play — actually it was a couple minutes later — when (Sabres goaltender) Darren Puppa broke, I think, (it) was his arm. Russ Courtnall came up to me and I asked me if I wanted the game puck and I was kind of shy and embarrassed, so I said no. I got a little bit of static for it and it was humorous. I thought it was kind of funny, and I got kind of a laugh out of it."
Exelby's stint in Montreal soon came to an end when Hayward returned. He was sent back to Sherbrooke, where he finished out the season.
Back in Sherbrooke, Exelby noticed that people took a bit of an interest in his tale. It was one of those special moments that will always be remembered by anyone in attendance — both on and off the ice.
"They didn't make too big a deal out of it," he recalled. "It was humorous. It was one of those humorous parts of sports. It puts the game into perspective."
Over the years, people have asked Exelby if he ever played in the NHL. Aside from his famous three minutes with Montreal, Exelby appeared in one game for the Edmonton Oilers, a 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 2, 1990, Exelby allowed five goals in the defeat. But it’s those three minutes with Montreal that receive all of the attention.
"I usually say; ‘Yeah, I played in one game,’" he said with a laugh. "I don't elaborate unless they ask me to. But I keep thinking that it would be a great trivia question; ‘Who had the shortest career in Montreal?’ Three minutes, but that three minutes allows me to say I played with the Montreal Canadiens. Yeah, I can see me and Ken Dryden sitting there and talking about our playing days with Montreal."
After his three minutes of “fame,” Exelby went back to Sherbrooke and was named the AHL’s First-Team All-Star goaltender, won the Baz Bastein Award as the best goaltender in the league and shared the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award with teammate Francois Gravel for fewest goals allowed. But the Canadiens had nowhere for him to go and traded him to Edmonton just before the 1989-90 season. His pro career ended after the 1990-91 season.
Exelby’s preparation for a pro career wasn’t exactly a textbook model, either. He finished his college career in March 1987 with Lake Superior State in the CCHA. But the Canadiens didn’t call him up or send him to the minors, so he went home to Toronto, played some adult hockey and prepared for his pro career by becoming a “rent-a-goalie” at various rinks in the area.
“Our college season ended at the beginning of March, and training camp for Montreal didn’t start until September, so I had a long time between there,” Exelby said. “I was working for construction for a few months, and I had to get in shape and get prepared for camp. Ice time in Toronto (in the mid 1980s) was pretty tough to get; there were a lot of arenas, but there was a lot of hockey going on as well. So I was playing once a week with some buddies of mine and I decided I needed more ice time. So I was in the rink one day and I looked on the board and it said, ‘Wanted: goalies for this rent-a-goalie.’
“This guy had a business. He ran a rent-a-goalie. He was more or less like a taxi dispatcher. People call him and maybe they don’t have a goalie. I called him up and went to his house and he explained everything and how it worked.”
Exelby received about $10 a game to play during the summer of 1987 for playing against all levels of competition — from pro players down to adults who just learned how to skate.
“I didn’t really think of it as a job. It seems strange, and it’s another oddity,” he said.