Canucks and Beyond

Dreams of Playing in the NHL

09/16/2011 at 5:24pm EDT

These days, getting a tryout with a NHL team is nearly as exclusive a process as signing a contract itself. And if there are any modest surprises on the roster, they’re usually the result of formal tryout contracts, like those which Owen Nolan and Todd Fedoruk signed with the Canucks this year.

The process is highly systematic to achieve the best results, both in conditioning the players with guaranteed roster spots and possibly promoting other players for the team, depending on their performance in training camp. As Stan Smyl explained in the Vancouver Sun today, it’s all about development, and we can assume it’s probably a more efficient and effective means of readying the roster, as compared to the past.

But this story he tells about a training camp incident some years back is the kind of thing I’d like to imagine happened more often:

“I remember this one guy, his nickname was Red, and he drove to the rink in a truck with his hockey equipment in the back and asked for an opportunity and [Brian Burke] gave him one,” said Smyl.

“He only lasted a few days, but there he was on the ice at training camp with a chance to make the team.”

That’s the kind of thing that keeps dreams alive for thousands of armchair fans, those of us (well, the male members of “us”) that put out a decent effort in our beer league game on Wednesday nights, then watch our NHL team from the safety of our sofas on Saturday, feeling nicely-pickled by a plate of nachos and a couple of beers.

Damn, if I show up at camp next September, maybe I’ve got a chance…

Foolish and unlikely, sure, but not a bad dream to have.

One of my favorite stories along these lines was the nearly-legendary experience of Chris Levesque back in 2003 (*I can’t believe it’s been that long!). For anyone who doesn’t remember, the situation was this:

The morning of a Canucks home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dan Cloutier had an injury in practice, pushing backup Johan Hedberg into the starting goalie spot. With their AHL goalie Alex Auld on the other side of the country, there was no other option available to sit on the bench for Hedberg that night. Until someone thought of Chris Levesque.

Levesque was a goalie with UBC’s Thunderbirds… and not their starter, either. Or even their regular backup. He was the third choice goalie on the team… and yet he became the Canucks only viable option for that night. And even then, no one could find him till 4:30 in the afternoon.

At the time Levesque was in one of the many UBC libraries studying for a geography exam he had the next morning. His friends and teammates scoured the campus, and when they found him, he assumed he was the victim of a prank. He was not convinced otherwise until he received a phone call from Jon Wall, Manager of Scouting and Player Information for the Canucks. Once he realized the situation was real, he quickly received a one-time exemption from Canadian Interuniversity Sport rules to play in the NHL, and drove to General Motors Place to take a spot on the bench.

imageWhen Cloutier failed to take the warm-up skate, Levesque officially took the position of backup goaltender for the game. There was an extremely low chance that Levesque would have to play. However, a late first-period collision between Hedberg and Konstantin Koltsov nearly forced Levesque to play. Luckily, Hedberg was not hurt. Levesque finished the game as a backup…


I remember that game so well—it was such an outlandish situation but a pretty awesome one, too. Every Canucks fan watching that game must have held their breath when Hedberg went down that night, and I’m probably not the only one who secretly hoped Levesque might get his chance to set up in net. Not that we’d wish anything bad on Hedberg, but who wouldn’t want to see an “Average Joe” get a shot and (fingers-crossed) truly shine?

Not that Levesque was entirely average, of course, given that he did hold a spot with a university team, which is obviously more than most of us have ever achieved in hockey. But in a practical sense, he was an Every Man to hockey fans that night. Nearly every hockey fan who watched or heard about that game must have imagined for a moment how exciting it must have been for him… and imagined themselves in his place.

There’s no doubt about it, today’s training camps and player development in general are finely-tuned machinations that turn out the best players for the team. But once in a while, knowing that a guy named Red or Chris get a chance is pretty cool, too.

So here’s hoping we see another guy sneak in the back door like that again one day. You never know what might happen…

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