Tom Fenton’s cell phone rang at 2:30 in the afternoon last Thursday while he was sitting in a barber’s chair. Fenton, 26, is the head of game operations and community relations for the Manhattanville College hockey team (he’s also a volunteer coach and a graduate student in the school’s sports-business-management program) and had played goalie at American International College and in Tier II juniors up in Canada. But still, he didn’t immediately believe what the voice on the other end of the line was telling him: Phoenix Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was sick with the flu, the team was desperate to find a backup netminder for that night’s game against the Rangers, and they wanted him to get to the Garden immediately. The call was indeed real, and some four hours later, Fenton would suit up for the Coyotes, take warm-ups with the team on Garden ice, and sit on the team’s bench as the emergency backup to Jason LaBarbara. Fenton spoke with the Sports Section from his family’s home in Sarnia, Ontario, about getting lost on the way to the Garden, getting teased by the Coyotes players, and his connection to another emergency backup goalie.
So how did this come about?
My phone kept ringing, and I didn’t really want to go for it, because I was getting my haircut. I returned the phone call shortly afterward. It was my friend Steve Ketchabaw from Rye Brook, and he just told me his old coach Frank Effinger, who is the Phoenix Coyotes head scout, was in a desperate situation. Ilya Bryzgalov came down with the flu, and they needed to get a goalie right away, but they couldn’t get one of their affiliate’s goalies from San Antonio, because there was only a three-hour time frame, so they needed to find somebody in the area. And Steve knew me, and I just pretty much got lucky, and I got the call.
Was the Coyotes scout just calling local rinks and colleges?
He was actually just calling Steve, because Steve is pretty familiar with the area, especially the hockey community of Westchester, and Steve knew that I played college hockey. They wanted someone that could hold their own, but at the same time, they couldn’t be playing any kind of pro hockey, and they didn’t want to ruin anybody’s NCAA eligibility, and since I already graduated in ‘09, this was just kind of a perfect situation.
How often do you actually put on the pads and play these days?
To be honest with you, not often. I mean, I coach men’s and women’s hockey, so I’m on the ice five, six days a week. But I’m not taking shots, from even at the college level. I’ll get maybe a couple of men’s hockey games here and there, but nothing really that competitive. The last competitive game I’d say I played was back in March of ‘09 versus Holy Cross.
So just pickup games?
Pickup games, and I would maybe suit up for a practice if one our goalies was sick last year. Even on the women’s side, I would maybe strap on the pads for a practice, if they needed some help.
When was the last time you were in net?
I would say about a month or so ago.
Between your time in juniors and your time in college, did you play against anybody who’s made it to the NHL — anyone with the kind of shot you saw during warm-ups Thursday night?
I practiced with some NHLers while I was in college, and while I was playing Tier II. One of my best friends, Brad Staubitz, plays on the Minnesota Wild right now. I wouldn’t say he’s a pure scorer — he’s actually kind of like an instigator, a fighter — but I have faced some quality shots, but nothing like in warm-ups. I didn’t have a full roster of those guys shooting on me.
Anyone else, besides Staubitz?
When I was playing in Tier II, I had the really unique opportunity where Sam Gagner and John Tavares were call-ups on my team. When those kids were about 16, I was 20, and they would invite me over every day to Sam’s house to skate on his rink in his backyard. He has this really nice, professional rink — his own Zamboni kind of thing. I think his dad sells these rinks for a living. But these kids, even though they were only 16, you could see the talent right away, and I knew these kids were going to the NHL.
So what time did you get to the Garden?
I was kind of panicking, and I think I was more nervous just getting down there, because I was coming in with rush-hour traffic, and I was ducking and weaving through cars. And my GPS somehow screwed up and took me this wrong way, so I had to call my friend Devin Pacheco, who works down at MSG, and he kind of guided me through the streets of New York. Being from Westchester, I’ve been down in the city, but I don’t know it like the back of my hand. Once I got down there, it was probably around 4:15, but then I had to park, and then I had to lug my gear to the rink. I’d say I probably didn’t get in to MSG and to the room until like 4:30.
How exactly did the contract work?
It was an amateur tryout contract, and that was the only thing I was allowed to sign, apparently. Basically, they’re not allowed to pay me, and it was considered a tryout even though I didn’t play. It was such a quick process, they just told me where to sign, read over the paperwork pretty quickly, then I had to go do the whole medical side of it and give my medical background and have the doctors look at me. So it was all pretty quick. We didn’t go on the ice until like 6:30, so there was a little time, and I was hanging out with the guys. All the guys were unbelievable, just kind of joking around about the whole situation.
Any players in particular have anything funny to say?
Everyone had their little jabs, I guess. Starting with Vernon Fiddler: He grabbed my BlackBerry right away and wanted to document me signing the contract. Derek Morris, who’s a defenseman, refused to let me use one of my old college sticks, because he said it was yellow, and that it was hideous. So I had to use one of Jason LaBarbara’s backup ones. And then Shane Doan, the captain, telling me right before we’re going out for warm-ups that the puck gets away from him sometimes, and it might be coming up around my head in warm-ups, and to watch out for those.
Who had the hardest, most impressive shot?
Shane Doan, for sure.
Did any get away from him, up around your head?
I think one went off my shoulder. Also, Ed Jovanovski, he’s got a bullet. I can’t remember who scored. It all happened pretty quick. There was definitely a couple that went right by me.
Once the game started, did you want to get into the game, or were you hoping that you wouldn’t have to go in?
I guess there’s a certain part of me that would have loved to get in there, but at the end of the day, I don’t know if I’d want to get in there. I hadn’t played in so long. I mean, I felt comfortable in warm-ups, but there’s a reason these guys are professional athletes. If I went in, I hope I wouldn’t have gotten lit up. I hope I would have made a couple stops. But no, at the end of the day, I was kind of hoping that I wasn’t going to get in.
There was a story a couple years ago about a Capitals team employee who had to suit up until a backup goalie could arrive. Did you remember that story?
You know what’s funny about that, is that my best friend from home, Doug Slipacoff — his college roommate was Brett Leonhardt, and that’s the guy who went in.
Yeah I know, it’s a weird world how this all happened. Now he actually works for the Capitals, so this situation was different. Obviously, I don’t have a connection to the Coyotes. But it’s just kind of weird that there was that connection between me and Brett, that I actually know him personally.
What did you get to keep from the night?
I cannot say enough positive things about the Phoenix Coyotes organization. First-class run, all the way. Just from everyone being super nice to me, shaking my hand, thanking me that I was doing this for them. I was like, thank you for even letting me step in the room with you guys. And I was lucky to come away with the jersey, and that normally doesn’t happen. Dave Tippett gave me the lineup card, which I thought was pretty cool. The linesman came over in the third and gave me a puck, and I got another one afterward. And then the stat sheet with my name on it. Just a lot of little things. Even MSG gave me a copy of the game, and the same with FSN Arizona.
What team did you grow up rooting for?
People hate this, because if you’re from Ontario, you should be a Leafs fan. But I grew up pretty close to the border of Michigan, and the first-ever hockey game I went to was a Detroit Red Wings–Chicago Blackhawks game, and I fell in love with the Blackhawks. They’ve been my team ever since. So last year, when they won the Cup, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. But I’ll be quite honest with you: I’m probably going to start being a Phoenix Coyotes fan.