KOSICE – There has been no more surprising player who can call himself an NHLer these days than Canada’s goalie, James Reimer. Drafted 99th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2006, the youngster attended the team’s training camp in 2006 and ’07, left little impression, and seemed to disappear into oblivion.
But in this 2010-11 season, another long one for Toronto fans, the goaltending was either shaky or reduced because of injury, and the team decided to give him a chance. He played in his first game on December 20, 2010, in relief. His first start came on New Year’s Day, 2011, a 5-1 win over Atlanta. A star was born.
Reimer’s sensational play gave fans hopes of a playoff spot, but although that never materialized, Reimer continued his impressive play. A season that started last September with another training camp demotion from the Leafs to the AHL Marlies has become something unreal, surreal, incredibly real.
“At the start of the year I told myself I just wanted to have a good year in the minors and hopefully get a shot to play a couple of games before the end of the year,” Reimer said after winning his first World Championship game, 4-1, over Belarus. “Then, lo and behold, I got a chance halfway through. I was lucky enough to get a couple of wins and got the coaches to trust me and they keep playing me. I was fortunate enough to keep winning, and we went on a bit of a run. Now I’m here. It’s more than I could have imagined.”
What’s even more of a compliment is that Reimer’s inclusion on this Team Canada was no afterthought. In fact, he was one of the first players contacted, even before the end of the regular season.
“Nonny [Team Canada GM David Nonis and Leafs’ assistant GM] told me after the second last game of the season,” Reimer explained. “He asked me if I wanted to play at the Worlds. I had just gotten pulled that night, and I was pretty bummed out, so it was great to know I’d get that experience.”
Of course, a country blessed with so much talent has choices, so as teams were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and then lost in the first round of the Cup chase, more goalies became available. That didn’t faze Reimer, and no one has come along to usurp his position.
“Obviously, I paid attention a little bit because I know it does affect me, but all I care about is winning gold and the opportunity to wear the Canada jersey. Whether I was a starter or second or third string, that was a far cry from the first goal which is to win a gold.”
This is only his second time to Europe, his first coming last year at training camp with the Marlies when they played in Scotland. Adjusting to new teammates and the bigger ice hasn’t been much of a problem for him.
“It’s been good, really,” he said. “Great players know how to communicate, and that’s what we have here right now are a bunch of really solid hockey players. All we do is keep things simple. It makes the game pretty easy.”
Simple is Reimer’s mantra. In a season in which he’s gone from AHL to NHL to World Championship, he has improved and adjusted each step as the competition has gotten better, the game faster.
“It’s just a matter of getting used to things. In practice I work hard to know where everyone is on the ice. I do a lot of crease-movement drills all the time whether it’s in Toronto or here, so it’s the same thing. Before and after practice, I work on movement, angles, what the boards are like.”
There is one very interesting angle to his participation here, though. Nonis is also Reimer’s assistant GM in Toronto, and after such a sensational half a season with the Leafs the GM has to wonder if the goalie is a genuine star or if his performance is a blip on the screen. It’s a tough call, made more important by the fact that Reimer becomes a restricted free agent this summer. Is this World Championship, then, a tryout for a big contract with the Leafs in a couple of months?
“Not really,” the ever calm and effusive Reimer said, “but obviously what happens here will determine how good of a goalie I am or how people see me. But right now I’m more stoked just to be wearing the uniform and trying for a gold.”
Gold comes in many forms, and if he wears it around his neck in two weeks, he’ll also be more likely to take it to the bank in the summer as well.