Word started to spread around 5:30 last night at Madison Square Garden that Ilya Bryzgalov was stricken with the flu and would not be able to start in goal for Phoenix against the Rangers. With veteran Jason LaBarbera on hand to fill in, it seemed like a fairly minor story---though, of course, Bryz, the 'Yotes workhorse, not starting a game was indeed a worthy news item.
The real intruguing news story trickled out moments later when it was announced that Bryzgalov was too sick to even sit on the bench and serve as LaBarbera's back-up. With such late notice---coupled with the fact that the Coyotes' top farm team is based in Texas---Phoenix was in a bind as to whom would serve as LaBarbera's caddy for the night.
Rumors started to fly that popular former NHL goalie Sean Burke---currently the 'Yotes goaltending coach---would dress as the back-up. But that notion was scratched rather quickly when it was mentioned that a pro, or former pro, would have to pass through 24 hour waivers first.
24 hours? The Coyotes had closer to 2 hours to figure all this out!
Enter Tom Fenton. Who? Tom Fenton. Who?
Tom Fenton, 26 year-old former Division III goalie from American International College, currently the head of community relations and hockey operations for the Manhattanville College hockey team in New York.
Fenton fit the bill for the night. Played the position before. Had skated recently. Has his own goalie equipment. Lives locally, so could make it to The Garden fairly quickly. Bring him in!
And so that's what the Coyotes did. Relying on Frank Effinger, the team's Director of Pro Scouting---who has local New York ties, Phoenix got the name of Tom Fenton.
So Effinger called Fenton. And so did a string of other Coyotes' officials. One problem. No answer on his cell.
"I was getting a haircut," Fenton explained to me after the game while standing in the visitors dressing room at MSG. "And who wants to be answering the phone when getting a haircut?"
Pretty good thinking there Tom, but it almost cost you the chance of a lifetime.
Fenton eventually listened to the first message from Effinger. "Get down to MSG. We need you to back up in goal. Blah, blah, blah."
So I asked Tom if he felt like he was being Punk'd.
"Yeah, a little," he laughed (you can watch my entire interview with him by clicking here). "I figured my buddies were up to something. But then I saw a lot of different calls coming from an area code I didn't know. Then it got serious."
Go to Manhattanville and grab his equipment. Get in the car and drive from Westchester down to New York City. Call family, girlfriend ("she's a big Rangers fan"), and friends along the way. And, oh yeah, get to The Garden by 5:00 or else you are not eligible to play.
Oh, and did anyone tell you what entrance to get into MSG? Not exactly by the ticket rotunda off Seventh Avenue, my friend. That's for the paying customers. You are here to work tonight.
After a Spinal Tap-like search, Fenton finally did find the proper entrance, did take his physcial, did sign his paperwork, and then found himself getting needled before warmups by Shane Doan and his brethren.
"I think I did fairly well during warmups, stopped most of them," remembered Fenton. "Of course I didn't face too many. But still, to have Shane Doan and Ed Jovanovski shooting at you. Man..."
Fortunately for the Coyotes---and probably for Fenton, too---LaBarbera was able to backstop the entire game---one that ended 4-3 in favor of the Rangers after a shootout. At one point in the third period LaBarbera was slow to get up after a collision in his crease, and then he began flexing his left leg.
"That's when I really started to sweat heavily," recalled Fenton, who did not win a whole heckuva' lot when he played for the AIC (ahem) powerhouse for four years.
Fenton took much ribbing from his teammates-for-the-day on the bench during the game, especially before the shootout when several players insisted he go in cold to stop the Rangers.
After the game, as he conducted a string of interviews, the soft-spoken and mostly-calm Fenton shook hands with Coyotes staffers and players as they thanked him for helping out in a pinch.
As the Coyotes headed to their team bus for a trip to their next destination on Long Island, Fenton stood alone in the visitors room and tried to soak in what had just taken place over the previous 7 or 8 hours.
His momentos from the day were in his locker and equipment bag. A signed amateur tryout contract. A No. 35 Coyotes jersey with his name on the back. A Coyotes dry-fit shirt. A game puck handed to him by one of the linesmen. And the official game scoresheet.
And more memories than most of us could ever imagine cramming into such a small window.
"It's something I will never forget."
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