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Chatting with the amateur goalie that ‘ruined’ the 2009 NHL All-Star Game skills competition

Greg Wyshynski
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Don Cherry was troubled.

It was late January 2009. Wearing a pink sport coat that made him resemble a flamingo impersonating a maître d'hôtel, Canada's most famous hockey commentator focused his ire on the NHL All-Star Game Skills Competition in Montreal that weekend; specifically, on the "Breakaway Challenge" trick-shooting contest that only saw five pucks actually enter the net.

"Look, here's the thing," Cherry bristled, "I suggested last year we get [former NHL goalies] Kelly Hrudey [or] Darren Pang or John Garrett. We get somebody in there that'll go along with it. What do they do? They go out and get a Junior B goaltender who lives here in Montreal — Jason Maggio — he lives here in Montreal, and he stops 29 out of 34 shots! That's no fun!"

Cherry continued: "The people aren't here to see him stop them. One reporter here in Montreal thought it was great. But the people come here, 19,000 of them, to see a Junior B goaltender stop the guys and make them look stupid!"

This Coach's Corner rant aired during the NHL All-Star Game on CBC, a game that Jason Maggio was watching from the seats at Bell Centre. The previous night, Maggio was wearing an Eastern Conference All-Star jersey, tending goal as some of the best offensive players in the world emptied their bag of tricks and couldn't get the puck behind him.

His phone began blowing up with messages about the Coach's Corner rant. As surreal as his goaltending stint was, having Don Cherry accuse you of ruining an All-Star event was redefined the concept.

"All my buddies can't believe it. Still, to this day," he said on Wednesday night. "I was just trying to get out of the way, most of the time."

Maggio can thank a few people for his brief All-Star fame: His high-school history teacher and NHL goaltenders.

In the inaugural 2008 Breakaway Challenge, the netminders weren't exactly cooperative. In fact, as the trick-shooting competition went on, they began to get more aggressive — making saves and attempting poke-checks when they were supposed to just be a human sieve. Combine that with an injury to New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro in the event — yes, we know — and the League reconsidered having their goalies face a series of unconventional, showboating shots.

The search for an alternative led to Maggio.

He attended Loyola Jesuit in Montreal, and returned to the school in 2009 to say hello to some old teachers. One of them was Richard Meagher, who taught history.

"He told me his brother needed a goalie for the All-Star Game," recalled Maggio.

His brother is Gary Meagher, a vice president of media relations for the NHL, whose father had been the athletic director at Loyola. So Meagher decided to ask a goaltending alumnus of the school to help out the NHL about two weeks prior to the All-Star Game.

Maggio was 21 years old when he became an NHL All-Star for a night. He was playing goalie for the Junior Double-A Dollard Vipers and attending Concordia University. Suddenly, he was preparing to face the following stars in front of millions of fans around the world: Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks; Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning; Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks; Alex Kovalev of the Montreal Canadiens; and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who won the event's debut in 2008.

He didn't have a practice to get a better feel for the unconventional shots. Instead, he relied on TSN footage of the players practicing their moves to get a read on them — not to prevent them from scoring, he says, but to better help them finish their chances.

"[The NHL] said 'don't go out there and look like a pylon, but we don't want you poke-checking the guys either. Just kinda stand there. Don't do too much. Don't get in the way,'" Maggio recalled.

The night of the skills competition, he was one of the boys. "I was actually in the Habs dressing room with the player. They didn't give me a stall. They gave me a chair, right in the middle of all the guys," he said. "I was just hanging out in there and getting dressed. It was pretty funny."

So who was the first All-Star to talk smack on the amateur goalie preparing to face them?

"Surprisingly, no one. I'm sure they said it behind my back, but nobody chirped me to my face."

Maggio skated out on the Bell Centre ice wearing an Eastern Conference jersey with no nameplate. At center ice were the NHL All-Stars he was asked to make look good.

"The rink was the biggest shock. All those people. Pretty loud. The guys … I don't know. I wasn't really thinking about that at the time. I was thinking about trying not to fall. Trying not to look like an idiot," he said.

Here's how the 2009 Breakaway Challenge played out:

It was a combination of moves that didn't work and saves by Maggio when some of them did. Most players took in stride; others took it more seriously — witness the grimace on Marty St. Louis's face after Maggio saved a lacrosse shot.

"I just tried to stay in the middle of my net, and not go out of my way to make a save. But in the end, I think most of them ended up hitting me," Maggio said. "But it was tough for them, too, because they were trying stuff they don't do all the time. If you're going to pick up the puck on your stick, and hit it out of mid-air, it's probably not going to go top corner. It's going to go down the middle.

"I remember a Stamkos shot where I legitimately tried to move out of the way. And it still ended up hitting me."

He could sense that, perhaps, too few pucks were finding their way past him.

"Out of the corner of my eye I saw a guy from the NHL, and I saw him say, 'Aw, [crap], he stopped another one,'" he said. "I wasn't doing it on purpose. I wasn't trying to go out of my way to make a save."

The biggest thrill for the "anonymous local" (as Doc Emrick called him on VERSUS) was watching the most famous local name take a few chances on him.

"With [Alexei] Kovalev, he was a Hab, so I was kind of rooting for him. It was cool when he was coming down and the arena was going for him," he said. "And there was Ovechkin, obviously."

Ah, yes, Ovechkin. It was the Capitals star that made Maggio a permanent fixture on All-Star Game highlight packages. With the seconds counting down, Ovechkin skated over to countryman Evgeni Malkin and dabbled in a little prop comedy:

"I was laughing, but I was also pretty confused," said Maggio. "I thought he was going to do a natural move of some sort. But I guess he wanted more of a show. I don't know if it was the best move of all time, but it was hilarious."

True to form, Maggio actually saved Ovechkin's shot, but the Capitals star scored on the rebound.

"I literally just stood there. Once he threw that other stick, I didn't move. He shot at me, it hit my stick, but he buried the rebound," said Maggio.

With that, his night was over. The NHL officials were congratulatory. The players back in the dressing room gave him respectful taps on the shoulder. He hung out for a while and had the players autograph his jersey, before heading out for post-competition merriment with Joe Thornton's group (through a friend of a friend).

He mostly just kept memories from the event, instead of mementos.

"I didn't want to be that guy to ask for a bunch of stuff. I just have the jersey and had it signed by everyone in the room," he said.

The next day Maggio and his family attended the All-Star Game as fans. But his family and friends haven't forgotten his stint as a player.

"Anyone who knows me, they bring it up often," he said. "I guess I bring it up sometimes. Just to rub it in."

Maggio, 24, lives in West Island section of Montreal. He's currently a National Account Representative at Reebok CCM Hockey, and admits that his brief NHL experience made for an unusual skate in the door with the company. His Twitter account proudly boasts he's a "former NHL All-Star shootout goaltender (Montreal 2009)."

The following year, the All-Star Game was put on hold because of the 2010 Winter Olympics. In 2011, the Breakaway Challenge returned to the Skills Competition — with NHL goalies back between the pipes.

Maggio's disappointed the tradition of using local talent didn't take hold.

"It was awesome for me, so it would have pretty cool to keep that going and have other kids experience it. It's something different, something no other league does," he said.

"But I guess maybe Don Cherry's complaint got through."

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