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Curtis McElhinney: The long, winding trip to a Stanley Cup

From sixth round pick to Stanley Cup champion, McElhinney persevered

Curtis McElhinney was in his happy place.

It was late summer and he was bobbing on a boat, hanging out with some family members, cruising up stream while taking in the scenery.

This time, however, he didn’t have his fly rod in tow and the water was far too crowded to cast a line. He was celebrating the first Stanley Cup victory of his well-travelled 13-year NHL career with teammate Braydon Coburn and his family, as they floated the Hillsborough River en route to a socially distant celebration at Raymond James Stadium.

Eighteen years prior to that boat ride, he was on another boat, this time with his own family and friends.

McElhinney was at a fishing lodge on Canada’s west coast, a little north of Vancouver, where his only care in the world was getting a nibble at the end of his line.

Upon returning home to Calgary after a good haul, he was amazed to discover the Calgary Flames selected him with the 176th pick in the sixth round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

“I certainly was surprised by the news,” said McElhinney. “It wasn’t something that was on my radar at that point.”

Passed over in the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft, McElhinney joined the legendary Notre Dame Hounds program in Wilcox, Sask. From there, he committed to the Colorado College Tigers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Appearing in nine games as a freshman, he posted a 6-0-1 record with a .918 save percentage and a 2.04 goals against average.

Despite the limited action, the Flames still found him intriguing enough to spend their ninth pick on him.

“Even though he only played a few games in college, our scouts knew his body of work prior to then,” said the former Flames General Manager responsible for drafting Curtis, Craig Button. “Mike Sands was one of our great scouts back then and a former goalie. Two big things he liked about Curtis back then were his raw potential and his willingness to work hard to get better.”

A sixth rounder is far from being a slam dunk to crack an NHL roster, but McElhinney was convinced he had what it took to make the big leagues.

“I was still focused on the day-to-day in college and trying to make things happen when the opportunity presented itself,” said McElhinney. “But I always thought it was a step 1-2-3 thing to make the NHL. You could call it blind optimism or being naive, but I thought that I was going to finish my time at Colorado, spend two years in the minors and then play in the NHL for 10-15 years.”

Once he graduated to professional hockey, it didn’t take him long to discover that might not be the case.

After spending one season with the Flames’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights, McElhinney made his debut during the 2007-08 campaign at 24-years-old in relief for Mikka Kiprusoff at the Saddledome.

Calgary Flames v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Winless in five outings to start his career with the big club, McElhinney’s season was interrupted by his childhood idol, Curtis Joseph (also a Notre Dame alum.) The Flames inked the 40-year-old netminder on January 17, 2008, to serve as Kiprusoff’s primary backup. McElhinney spent the remainder of the season in the AHL.

With CuJo back in Toronto for 2008-09, McElhinney nearly went another full season without earning his first victory and game puck in the NHL.

In game 82, a Vancouver Canucks’ win over the Colorado Avalanche meant the Flames were cemented as the second seed in the Northwest division, making their season finale against the Edmonton Oilers nonessential in the standings. As the backup, McElhinney was given the crease so Kiprusoff could enjoy a rare night off.

“I didn’t find out that I was starting the game until 3:30 p.m. that day. Maybe that was the best way to go about it – just get thrown into the situation without thinking too much,” said McElhinney. “It certainly took a lot longer than I thought to get my first win.”

At 32-years-old and coming off a season where he led the league in wins (45), Kiprusoff wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. The Flames moved on from McElhinney in 2009-10 when they sent him to the Anaheim Ducks for fellow netminder Vesa Toskala. In Southern California, he was once again stuck behind a workhorse, this time it was Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller, who started 59 games that season.

“I was still optimistic about playing in the NHL, although it was becoming harder to fill that backup role as a younger guy. At that point, I didn’t think I was going to get a long career with the performances I was turning in,” said McElhinney.

As much as he still wanted to be a No. 1 option, the league was sending him messages that perhaps that wasn’t going to be the case. He spent the next two seasons with three different organizations: the Ducks, the Ottawa Senators and the Phoenix Coyotes. Over the course of those two seasons, the London, Ont. product played in 30 games, totalling a 10-13-1 record with two shutouts; produced a respectable 2.05 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.

Following a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on New Year’s Eve in his second showing with the Coyotes, McElhinney was shipped down to the minors. It was a move that he claimed saved his career.

Phoenix Coyotes v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

An inconceivable statement for most, as he soon experienced an injury commonly seen in high-speed motorcycle crashes and bull-riding catastrophes.

In his 26th start of the season for the Portland Pirates, McElhinney saw his team lose a defensive zone draw in the first period. The Manchester Monarchs’ blue line pair dialed up a d-to-d pass and ripped a one-timer. McElhinney pushed off, sliding across the ice to make the save when he heard a loud pop, followed by insurmountable pain.

The result was a fracture in his lower pelvis, along with some lower abdominal muscles getting torn off the bone. He was done for the season.

“Before the injury, it began to feel like I was climbing uphill just to stay in the league. Maybe I wasn’t even looked at as a backup at that point,” said McElhinney. “Surgery meant that I couldn’t walk or do anything for a long time. So I sat and thought about what my future in the game was going to be. It was the only time in my career where I let retirement creep into my head. But I kept believing that I had more to give. I needed to figure out how to do it successfully.”

Nine months of rehab later, he was healthy again for the 2012-13 season when he caught his second big break – the NHL lockout.

During rehab, the Columbus Blue Jackets traded Antoine Vermette to the Coyotes for a pair of draft picks. Maxed out with 50 contracts, the Coyotes sent the injured McElhinney the other way to make the deal work. The Blue Jackets later signed him to a two-way AHL contract that summer. His road back to the show began with the Springfield Falcons.

Working with former Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark, McElhinney retooled his game.

“Once we got him into our stable, I began watching his game closer and we began discussing things I felt he could correct and add to his game. A lot of it came down to what I call, ‘efficiency in net.’ In order to be efficient, a goalie needs to be highly organized in how they move about the crease. We also talked about non-technical things such as work habits and discipline,” said Clark. “To me, an indication of talent is the ability to process information and convert that into your work. Curtis embraced the journey with both arms, took on the challenges, the work and the discipline he needed to elevate his game.”

During the lockout, most AHL franchises boasted rosters featuring at least a handful of regular NHLers. Even though McElhinney was working with such talents as Cam Atkinson, Jonathan Marchessault, Nick Holden, Ryan Johansen, David Savard, Matt Calvert and Boone Jenner, his head coach at the time credits him for coming into camp healthy and grabbing the net.

“That summer heading into camp, we didn’t know who our No. 1 guy was going to be. I knew that Mac was a veteran guy that had been around a bit and was coming off a big injury. The starter job was wide open and we wanted to see if he could do the job,” said former Falcons head coach Brad Larsen. “To his credit, he’s an easy guy to coach. He works hard, he’s low maintenance and is great with his teammates. He was outstanding for us that year and things kind of snowballed for him after that.”

McElhinney handled the lion’s share of the workload that season and produced a 29-16-3 record and a 2.32 goals against average. He also set franchise records with a .923 save percentage and nine shutouts.

His AHL performance allowed the Blue Jackets to move on from former Calder Memorial Trophy winner Steve Mason at the 2012-13 trade deadline, clearing space for McElhinney once an 82-game season returned to the NHL in 2013-14.

Even though he was behind the eventual two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky on the depth chart, he maintained a fixed address for nearly four seasons and began to carve out his new role as a reliable reserve.

Curtis McElhinney during his Columbus days
Jamie Sabau/Columbus Blue Jackets

“As a backup, the first thing you want to do is be good on the ice, have a half-decent record and give your team an opportunity to win each night. It’s also key to be an asset to the starter and figure out the best way to help him out and feel comfortable. I worked with a lot of different No. 1 guys by that point and they were all different,” said McElhinney. “I was never sure how to sell that off-ice stuff to other teams, though. There are no analytics for that.”

While the intangibles might not show up on a spreadsheet, the league was beginning to notice the value McElhinney brought to the table.

“Nobody wants to work with a**holes,” said Button, who served as the Director of Player Personnel for the 1999 Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars and can now be seen on TV as TSN’s Director of Scouting. “Once a goalie realizes he’s a backup, he needs to figure out what he can do to benefit not just the other goalie, but the whole team. That could involve getting out on the ice early to work with the other goalie. It could mean getting into a mental state where you expect to play each game because you never know when you’re going to get the call. Or, it could mean staying on the ice a little longer to stop a few buckets of pucks to help your forwards get ready.

Curtis worked at it and put himself in position to be part of some really good goalie tandems. Good teams are looking for players that can help you win in different areas. There’s a reason why good teams like Toronto, Carolina and Tampa wanted him around.”

After posting a .909 save percentage with a 2.81 goals against average in 85 games with the inconsistent Blue Jackets, he was placed on waivers and soon claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Fourteen games with the Blue and White earned him a two-year, $1.7 million contract from Toronto, where he eventually made his career-defining save.

Signed as backup once again, this time to Frederik Andersen, McElhinney had a great view of a young, talented core attempting to end a four-year playoff drought.

Andersen positioned the Leafs well heading down the stretch. With two games left in the season, the Leafs needed at least one win to clinch a playoff birth.

Waiting for them in their penultimate game was the already-clinched Pittsburgh Penguins.

To nobody’s surprise, Andersen got the call between the pipes despite McElhinney’s strong 11-5-1 season with three shutouts, a 2.14 goals against average and a .934 save percentage. At the 2:01 mark in the second with the score tied 1-1, Tom Sestito clipped Andersen up high to draw a goaltender interference penalty. The bigger loss was for the Maple Leafs, though, as Andersen was forced to leave the game and never returned.

In stepped McElhinney.

McElhinney battled, stopping 11 of the first 13 shots he faced. But his biggest save came at the biggest point of the game with one of the biggest stars of the game left wide open on the doorstep.

The Leafs led 4-3 with less than one minute remaining in regulation. Former Maple Leaf Phil Kessel had the puck on the half wall, where he spotted Sidney Crosby with a cross-ice feed. The two-time Hart Trophy winner blasted a one-timer, but McElhinney glided over – a similar movement to the one that injured him six years earlier in Portland – to rob Crosby with the left pad and covered up the rebound, unofficially punching the Maple Leafs playoff ticket.

“Curtis is recognized in the hockey world as a No. 2 goalie. But at the end of the day, he has incredible talent not just for his position, but for that role. His ability to process what he’s being asked to do is a testament to the care of work he puts into his craft,” said Clark, who is currently in his second stint with the Canucks as their goaltending coach.

For McElhinney, it meant that he was heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14 with the Blue Jackets and for just the third time in his career.

“After spending so many years of missing the playoffs, I kind of stopped thinking about the Stanley Cup, it was more about staying in the league. Then when you start to get close to the playoffs again, you get tingles on your neck on your way to the arena and you realize how big of a moment you’re in,” said McElhinney. “Playing in Toronto was an amazing experience and one of the highlights of my career. To contribute to my team in that game and get them over the hump with that save was a pretty special moment. It was everything I had been working towards all those years happen at once.”

That one save that lives in Maple Leafs’ lore was only the beginning of good times for McElhinney.

For the first time in his life, Hockey Canada came calling that spring. Despite dazzling in five games with a 1.48 goals against average and a .936 save percentage at the IIHF World Championship surrounded by mega stars Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly, Pierre-Luc Dubois - among others – Canada walked away empty handed with a fourth-place finish.

Even with the recent run of reliable goaltending, McElhinney was placed on waivers by the Maple Leafs prior to the 2018-19 season.

The then 35-year-old landed on his feet as the surprise team of the season, the Carolina Hurricanes, scooped him off the wire to replace injured goalie Scott Darling. McElhinney worked with Petr Mrazek for more of a 1A-1B situation, rather than a starter-backup system.

“I give Mac a lot of credit – he gets it. It’s hard to be a backup and only get in a game once in every two weeks. He never complained, always worked hard, took extra shots at practice and he was one of those guys that was a dream to coach. Sure, he wanted to play, but he understands there are situations that you’re not going to have the net as often as you’d like and he always handled it perfectly,” said Larsen, who recently finished his sixth season as an assistant coach with the Blue Jackets.

With the Hurricanes, McElhinney started a career-high 33 games, going 20-11-2 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.58 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. He also helped the ‘Canes return to the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons as a Wild Card team.

Amidst both “Storm Surge” and “Bunch of Jerks” campaigns, the Hurricanes went deep into the playoffs aided by McElhinney.

McElhinney was three weeks away from his 36th birthday when he took over the net for Game 3, a start that broke Ross Brooks’ 46-year-old record for the oldest goalie to make his playoff debut. He celebrated the milestone by robbing Nick Leddy with a ridiculous skate save in the second period, en route to the series sweep over the Islanders. He appeared in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final before Mrazek came back for Game 3 and 4, but the Hurricanes lost in four to the Boston Bruins.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a lot of great memories happen to me towards the end of my career. I spent so many years grinding to get these opportunities, it’s nice to have everything pay off recently,” said McElhinney. “I thought it was very special to play for an original six franchise with the Maple Leafs. I never thought I would have the chance to put on a Hockey Canada sweater and skate with some of the best players in the world. I also didn’t know what I was getting into with the Hurricanes, but it turned out to be one of the best years of my life.”

However, all of those moments and memories take a back seat to Lord Stanley’s Cup.

McElhinney was wading in the waters in the summer of 2019; searching for beautiful brown trout and for his next deal.

“Contract negotiations are never that fun for backups. They aren’t so much negotiations; it’s more about deciding the best landing spot,” said McElhinney. “That summer, I had a few teams that were interested. I was trying to figure out where the best spot to go was, then, out of nowhere, Tampa came in and made it a fairly easy decision.”

Coming off a NHL record-tying season with 62 wins and the President’s Trophy, the Lightning were backed with the top offence (325 goals for) and returned the Vezina Trophy winner in net (Andrei Vasilevskiy.) McElhinney also thought they were fueled by being the first No. 1 seed to get swept by a No. 8 seed – his old Columbus club - in the previous playoffs. The Lightning looked like a wonderful landing spot for the 37-year-old journeyman.

“No matter who’s on your team, there is always some uncertainty about the season until you get into the playoffs. Even then, anything can happen. But I knew they had a really solid team and that they potentially could make something happen,” said McElhinney.

The Lightning’s management staff were contacted for this feature, but declined to comment.

McElhinney showed well in Tampa with a 8-7-3 record as the Lightning righted the ship in the New Year to finish as the No. 2 seed after 70 games before the coronavirus shut down the season.

Following all the Return to Play phases and protocols, McElhinney made the difficult choice to leave his wife and two young kids behind in Tampa, as he headed to the Eastern Bubble in Toronto.

After the seeding round robin games, the Lightning maintained their No. 2 seed. They got redemption in the first round by knocking out the Blue Jackets in five games, followed by another five-game series win over the Bruins. Shifting bubbles over to Edmonton for the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning edged out the Islanders in six games.

Tampa’s third trip to the Stanley Cup Finals meant that McElhinney got to see some familiar faces in the stands, as both his mother and father made the trip from Calgary. He was one of eight members of the Lightning to have family in the bubble.

The NHL required McElhinney’s parents to quarantine in the Edmonton bubble hotel for five days and produce three negative COVID-19 tests before they were allowed to attend any games.

Once they were cleared, they attended every game from Game 2 onward at Rogers Place, where even though he didn’t play one second in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they witnessed their son achieve his lifelong dream. After the final horn sounded in a 2-0 shutout victory in Game 6, McElhinney was immortalized as a champion.

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As it turned out, not having a stadium packed with fans did not take away from the awesomeness of hoisting the Stanley Cup. After taking a team photo with the Cup, captain Steven Stamkos lifted and kissed the Cup, before passing it off. One by one, the Cup made its way down the roster. After winger Yanni Gourde took a spin with the hardest trophy in sports to win, he found McElhinney in the crowd and gave him his chance with the Cup. A massive smile tore across his face, as he turned and skated towards his parents, who were ecstatic.

“There’s nothing better than lifting the Stanley Cup. It never gets old; it seems to get lighter every time I do it. It’s a hard thing to explain, but it just seems to fit so perfectly in my hands,” said McElhinney.

Once everyone had their dance with Stanley, they retreated to the dressing room, where the celebrations continued, this time with family members involved.

“Sitting there with the guys and having the Stanley Cup in the room was one of the coolest moments I’ve been a part of. It’s something I’ll never forget. I even had my dad drinking out of the Cup that night,” said McElhinney, whose phone melted from the thousands of congratulatory messages from friends, teammates and coaches he’s known since his childhood.

Still buzzing from the championship celebration weeks into the real offseason, McElhinney is faced with two looming questions: does he return next season to run it back with the Lightning and what will he do during his day with the Stanley Cup?

The former was easier to answer.

“I still love everything about the game. I put my pads on for the first time in over a month to skate with my son’s team and I had a blast. My body feels great and I still feel like I can help this team win,” said McElhinney back in October, who has one more year left on his contract. “But it is still a discussion I will have with my family closer to the start of the season.” With the season reportedly a month away, it appears that he will indeed return for another season as the Lightning’s backup.

As for the latter, McElhinney’s name was one of the 52 engraved on the Cup back in October. He had yet to hear anything official as to when he will get to spend a day with the Cup – COVID has even impacted the Stanley Cup’s travel itinerary.

“Who knows when that will happen, but I can’t wait. I haven’t decided if I’ll take it home to Calgary or make my family travel down to Colorado to spend the day with me,” said McElhinney.

He also didn’t rule out taking the Cup on a river for some quality fishing time. If McElhinney has learned anything over his near-two decade run in professional hockey, sometimes you have to go with whatever floats your boat.

Born in Toronto and raised in Western Canada, Tyler Lowey can be found writing about a variety of sports while continuing to give his undying support to Toronto-centric sports teams. He is on Twitter under the handle @tlowey9

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