Jim Adams: A long road back for Sharks goalie
December 12, 2008
Editor’s note: Jim Adams, The Union’s resident hockey columnist, went behind the scenes to capture Brian Boucher’s life in the NHL as a backup goalie in this first of a two-part story. Part two on the San Jose Sharks player will appear in Saturday’s edition of The Union.
Joe Thornton was suddenly streaming down the slot, all alone, one-on-one with Brian Boucher.
He snapped off a vicious wrist shot destined for the right corner of the goal. At the last moment, with lightning fast reflexes, Boucher flashed his left pad and deflected the shot harmlessly into the corner.
Moments later, Evgeni Nabokov would slide into his place for a round of shots. Boucher would venture to the corner, again awaiting the next turn to ready himself for an evening date with the Edmonton Oilers.
You see, this is warm-ups and simply warm-ups. He is preparing himself for the possibility that his services might be needed on this night.
This is hockey’s version of the dress rehearsal, when a team takes its last moment touch-ups while readying for the evening contest.
Brian Boucher is a back-up goaltender. He is designed to play the odd game to rest the starter. In all reality, he has become an icon of what has made the San Jose Sharks the best team in the National Hockey League season.
He exemplifies the type of attitude, grit, perseverance, and skill that has made this Northern California’s most successful team.
And although Boucher may be perfectly suited for warm-ups, he is exceptional when it comes time for the real thing.
It is tough to endure a career as a goaltender without a fair share of ups-and-downs, hits-and-misses, victories and defeats.
As the last line of defense, performance is magnified beyond any other player. Errors become more pronounced. Big saves become larger than life. Rarely is it a straight career path for the NHL goaltender. He may last a little longer, but there is no way to describe it other than tough and demanding.
There are many of those warm-ups, a plethora of the dress rehearsals. They often happen live, in real time, as they happen, in game situations, throughout the season.
A first-round draft choice by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1995, Boucher broke into the NHL with a flurry in the 1999-2000 season. His play led the team into the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils.
Boucher was nothing short of brilliant. He took a good team and made it look exceptional. He was lauded for his efforts and all indications were that he was the Flyer goalie of the future.
However, Philadelphia is flatly a tough place to play. Demands are high, and by the second season Boucher hit a speed bump. It was a sophomore jinx that allowed Roman Cechmaneck to wrestle the starting job away.
Boucher is to be respected for his raw honesty.
“Maybe I wasn’t ready to play at 23 or 24,” he said. “I did not have the experience to fall back upon.”
By 2002, he had been traded to Phoenix to play for the Coyotes. It was there, during the 2003-04 season, that he proceeded to establish the modern day record for shutout hockey by a goaltender.
He backstopped the equivalent of 5 1/2 games without surrendering a goal. In what turned into a major media event, Boucher truly brought the spotlight to the Coyotes with stellar goaltending.
However, he struggled with consistency.
The Coyotes were a sub-par team. They were loaded with minor leaguers on a major league roster. Boucher was afforded little help, often left to fend for himself through defensive lapses. It was a rag-tag bunch and their record, as well as Boucher’s statistics, bore this out.
There were defensive players playing as forwards, and there was a general sense of disarray and failure throughout the franchise. Boucher was caught up in the chaos.
Most wondered if anyone could have fared well in that environment.
“I would have liked to finish stronger,” Boucher said.
Things continued to unravel in the years ahead. Stops would include Calgary, Chicago, and Columbus. He was struggling to find an NHL city where he could excel, a place he could truly call home. However, fortune had again somewhat betrayed Boucher. These were tough seasons in largely back-up roles. His numbers were not what he would have liked.
“It was pretty tough,” he said. “I was a fill-in player. I bounced around from team to team. I could not find my niche.”
On July 23, 2007, he made the decision to sign with the Philadelphia Phantoms, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers.
For the first time in eight years, Brian Boucher had ventured into the minor leagues. It was a bold move, but not one without calculation. Although there was certain risk, there was also a firm plan behind this new contract.
“I wanted to play. I wanted to find my game. I did it with the intent to become a free agent,” Boucher said. “I will take one step backwards to take two steps forward. I needed to prove myself.”
Boucher went out and made it happen. He did an exceptional job in Philadelphia for the Phantoms. They amassed a large number of wins. Most felt that he had re-discovered his game. He was having a good year, albeit in the minors. Not only was Boucher accomplishing his goals, he was attracting attention.
He learned that one of the teams interested in him was the San Jose Sharks. Perhaps this was his chance to get back into NHL hockey.
However, as the season progressed, time was running out. The 2007-08 trade deadline was on the immediate horizon. Things were really closing in and there were no deals immediately at hand. Either he would be picked up at the trade deadline or he would likely spend the rest of the season with Philadelphia.
The wisdom of his strategy hung in the balance.
As Feb. 26 approached, he could only wait and see. If no one picked him up, would it be over? Was there going to be another chance? If so, would it be in a city where he could really show his worth and where he might have some semblance of support? With so many questions and very few answers, the clock on the ’07-08 season was ticking.
Yet, he knew he was excelling with the Phantoms and that something good should come his way.
TOMORROW: San Jose makes a move that would help define their playoff run and the 2008-09 season.
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