In the finishing department of Stelco Lake Erie Work's steel mill in Nanticoke, ON, worked Cam Talbot. For three summers as a college student, Talbot was confined to the steel compound chopping, and re-banding scolding hot defected coal throughout his repetitious 12-hour shifts. His head wasn't fastened with his Goalbuster goalie mask, instead protected by a brimmed hard hat. His hands filled heat-resistant gauntlets, not the white, blue and orange blocker and catcher he wears now. The metal in his steel-toed footwear was above his feet, not separating them from the ground.
Talbot clocked in the standard shift-work schedule those days, relieving the factory's full-time employees on holidays. Two days on, two days off - weekends usually included. 7:00 AM until 7:00 PM, unless he'd work graveyards, when it'd be 7:00 PM until 7:00 AM, rotating from days to nights each week. There he was, handling burning coals instead of frozen pucks for half a day throughout those tedious summer months.
"I was in the good department," said Talbot, reflecting on it inside the Oilers Dressing Room. "It wasn't in the coke ovens."
Cam's father Mark, an industrial mechanic at the facility for 25 years and now the union vice president, had the hookup. The two stipulations for getting a student summer job at the steel mill was you had to be accepted to college and have a parent who worked there.
It wasn't glamorous but Talbot didn't mind the work. Yes, the hours were extensive. Yes, you could feel the heat, exacerbated by being wrapped in heavy overalls as well as the fact that it was summer. And yes, it was physically exhausting, like most factory jobs. But, it paid well for a college student and most importantly, it would instill the sedulous character the Caledonia, ON, product owns now.
He'd witness his father run the gamut for all those years at the mill, appreciating the labour further once he did it himself. Then, he'd apply the work ethic he had developed to his hockey career, which was, to say the least, a grind in itself.
"That's a hard-working job," Talbot said of the position, "and it kind of made me realize that I want to take advantage of every opportunity that I get so it made me work even harder."
Talbot's path to the Edmonton Oilers and National Hockey League begins at the steel mill. The Oilers starter didn't know at the time because he never saw it in hindsight, but establishing an appreciation for drudgery was the key to unlocking each door he encountered in his dubious journey to the NHL.
Before the undrafted netminder won more than 50 games in the Ontario Junior Hockey League as a Hamilton Red Wing throughout his three seasons with them, he'd been released by the team. After being cut, Talbot was given a courtesy tryout with the St. Michael's Buzzers, playing well enough to earn the third spot on the club. He was playing for his second cousin Chris DePiero's high-powered squad but knew he wouldn't see much action. His fortune changed with a phone call.
"So I actually had released him, and then I had to call him and eat crow," Hamilton Head Coach John McDonald told the New York Times in 2015. "Thank God I did."
Talbot saw enough success with the Red Wings that the money he earned working at the steel mill would no longer need to be used towards his college fund. A favourable on-ice circumstance was offered along with a full scholarship at the University of Alabama-Hunstville, an NCAA Div. 1 hockey program. There, Talbot would compete for a starting role with the Chargers against two other freshmen.
"It gave me the best opportunity to play in my first year," said Talbot. "That was one of the main reasons I wanted to go there: just to play."
At Alabama-Huntsville, the netminder got his starts, although enduring through some difficult times. Talbot played to a 3-26-3 record in his first two seasons.
"It doesn't take that much to remember three wins in your first two years," said Talbot. But in his third and final season with the Chargers, Talbot carried his club to an NCAA Tournament bid. They'd face Miami University in the Midwest Regional Semifinals.
"We lost 2-1 but he was outstanding," said USA Hockey Under-18 Development National Program Head Coach Danton Cole, Talbot's coach at Alabama-Huntsville at the time. "There was not a shortage of interest in him and he seemed to keep rising to the occasion."
Talbot had two entry-level contracts waiting for him after the game. He received a phone call from his agent notifying him of the two offers on the table. One was from the New York Rangers and the other was from the Philadelphia Flyers.
"My agent called me after the game and said, 'We have two offers on the table already if we want to go over them tonight.' I said, 'Hell yes.' I never thought that was going to be a reality for me," said Talbot.
By living in the moment, Talbot had never thought he would truly get to become an NHL keeper of the crease. Coach Cole did, however, see potential in the prospect at the time.
"When he left (Alabama-Huntsville), he looked like an NHL goaltender," he said. "If you look at his save percentage over the three years, it's a pretty impressive transformation and that's all due to the hard work that he did and where he wanted to get to. Very driven."
Talbot and his agent combed over both organization's depth charts and the hockey staff they'd be working with, eventually choosing the New York Rangers. Talbot was allured by the idea of developing under goalie guru Benoit Allaire.
"One of the main reasons why I chose New York was Benoit Allaire, the goalie coach there and how well he develops goalies. I thought that was going to be a good fit for me."
The following Monday after the loss in the NCAA Tournament, Talbot flew to Hartford to slowly start the transition into professional hockey. He wasn't expected to play any games but an unexpected turn of events forced him to dress as the backup against the Worcester Sharks - the San Jose Sharks' affiliate at the time. Talbot would make his pro hockey debut in the third period, coming in relief of the starter.
"I just get thrown in cold, first pro experience against one of the better teams," Talbot recollected. "I think I got lit up for three goals on 11 shots. Wasn't the best."
The netminder was not discouraged. It ended up becoming a valuable learning experience. Talbot used the instance to prepare for his first NHL training camp the next season.
"It made me work that much harder that summer to make sure I was prepared coming into training camp next year because I knew I was going to an NHL training camp for the first time."
Talbot would go on to spend parts of three seasons in the American Hockey League - and two games in the East Coast Hockey League as a member of the Greenville Road Warriors - with the Hartford Wolf Pack and Connecticut Whale. Like many times before, Talbot gradually made the transition from reinforcement to starter.
In the 2013-14 season, an injury to Henrik Lundqvist gave the backup by nature his next showcase. This time, it was in the NHL. As he had done with all other chances he got, Talbot came up clutch, posting a 12-6-1 record in 21 games with New York. His first piece of the professional pie was savoured wholly.
"You get a little taste now and then, and then you want it more," said Talbot of the drive that kept him fuelled in his pursuit of making the NHL. "That's just kind of how I kept working at it."
You don't ride a roller-coaster like Talbot did without earning one, two - or even three - names for yourself.
Goalbuster. T-Bot. CamBot. The recently coined FamBot - all monikers the Oilers goaltender has come to be called.
Watch, listen or read closely and you just might notice a new one emerging based on Talbot's rate of play.
With 60 starts this season, five more than Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the San Jose Sharks' Martin Jones, and 3562:15 minutes played - three hundred more than both keepers - No. 33 is gaining a new appellation: The Busiest Goalie in the League.
"I love it," Talbot said of the informal title that's been catching on. "This is what I've worked my whole life for; this is all that hard work paying off."
Are the Oilers players surprised by their goalie's body of work?
"Not really," said forward Matt Hendricks. "He shows up to the rink with that professionalism where he works hard every day. For me, it feels like he's doing what he's supposed to be doing, as funny as that sounds.
"If it's not for him, we're not where we are."
Talbot himself admits that he didn't know what would transpire during his tenure in Edmonton. On and off the ice. Seven wins away from tying an Oilers goaltending record, it appears as though he's riding a course much smoother than what he's been used to in the past.
"I started my family at the beginning of the year, too," said Talbot. "It's just been a special year professionally and personally for me."
From 12-hour shifts in a steel mill to 12 consecutive starts in the NHL. Not many could have predicted Talbot's odyssey.
"Canadian kid, grew up in Hamilton," said Hendricks, when asked about his goaltender's ascension. "Goes to Alabama-Huntsville - not a powerhouse in terms of collegiate hockey, not a direct path to the NHL by any means - but he had a dream and he followed it and he continues to work hard at it and I sure am happy that he plays on my team."