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Backups need to keep their heads up

On bench, time may not fly but pucks sure do

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Toronto Maple Leafs backup goaltenders have something in common with backup quarterbacks in the NFL: During games they can be spotted with a baseball cap on their head and a clipboard in their hands.

What exactly are the goaltenders keeping track of? Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock started making his backup goalies chart faceoffs when he was coaching junior hockey and has continued the practice in the NHL, first with the Anaheim Ducks, then the Detroit Red Wings and now with Toronto.

"At first, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but it actually gives you something to do," James Reimer said shortly before being traded Feb. 27 from Toronto to the San Jose Sharks. "Sometimes you don't have much to do when you are sitting on the bench, just trying to be vocal and get the guys going. But this gives you something to do and helps keep you in the game."

Babcock said he believes it does more than keep the backup goaltender focused.

"When the goalie is in net and it's a shutout situation or a one-goal game down the stretch, the goalie in the net wants the right guys on the ice in key situations in the faceoff circle when he's in there. So why wouldn't he do that job well when he's not and help our team win?" Babcock said during his time with the Red Wings. "I'm just a big believer. There's people up there that get paid to do it, but my goalie gets paid too. And if all you ask him to do on his off night is chart faceoffs, that shouldn't be a problem."

It hasn't been so far, though former Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood had a few close calls.

"I almost got absolutely killed; the puck missed my head by about 2 inches because I was doing it," said Osgood, who never wore his mask while on the bench but did alter his technique and started putting his gloves on between faceoffs after his scare. "Some nights it's a pain because you've got to pay attention to pucks flying on the bench."

Babcock's backup goalies weren't toting a clipboard at the past two Olympics, and there aren't any other NHL teams that have their backup on clipboard duty. The idea did catch on for a while with Joel Quenneville, who used it while coaching the Colorado Avalanche after working with Babcock at a World Championship, but he has since abandoned it with the Chicago Blackhawks.

"It's good for the goalie; it keeps them in the game," Quenneville said.

Maybe Quenneville just saw it as a way to prevent his backup from eating hot dogs, something he caught Jamie McLennan doing during a game at the Montreal Canadiens while they were with the St. Louis Blues.

McLennan recalled the incident in his 2012 book, "The Best Seat in the House," explaining how he snuck snacks like gummy bears onto the bench and hid them atop his pads.

The hot dog that night was in his glove. Pretending to scratch his face when really he was eating didn't fool his coach. Quenneville called McLennan into his office between periods, laughing it off while revealing a tray of the famous Bell Centre hot dogs in the coaches office. The coach never again mentioned the incident to his goalie, who now is a TV analyst.

"My snacking during the game was quite simple," McLennan said. "It didn't affect the way I tracked it mentally. You just get hungry sitting there for three hours."

Staying focused the entire time isn't always easy, but the practice of goalies charting faceoffs appears more prevalent in the minor leagues, where there aren't as many extra eyes to track statistics.

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom remembered being asked to track faceoffs at various stops in the American Hockey League, though not fondly.

"If you want to be in the game you should watch the game, not have your head in the paper," Markstrom said. "When I watch the game I am engaged, yelling and trying to get the boys going, which keeps me in the game too."

Nashville Predators goalie Carter Hutton said he was asked to chart faceoffs while in the San Jose Sharks organization earlier in his career. He said he stays sharp by sharing his observations with No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne during TV timeouts.

"Just conversing with the guys on the bench keeps you in it, analyzing plays," Hutton said. "And when Pekka comes to the bench we converse about plays and what we are seeing, and vice versa when I'm playing. It's another set of eyes so you can ask, 'What happened here? And what did you see?' I think that keeps you in the game just by watching."

It also keeps teammates off your back about faceoff statistics, something backup quarterbacks in the NFL don't have to worry about.

"Half the time guys were trying to grease me for faceoff wins," Hutton said.

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