Maple Leafs, James Reimer and the Emergency Goaltenders

By Tony Ambrogio (@SNTonyAmbrogio)

Getty Images

Getty Images

Less than 24 hours after suffering what appeared to be a serious injury James Reimer was back on the ice. It was a welcome sight for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Came back today, felt pretty good,” Reimer said following an hour long practice on Friday.  “I was riding the bike and working out before I hit the ice and hit the ice and felt pretty good.”

Just in case, the Leafs had University of Toronto goalie Michael Nishi on the ice, in the event Reimer couldn’t practice.

For Nishi – who played some goal in the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – it was an “eye opening experience.”

“I’m honoured,” said the 19 year-old. “My family has (Leafs) season tickets so when I was growing up I went to quite a few games.”

On this day he was sharing the goal with Reimer, who told Nishi to “have fun.”

The Leafs called in the teenager keeping in mind what happened two years ago to Reimer. Reimer suffered a serious neck injury after he was struck by Brian Gionta. Reimer struggled to find his form the rest of that season when he returned. Moments following Thursday’s incident in which Josh Leivo hit him and knocked him out of the game 32 seconds into the contest, Reimer couldn’t help but think back to that night in Montreal in October of 2011.

“Oh of course, I think everyone did,” said Reimer. “Obviously I’ve taken care of myself here, tried to strengthen things and have different people giving me insight and wisdom into what I need to do to be stronger. We know more about it. I know more about my own body and how I feel and how I am reacting. Sometimes there are things you have no idea going on but in this case I feel pretty comfortable.”

“We felt last night that it wasn’t anything that would be prolonged,” said Coach Randy Carlyle. “But you always err on the side of caution and you want your player to tell you he’s 100 percent ready to go.”

“It’s a hockey play and you can’t really control it,” said Reimer’s teammate, Jonathan Bernier. “He got lucky.”

Reimer knows it. The Leafs know it.

Reimer wanted to return to the game against the Hurricanes, but doctors wouldn’t allow him. His headache subsided throughout the night and he feels he can play Saturday in Chicago if called upon.

“That’s the plan,” said Reimer. “You never want to be out for whatever reason especially with a head injury. I’m glad everything is feeling great and shouldn’t miss a beat.”

While the Leafs were worried about Reimer’s condition, he was concerned about  Leivo’s well-being.

Leivo couldn’t enjoy his first NHL goal, knowing he injured his teammate. Reimer told him not to worry about it.

“I could tell he had his head down and told him it was no big deal,” Reimer said. “He was doing his job. He tried to miss me and it didn’t work. Obviously it’s no big deal.”

But it could have been.

When Reimer was pulled from Thursday’s game against Carolina, the Leafs needed a backup goalie to finish out the game against the Hurricanes.

That’s where 23 year-old Brett Willows comes in.

The University of Toronto goalie got the call to head to the Air Canada Centre and be the Leafs emergency goalie.

“I was at a restaurant called noodle bowl with a couple of guys on the team. We just finished practice and thought I would treat myself. I had two midterm exams earlier in the day and went there for nice plate of chicken chow mien and got through two bites and the phone call came in (from his University of Toronto head coach) that the Leafs goalie went down and could I come. Sure enough, I threw 20 bucks down and sprinted back down to the rink to pack up all my stuff.”

“Not a lot was going through my head. It was overall numbness. You know it is possible but you never think your number is going to get called.”

“I paid for the meal and sprinted down Bloor in the pouring rain. It was like a scene out of a movie only a little less sexy.”

From there Willows said he watched the rest of the game in the trainer’s room. But first he had to get through security which was a concern for the Rivers, Manitoba native.

You see Willows is a Montreal Candiens fan.

“I wasn’t sure if the security who checked me at the door would have found a Canadiens hat in my back pack tucked away deep down. I was thrilled with the opportunity. Words can’t explain how thankful I am.”

“I always dreamed of being in the NHL and even though it was a back door method, in 25 years the story might progress that I started a game for the Maple Leafs. It was a dream come true.”

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