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Unmasked: Flames goalie coach perseveres with MS

by Kevin Woodley /

VANCOUVER -- The journey goalie Joni Ortio endured after being recalled to the Calgary Flames from Adirondack of the American Hockey League was arduous. It took the better part of two days and involved a snowstorm, a detour, and an overnight stop in Toronto, plus a connection in Winnipeg before he reached Calgary from Glen Falls, N.Y., last week.

Plus, his luggage did not arrive at the same time as the goalie. Ortio was in Calgary and back in the NHL, but his clothes, goalie sticks and contact lenses, which come in handy when your job is stopping pucks being shot up to 100 mph, were missing.

If Ortio needed a reality check on perseverance, he needed to look no further than Flames goalie coach Jordan Sigalet.

"A couple lost bags is nothing compared to what [Sigalet] has to go through," Ortio told "I've got so much respect for him."

Sigalet, in his first year as Flames goaltending coach, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was in college. Yet he has overcome the symptoms of the disease, which attacks the immune system and affects the central nervous system, for the past 11 years, contending for the Hobey Baker Trophy while at Bowling Green State University, briefly reaching the NHL with the Boston Bruins in 2006, and becoming an NHL goalie coach.

Sigalet, who self-administers three shots a week to control the disease, doesn't broadcast his condition, unless it's to help raise money for research or aid those dealing with a diagnosis. He wants to be judged on the merits of his work.

Ortio, who became aware of Sigalet's condition when they were in the AHL, said he is impressed with all aspects of the coach's work.

"He's been a huge asset," Ortio said. "That first year I didn't play a lot and we worked on stuff and I got a lot better during that year. He's been there for me when the times have been tough and it's not even … it's a friendship nowadays. So I am really happy that he got an opportunity up here to do what he did for me for three years."

Coaching goalies is only one part of Sigalet's job. He spends a lot of time breaking down video. He records his players in practice with an iPad at ice level and watches the footage with them, believing that a goalie seeing himself play is the greatest teaching tool. He also extensively pre-scouts goalies from the opposition.

Sigalet, who turns 34 next month, spends an average of five hours watching video of opposing goalies before each game, putting his degree in computer animation from BGSU to use by turning those sessions into his version of advanced goaltending statistics.

"I watch every goal from this season and past season and try to figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are, their tendencies," Sigalet said. "You do so much in computers when you have that degree, so a lot of it is Excel spreadsheets pumping out a percentage, like where on the ice goals are coming from, where on the goalie they are going in, and where the rebounds are being kicked out to.

"It's grueling, but I get a good video to put up in the dressing room to watch, and I think it makes a big difference for our team, not just our goalies."

Sigalet has to monitor the grind of those hours carefully, even if many parts of life in the NHL are undoubtedly easier than life in the AHL.

Calgary Flames goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet spent three seasons with the Providence Bruins of the AHL. He appeared in one game for the Boston Bruins in 2006. (Getty Images)

Private charter flights replace commercial airlines and long bus rides. Rather than rewatching entire games, Sigalet has others who isolate and clip key moments like goals, saves, puck handles and specific patterns. The schedule, though, is a lot more hectic with midweek games, and the pressure is ramped up, especially when the losses build.

Neither hectic schedule nor high-pressure situations are good for a disease that can flare up as the body breaks down. (Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding also has played after a diagnosis of MS).

"The pressure of winning is definitely a lot higher, but I thrive on that," Sigalet said. "Rest is huge for me, but you put in a lot of hours if you want to be successful at your job and reach the highest level. It takes time and it takes effort and there are nights you are not going to get very much sleep if you are up thinking about a bad game, but you manage it as best you can. There is tons of stress in the position, it can be a roller-coaster ride, but it's just about keeping an even keel and not getting too high or low, just like when you play the game."

Sigalet kept playing the game long after his March 2004 diagnosis, earning a 2005 Hobey Baker nomination as the top player in college hockey before three seasons in the AHL, a 43-minute relief appearance for the Bruins which delivered on his dream of reaching the NHL, and one more year in Austria before retiring in 2009.

Sigalet said MS did not end his playing career. He takes a lot of pride in making it back to the NHL as a coach, and hopes others can find inspiration -- or like Ortio, perspective -- in his journey.

"There were a lot of doubters when I was diagnosed that I would ever play again and I came back and played, not to prove people wrong but because I loved the game," Sigalet said. "When I retired I wanted to stay involved in hockey, so I got into coaching, and now I've reached the NHL, my ultimate goal. It's a dream come true."

It's further proof you don't have to stop chasing dreams because of a medical condition.

"I always tell people that MS wasn't the end of the road for me," Sigalet said. "I could use it as an excuse but I don't."

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