With Ondrej Pavelec on the shelf with a wonky knee, and with backup Michael Hutchinson sporting a paltry .266 winning percentage, Jets fans are wondering how Connor Hellebuyck will fare, as he shoulders the bulk of the work at the end of the regular season.
Well, if it’s durability you want in a netminder, look no further than Bob James.
Earlier this month, James strapped on his goalie pads for his weekly noon-hour, men’s league game at CanLan Ice Sports, 1871 Ellice Ave. No sooner was that tilt in the books than the 54-year-old grandfather received a text message from members of another team, wondering if he could suit up for them at the same venue, later that afternoon.
James finally arrived home around 6 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, his phone went off again; the captain of a squad that calls the Winnipeg Winter Club home was hoping James could make it down to the River Avenue facility in time for an 8 p.m. start.
"After that, I had an hour or so to relax before an 11 o’clock game at Dakota (Community Centre) that had already been set up the night before. So all in all, I was on the ice for close to six hours that day," he says, rolling his eyes.
Welcome to a day and night in the life of a rent-a-goalie — an occupation you’re probably unfamiliar with unless you’ve ever toiled for a "beer league" hockey team and, at the last second, found your regular puckstopper was working late, sidelined with the flu or unable to find the keys to his vehicle.
"This is my 11th season renting goalies and for sure, I’ve literally fielded calls along the lines of ‘The game is starting right now. How soon can somebody be here?’" says Patrick Herman, who runs My Puck Goalie, a Toronto-based firm that has close to 60 netminders at its disposal, ranging in age from 21 to 55.
"I don’t know what the rules are in Winnipeg but here (in Toronto) if you don’t ice a full team, including a goalie, the league can fine you as much as $200. So it’s a lot cheaper to pay us $40 or $50 to send a guy out. Not to mention it’s more fun for the people playing when there are goalies at both ends of the rink."
Unlike the majority of goaltenders associated with Herman, or with similar companies such as Goalies Unlimited, Prestige Goalie Rental and Goalies To Go, James didn’t have years of experience minding a crease when he began offering his services 15 months ago. He grew up in Montreal, he says, but because money was tight, his parents could barely afford to sign him up for community club hockey, never mind pay for goaltending equipment.
"That never stopped me from wanting to play goal, though," James says, mentioning his childhood idol was five-time Vezina Trophy winner Ken Dryden. "I remember we had this old, wooden bench in our house. One day I cut it in half and used the foam from the cushions to make myself a pair of pads, which I wore whenever I was outside playing street hockey."
In December 2014, James, who is semi-retired, was chatting with one of his wife’s co-workers. The fellow belonged to a Friday midnight league and mentioned in passing there was a dearth of goalies willing to play at that late hour. He added if a person was looking to make some extra money, they could easily rent themselves out as a goaltender, five or six times a month.
Intrigued, James went shopping. A couple of weeks later, he lucked into a full set of goalie equipment, "including the jock," that the original owner was letting go for $350 – a steal considering a new set of gear can run as much as $4,000.
After purchasing a goalie stick and proper pair of goalie skates, James became a familiar face at the outdoor rink in his neighbourhood where, on a nightly basis, he encouraged whatever kids were scrimmaging there to fire shots at him, at will.
"I have to say, those pickup games really helped sharpen my skills and by Christmas (2015), I had posted a thing on Kijiji, advertising my services," says James, who pegs his net worth at $30 per game — $40 if he backstops a team to victory. "I saw some show-offs bragging online that they had the best save percentage, best goals-against average, et cetera, but I decided to put my money where my mouth is and only charge what seems to be the going rate when I win."
Niki Sawni is the founder of Puck App, which he describes as "Uber for recreational hockey teams."
Sawni launched Puck App in Toronto and Ottawa in November 2015. On March 1, he hired a person in Calgary to manage requests throughout western Canada, including the Winnipeg area.
"I ran a similar rent-a-goalie-type business before but without technology, it was a lot of phoning, emailing and trying your hardest to track people down," Sawni says, when reached at home in Toronto. "Basically what our app does is, if you’re looking for a goalie, you enter your city, home rink, what time your game starts and the level of play. It’s then going to ping all the goalies in Winnipeg, for example, to let them know there’s an opening tonight at 7 p.m., and whoever wants to play can pick up the game, and message the team from their smartphone."
In the same way Uber users can rate their ride-sharing drivers, people who employ Puck App can grade a goalie’s performance on a scale from one to five, Sawni says, one being "sieve" and five being the second coming of Johnny Bower.
"There’s also a section where the team or goalie can leave comments like ‘Thanks for the great win’ or ‘Appreciated all the blocked shots,’" he continues, noting he has contact information for close to 1,000 goaltenders — male and female — in his database. (Puck App charges $40 for a goalie’s services, with $25 of that going to the person between the pipes.)
"What I usually do when I get home is jot down the final score in a notebook and make little notes about what I need to work on, like controlling rebounds or playing pucks behind the net. I don’t really keep track of wins and losses but I can tell you I’ve had two shutouts this year. Mind you, the periods were only 12 minutes long and the guys firing on me weren’t exactly NHLers." (Describing himself as "not much of a drinker," James admits he learned a valuable lesson a few weeks ago, when the guys on a team that enlisted his services encouraged him to join them in a pre-game beer. "Afterwards, I was feeling a bit woozy and the first four shots I faced all went in," he says with a chuckle.)
James rents himself out two or three times a week, year-round. He knows he could probably get more work if he signed up with a firm such as My Puck Goalie or Puck App but for now, he’s content being a "free agent," he says.
"When I started, I kind of thought I was over-the-hill but I have run into a few other goalies in their 50s and 60s so my plan is to keep playing as long as I’m able," he says, mentioning his most memorable moment to date occurred last month when he forgot to pack his protective cup, and was forced to stuff one of his running shoes down his jockstrap, to shield his private parts.
"Playing goal after all these years is definitely a dream come true, but I guess the thing I like most is how nice everybody is to me when I show up, at the last second. The guys are so happy somebody’s willing to play net for them that even when a couple of pucks get by me early, they’re usually the ones apologizing to me, saying it was their fault."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.