Because he is the Lightning’s emergency backup goalie, Konin said he had a feeling what the calls were about. And he was right, sort of.
One of the calls was from Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois, but he wasn’t calling for his team, rather that night’s opponent, the St. Louis Blues, who had just put starter Jordan Binnington in NHL COVID-19 protocol. Backup goalie Ville Husso could start, but the Blues couldn’t call up a goalie from their American Hockey League affiliate because of NHL salary cap issues. They needed Konin.
“Five minutes after [I talked to BriseBois], (Blues general manager) Doug Armstrong and (Blues coach Craig) Berube reached out to me and basically filled me in, welcomed me, and said they’d see me later tonight,” Konin said.
He took part in warmups and sat on the bench but didn’t play in the 4-2 loss to the Lightning.
Welcome to the life of an NHL emergency backup goalie (EBUG).
Under Rule 5.3, if both goalies are unable to continue, a team can dress and play any available goalie who’s eligible. If both goalies are injured in quick succession, the EBUG gets enough time to get dressed and then a two-minute warmup (unless he’s facing a penalty shot). If the EBUG is already on the bench when the second goalie is injured, the EBUG comes in and plays immediately.
Since the 2016-17 season, the NHL has required teams to have a list of local emergency goalie options for themselves and visiting teams. They’ve been used each season outside of 2020-21, when, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL required teams to have taxi squads (four to six players per team, including at least one goalie).
With the pandemic ongoing, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association agreed to the temporary formation of taxi squads from Dec. 26 to the date of a team’s final game before the 2022 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend (Feb. 4-5). Taxi squads, which carry a maximum of six players, give teams readily available players to be recalled, minimizing the chances of playing shorthanded or having games postponed due to pandemic-related issues.
The temporary return of taxi squads decreases the chances of an EBUG being needed, but they are staying ready. After Lightning goalies Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott were placed in COVID-19 protocol on Sunday, Konin practiced with Tampa Bay on Monday.
Most EBUGs are goalies who play in their local leagues. They have some playing experience, be it high school, college or club hockey. Some NHL teams have one or two emergency backup goalies. Others, like the Colorado Avalanche, have five or more they can call.
Prior to 2016-17, coaches or team personnel were usually needed for emergency situations. Robb Tallas, former goalie for the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, dressed twice for emergency duty when he was goaltending coach of the Florida Panthers. In 2013, he was backup goalie for the Panthers for the first 16:16 of a game against the Carolina Hurricanes before Jacob Markstrom replaced him on the bench. In 2015, Tallas dressed after Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya each was injured. Montoya played some before being replaced by Luongo.
Emergency backup goalies must always be prepared.
On the same day Konin got the call from the Blues, Casey Sherwood, who lives in Dallas, got the call from the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were in town to play the Dallas Stars but needed Sherwood for their morning skate because goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo were out due to non-COVID illnesses.
He didn’t dress for the game because Daniil Tarasov was recalled from Cleveland of the AHL and Merzlikins was well enough to be the backup for the 3-2 loss to the Stars.
“You get a pretty big shot of dopamine when someone calls you to say they need you to practice, right?” said Sherwood, who owns a construction company in Dallas. “You have a lot of stuff running through your head, you don’t know the outcome, you’re hoping for the best but you’re also a little nervous. It’s exciting.”
Most of the time, an emergency goalie attends the game but isn’t needed to leave the press box.
Justin Goldman, an EBUG for the Avalanche since the 2016-17 season, said he prepares as if he is playing that night.
“The last thing you want is to be caught unprepared,” said Goldman, who runs the nonprofit Goalie Guild, a foundation that helps support, educate and inspire goalies and goaltending coaches.
He also works as director of athletic partnerships for mindSpark Learning, a nonprofit based in Lakewood, Colorado.
“It’s like you’re a backup: You go on the ice, do things to manage your game, take the pregame nap, get to the rink early, dress up nice,” Goldman said. “It’s such a unique experience for someone who, again, has been obsessed with goalies since he was a little kid. It’s definitely tricky, definitely surreal, but it’s a huge, huge honor and something that no one will ever be able to take away from me.”
Juggling EBUG duties and full-time jobs is part of the deal. Dustin Smith, an EBUG for the Nashville Predators, works for an airline but said his schedule is flexible.
“I end up doing two doubles and a single, work 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. for two days, then a single day, then off for four days. I can make it out to Preds games, men’s league, morning skates,” Smith said. “We have a list of guys and usually I’ll get first pick on things, and there are always a few games here and there I won’t be able to make. If there’s something I can’t make, it goes on down the list from there.”
Konin has his own business, Nujax, a custom airbrushing and mask design studio since 2010, so he can set his own hours. But as the Lightning’s only EBUG, 41 regular-season home games have him at the ready.
“There are a few tough ones, like if you have three [games] during the week and you get home kind of late,” he said. “But other than that, I’ve absolutely loved everything about it. There’s a game in December I can’t make, so they’ll find someone else to fill in.
“I forget what year it was, but I ended up going downstairs, got dressed and hung out in the locker room the whole night,” he said. “Having that experience, I was kind of caught off guard. But after sitting in the locker room, that calmed me down. It was more exciting than anything else.”
Minnesota Wild EBUG Connor Beaupre, son of former NHL goalie Don Beaupre, who played in 666 games with the Minnesota North Stars, Washington Capitals, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, said the closest he got was on Dec. 12, 2017. Former Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk sustained a lower-body injury in the first period. While Alex Stalock took Dubnyk’s place in net, Beaupre got on his goalie gear. The game went to a shootout.
“I was sitting with (forward) Zach Parise, watching the shootout, and (Calgary Flames forward) Johnny Gaudreau made this toe-drag move and Al stayed down,” Beaupre said. “In that moment, I’m like, ‘Am I going to have to go in for one shootout move?’ That possibility never crossed my mind. Maybe in the third or earlier but not once did I think, ‘Huh, I could go in for one shootout shot and the game rests on that one play.'”
Still, there’s always that chance of becoming the next Scott Foster or David Ayres. Foster, an accountant, dressed as a backup goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Winnipeg Jets on March 29, 2018, after Anton Forsberg was injured prior to the game. After starting goalie Collin Delia was injured in the third period, Foster came in and saved all seven shots he faced in a 6-2 win against the Jets.
Ayres, a building operator for the Toronto Maple Leafs, played for the Carolina Hurricanes against Toronto on Feb. 22, 2020, after goalies James Reimer and Petr Mrazek were injured. Coming in during the second period with the Hurricanes leading 3-1, Ayres saved eight of 10 shots in a 6-3 win, becoming the first emergency backup goalie to be credited an NHL win.
“You look at when Scott played, he played incredible. He wasn’t the cleanest, but he made some great saves and gave the team confidence,” Beaupre said.
“I remember when it was happening in Toronto, [the Maple Leafs] scored on Ayres and I thought, ‘That is the worst-case scenario.’ You’re not working out every day, not skating every day. Realistically, it wouldn’t be out of the question if they go in there and get lit up. Even NHL goalies let in six or seven goals a night sometimes. But he ended up getting a win and what a crazy story.”
Whether or not they get in, just knowing the opportunity could be there is enough for most EBUGs.
“It’s a dream come true,” Goldman said. “I grew up in Texas in the middle of nowhere and didn’t know hockey existed until the Stars came from Minnesota, right? Growing up in Texas and having dream of playing in NHL was futile. I recognized pretty quickly that was more of a pipe dream than anything, but I’ve been so committed to the position my whole life. It’s such a surreal experience because you know on any given day, there’s a 99.99 percent chance nothing’s happening. But there’s always that .001 percent chance that it could happen.”