As told to: Dan MitchellWhen you’re a kid, you dream of being a fireman, or a policeman, or playing in the NHL. You never wonder how many fires you’ll fight or crooks you’ll catch. It could be one fire or a hundred, it doesn’t matter: you just want to be a fireman. Maybe I was destined to play one game in the NHL, because I only dreamed of playing. I never thought about it any further than that. It could’ve been one game or a hundred. My shot at the NHL came late in my career, when I was 30 and after I’d played in the minors for a decade. I’d signed with the Calgary Flames as a free agent, but was behind a few solid veterans as they went on their Stanley Cup runs. Eventually I moved on to different stops trying to make my mark. I wasn’t old yet, but I was getting to the point where I had to take jobs where my agent could get them, hoping to put up wins and get noticed. I’d even done a stint in England, where they paid me a bunch of money to go over, but I can still remember looking up in the stands and wondering how they ever got the money to pay me, let alone my teammates.
There was maybe a hundred people in the ‘crowd.’ I had gone from the playoffs in North America to empty barns within weeks, but it was just what you did to keep playing, to have a job. I’d done well enough in most of these stops to keep getting offers, and eventually I ended up playing for the Oilers’ AHL farm team with another chance to impress an NHL club, although it certainly didn’t go as smoothly as it should have. Instead of taking advantage, I almost stopped my career dead in it’s tracks, and if it hadn’t been for an intervention from the almighty hockey gods my NHL dream would’ve ended right then and there. I wouldn’t have had anyone but myself to blame, either, as there are certain cardinal rules in hockey that you simply don’t break, and right at the top of the list is “don’t use profanity at your coach.” I had a disagreement with George Burnett, the head coach, after practice one day and ended up saying some things that really should’ve ended any chance I had in the AHL, let alone the NHL. I still remember telling my wife that night, “I just blew it. My career is over.”
“Maybe I was destined to play one game in the NHL”
I was called into the office, expecting the worst, and it looked bad as Burnett didn’t even glance up from his desk as I stood there, resigned and waiting for the inevitable. Eventually, he finished whatever he was doing, looked up at me, and said “Do you realize what you did?” I nodded to acknowledge my guilt, and he paused for a minute to let it sink in. After letting me suffer, and to my utter shock, he said, “Look, here’s the deal. We need two points to make the playoffs. You’re going to start tonight, and if you don’t win, that’s it. I’m going to Oilers management and I’m telling Glen Sather exactly what you said.” I was stunned. I was expecting the axe to fall on my career and was figuring out how to tell my agent, and quite possibly my wife, to start looking for another opportunity. But for some reason, I was being given another shot by the hockey gods. I started our game, got a shutout, and we won. The assistant coach came and got me after the game and took me to Burnett’s office. I was sure he was going to double-cross me. Why wouldn’t he? He’d got what he wanted. I went into the office, convinced I was done, and George said “Do you truly realize the severity of what you did?” I agreed that I’d done something indefensible, and that I was going to pay the price. I knew our deal had been too good to be true. But, miraculously, he said: “Here’s what I’m going to do. You’re going to get the ball to run with, and it’s up to you what we do the rest of the way. You’re my goalie.” I was speechless. He was giving me the chance of a lifetime. I got the next start, and the next one, and we went 14-2-0 the rest of the way– the last team to make the playoffs– and we won the Calder Cup. I was a finalist for the MVP. The hockey gods had seen fit to give me a chance I probably didn’t deserve, and it had opened the door to the NHL.
Our Calder Cup win gave my agent more leverage when negotiating a free agent contract with the Oilers, but the real advantage was encouraging Glen Sather to hire George Burnett to coach the big club, which gave me an ally in the Oilers ranks. Sather and I had never got along– that’s another story– but to this day I am positive Burnett went to bat for me and told management that I deserved a game in the NHL if they were going to sign me. I don’t know for sure, but I truly believe that. Partway through the 1993-94 NHL season, I got the call and started a single game for the Edmonton Oilers. I gave up 3 goals, saved 30 plus, and took the loss. I stayed among the Oilers’ goaltending stats leaders until my games played dropped me off the lists, and then after two weeks with the big club, the trainer told me to get off the bus. Just like that it was over. I’d lived the dream, and played in the NHL.
DAN MITCHELL is a writer/guitar player from Toronto.
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