VIDEO: A visiting OHL team in St. Catharines had forward Connor Crisp play goalie 10 years ago today

By

Published March 4, 2022 at 6:42 pm

If the walls inside 85-year-old Garden City Arena could talk, they might tell you about the time 10 years ago today — when Connor Crisp got a standing ovation and first-star honours after allowing 13 goals.

High-performance sport such as the Ontario Hockey League, 99.9 per cent of the time, involves watching talented, driven athletes maxing out every second. Sometimes some zaniness sneaks in through a side door. A Major League Baseball team puts in a position player to pitch when they are losing 17-2 in the eighth inning. A 350-pound NFL behemoth scores a touchdown.

The spirit of that made its way into the old arena in downtown St. Catharines — which will soon be decommissioned — on a Sunday afternoon in early March 2012. Crisp, a centre for the Erie Otters, had to play goalie after his team’s only healthy netminder was injured in the second minute of play against the Niagara IceDogs. That rendered the outcome of the contest a foregone conclusion, with the IceDogs winning 13-4, with current New York Rangers forward Ryan Strome scoring five goals.

The baker’s dozen of goals Niagara scored are forgotten. A highlight reel of Crisp’s 32 saves, and the reception he received from IceDogs players and fans for taking one for the team, is preserved on YouTube. The reel captures the moment in all of its absurdity, from the moment Crisp skated on to the ice rather wobbly-like, since his double-E-wide feet were squeezed into the goalie skates customized for the much narrower feet of the injured Ramis Sadikov.

Teams in the OHL typically do not shake hands after a regular-season game. But the IceDogs streamed down the ice after the final buzzer to show respect to Crisp. Strome was actually the first player to reach him. His save percentage would forever stand at .711.

So how did this all transpire? Perhaps the hockey Gods simply would not let a late regular-season matchup between two teams that had trended in opposite directions since Thanksgiving — the Canadian one — unfold uneventfully.

Niagara was loaded up for a run at the OHL championship. The ‘Dogs had three NHL first-round choices who remain active in the league today — forward Ryan Strome and defencemen Dougie Hamilton and Jamie Oleksiak. Two other forwards, Tom Kühnhackl and Carter Verhaeghe, went on to earn Stanley Cup rings. Another three have played in the NHL, including current Calgary Flames wing Brett Ritchie.

The last-place Otters were near the end of a tank that would land them a 15-year-old wunderkind named Connor McDavid in the next OHL Priority Selection draft. And that day, their lineup had more future NHLers — Connor Brown and Adam Pelech, who were both in their 17-year-old seasons — than goalies. Erie rolled in with just their overage starter, Sadikov. Rookie understudy Devin Williams had a head injury.

That led to Crisp, who had just resumed full-contact practices with the Otters after rehabbing from shoulder surgery, being told he was the backup goalie. Erie equipment manager Mike Hildenbrand attached a Crisp nameplate to a No. 1 goalie jersey, but Crisp never thought he would be wearing it.

‘Could barely skate at first’

Just 1:45 into the contest, Sadikov was plowed into by the IceDogs’ heart-and-soul hometown overage centre, Alex Friesen, who plays for the Bremerhaven Penguins in Germany’s DEL. Erie’s assistant general manager Dave Brown called Crisp to ask if he was ready for his goaltending debut. Sadikov was escorted off the ice.

“I was just hanging out in the stands and I saw Rammer (Sadikov) got run and I got a call from Dave Brown saying, ‘Are you ready?’ ” Crisp told a reporter later that day when he was reached on the Otters’ bus ride home. “I was like, ‘Seriously?’ And he says, ‘Oh no, I think he’ll be fine.’ And the next thing I know he’s being helped off the ice.”

Crisp got to the dressing room. Sadikov got out of his goalie gear, and teammates and staff proceeded to help Crisp put it on, the way parents do with their children in youth hockey. Only the first-time goalie was a strapping 6-foot-3 prototype power forward.

“I pretty much sprinted to the change room and started gearing down. (Erie head coach) Robbie (Ftorek) walked in and I asked, ‘Am I going in?’ He said, ‘We need a goalie.’ I’ve never been dressed up as a goalie before. I had no idea what I was doing. I had (Otters forward) Dane Fox strapping one pad on, our equipment manager doing up the other one, the goalie coach telling me what to do. It was a hectic 15 minutes of getting dressed. I’ve never been so nervous in my life.

“As soon as I got the nod from the coach, I was like, ‘Jesus, this is becoming so real right now.’ As soon as I stepped on the ice and could barely skate at first with the goalie skates on, I was thinking this could be a long day.”

It was. But what endures in memory, 10 years later, is how everyone involved in that game — players on both teams, fans in the old barn, and the broadcasters calling the game from each side’s perspective, including Steve Clark, Ed Burkholder and Al Galloway for TV Cogeco Niagara, as well as Otters radio play-by-player and media relations director Paul Roper — seemed committed to the bit. They tuned into the vibe that this was a one-time oddity — something that might never happen again, with good reason.

Or as Crisp put it at the time: “It was funny at first and then it just escalated from there.”

The IceDogs were up 3-0 before Crisp, in Clark’s deft phrasing, “could say he’s made a save in the OHL.”

The quality of mercy was definitely not lost on the IceDogs.  As an NHL first-rounder and Niagara’s first-line centre Strome led a lot of rushes across the offensive blueline. But he seemed extra-inclined to dial down his bursts of speed and distribute the puck to a teammate.

Niagara led just 3-2 after one period, but stretched the lead to a safe 7-3 by the end of the second. That hardly mattered. A mismatch on paper in a development league that has a much lower profile than the NHL was trending on Twitter. Fellow juniors, who live in that strange transition phase of being not too far removed from playing youth hockey for fun while being hyperfocused on becoming hockey men who can go to the Next Level, loved it. .

“The things I would do to play goalie for a game,” Brody Sutter, then captain of the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Western league, wrote during the game. “Connor Crisp is living the dream in the OHL right now.” Sutter, son of Duane of New York Islanders fame and the nephew of NHLers Brian, Brent, Darryl, Rich and Ron, added the hashtag #Jealous.

Afterward, the official position of the Otters was apologetic. It was actually the second time that season Erie had started a game with one goalie. Erie managing partner Sherry Bassin, a legendary OHL executive, expressed regret. IceDogs CEO Bill Burke Sr. called the whole episode “brutal.” The league, under commissioner David Branch, was firm that should never happen again.

Aftermath

In terms of the where-are-they-now, Crisp went on to a respectable career at his regular position. The Alliston, Ont., native got drafted by the Montreal Canadiens and played parts of five seasons of high-level minor pro, including a turn with last team the Hamilton Bulldogs iced in the American Hockey League. Complications from brain injuries led to him retiring. Crisp is now a realtor and also owns a hockey school.

Niagara’s devoted fanbase is still waiting for a championship celebration in downtown St. Catharines.

Those ’11-12 IceDogs went to the league final, but ran into an immovable object called the London Knights, who blocked a guesstimated 800 shots per game and iced the puck just as frequently when they were holding a lead. Four seasons later, Niagara reached the OHL final again and ran up against another London team that was more of an irresistible force catalyzed by current Toronto star Mitch Marner. Marner-led London swept Niagara 4-0 to win the OHL title, and also won the Memorial Cup tournament.

Of course, Marner was also on the Toronto Maple Leafs in February 2020 when they lost against a Zamboni driver, David Ayres, who filled in as the Carolina Hurricanes’ emergency backup goalie after both regulars went down with injuries. That saga endures as a punchline that will last until the Leafs end their Stanley Cup drought.

The Ayres story has probably pushed The Connor Crisp Game further into obscurity. But fans of junior puck will always find joy in remembering it, because that was the spirit of the thing.

insauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising