Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Forrest Gumps of the NHL

Let’s go back in time to 20 years ago this month. It’s July 1994. The Rangers have just snapped a 54-year Stanley Cup drought, the Panthers and Mighty Ducks have finished their inaugural seasons, Wayne Gretzky has won his final Art Ross, and the rookie of the year is a fresh-faced goalie named Martin Brodeur. The NHL is booming and on the verge of finally surpassing the NBA, as long as it doesn’t go and do anything stupid like letting its new commissioner lead the league into a pointless lockout.

And while all of this is going on, a lovable dunce named Forrest Gump is ruling the box office. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his work in the title role, bringing to life a character with a talent for spewing syrupy catchphrases and accidentally wandering into some of history’s greatest moments.

NHL players have never been much for catchphrases, unless you want to count “play a full 60 minutes.” But a few players have had an odd knack for the other half of Gump’s trademark. Here are five NHL players whose careers ranged from mildly successful to downright disappointing, but who somehow managed to make multiple appearances in the history books all the same.

Ty Conklin raises the roof

Conklin is just about the archetype of the journeyman backup goalie. In an NHL career that spanned more than a decade, he played for six franchises and never had a year when he started the majority of his team’s games. He wasn’t drafted, and he never won an award, played in an All-Star Game, or even started a playoff game. He just bounced around, signing free-agent deals and doing a reasonably dependable job for whichever team he managed to latch on with.

In fact, you could argue that Conklin had one of the most forgettable careers of any goalie who ever stepped foot inside an NHL arena. But that was the key — he was only forgettable inside. Because once they started playing games outdoors, Ty Conklin somehow became the most prolific goaltender in NHL history.

Despite never being a full-time starter, Conklin found himself as a starting goaltender in the league’s first three regular-season outdoor games. He started that streak in 2003, when the Oilers hosted the Canadiens in the inaugural Heritage Classic. Thanks to an injury to Edmonton starter Tommy Salo, rookie backup Conklin got the start in what at the time was assumed to be a one-off event.

But four years later, the league headed outdoors again for the first Winter Classic, with the Sabres hosting the Penguins. Conklin was in Pittsburgh that year backing up Marc-Andre Fleury, and when Fleury sprained his ankle, Conklin got the start again. He was the winning goalie, even making a spectacular save to set the stage for Sidney Crosby’s shootout winner.

The following year, Conklin was backing up Chris Osgood in Detroit when the Red Wings headed to Wrigley Field to play the Blackhawks. Needless to say, Osgood got hurt and Conklin was pressed into action yet again, earning the decision in a 6-4 Red Wings win.

Sadly, that would spell the end of his outdoor streak, thanks to the NHL’s stubborn refusal to implement my proposed “Just give the Winter Classic to whichever team employs Ty Conklin” rule. But he did come close to a fourth appearance; he was a member of the Red Wings when it was announced that Detroit and Toronto would face each other in the 2013 Winter Classic. That year’s lockout postponed the game and spelled the end of Conklin’s pro career — not to mention sparing starter Jimmy Howard from an inevitable mysterious injury.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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