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Is Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer the real deal?

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Is Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer the real deal?
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James Reimer came out of nowhere to spark the Leafs last season. Now the pressure's on to do it agai …

TORONTO – It seems like the ending of a fairy tale. James Reimer(notes), who grew up in a tiny Manitoba town, who didn't play organized hockey until he was 12, who went 99th overall in the 2006 NHL draft, who came up from the minors midway through last season and starred in goal, landed a big-league contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He signed it in June, while in Honolulu on vacation with his wife, April. He knew what the numbers would be from talking to his agent. Still, he said, seeing them on the physical document, black ink on white paper, was "pretty crazy." Three years, $5.4 million.

"The money amount," he said, "it's kind of beyond me."

You'd think the Reimers would have celebrated with a special dinner, a mai-tai toast, a walk on the beach, a view of a spectacular sunset. This meant he had made it, really made it, right? But he said they didn't do anything special. He doesn’t drink. They were already celebrating their first anniversary, anyway. And he knows this is only the beginning.

"It's been a blessing," he said. "Hopefully I can do the right things with it and at the same time perform at a high level to make it worthwhile for everyone."

Reimer and Toronto still have that honeymoon glow. The fans remain smitten with the kid who made his first NHL start on New Year's Day and played a lead role as the Leafs at least flirted with making the playoffs last season. He went 20-10-5 with a 2.60 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, and he did it with an ever-present, gee-whiz, happy-to-be-here smile.

But if he doesn't keep it up, the honeymoon could be over. He began last season fourth or fifth on the depth chart, making the transition from the ECHL to the AHL. He wasn't expected to do anything at the NHL level. He was a pleasant surprise. Now, at age 23, with only 37 games of NHL experience, he faces high expectations. He enters as the No. 1 goaltender in a hockey-mad market on a team trying to snap a six-season playoff drought – the longest in the 95-year history of the franchise.

He has gone from sitting in the back corner of the Leafs' dressing room, a cramped spot next to a doorway, to sitting in Jean-Sebastien Giguere's(notes) old spot in the middle of the back wall, where reporters will stampede after every start at Air Canada Centre.

Some think he's the real deal. Others wonder whether he was a flash in the pan last season. Everyone will be watching closely.

"Obviously, there's a ton of pressure on him right now," Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn(notes) said. "People think very highly of him in Toronto just because of the way he kind of turned things around for our team last year, and people in Toronto can put you up on a pedestal pretty easily."

They can knock you off it pretty easily, too.

There are two reasons to believe Reimer can continue to win over the course of a full season: technique and temperament. He plans to pick up where he left off by, well, picking up where he left off.

"Consistency, I think, comes when you do everything right off the ice and on the ice, as long as you don't waver," Reimer said. "If you get complacent in the summer and you slack off on a few things, I think that affects your consistency. If you decide not to stretch after a few practices or you decide not to stay out there longer, I think that's when you start to falter. As long as you stick to your routine and what you know helps you perform the best all the time – and you're disciplined in that – then I think the consistency is there for the most part."

Reimer is not a flopper. He is not a scrambler. He did not get hot with a series of lucky guesses. Though athletic enough to make acrobatic saves, he generally stays in the blue paint, puts himself in proper position and uses his 6-foot-2 frame to block the puck – traits that should mitigate the inevitable ups and downs. Leafs goaltending consultant Francois Allaire has compared him to a young Giguere, and Giguere only went on to win a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player.

The gee-whiz, happy-to-be-here smile is genuine. Behind it, though, Reimer has a take-nothing-for-granted, determined-to-stay-here competitiveness.

"I don't think he's going to let it go to his head," Schenn said. "He's real grounded. He's real focused. He wants to be the guy, doesn't forget where he came from."

After last season, Reimer spent a couple of weeks at home in Morweena, Manitoba, a Mennonite community in the country about 2-1/2 hours north of Winnipeg. He played floor hockey in the little school gym. Once, he played goal. Whenever someone scored, there would be a big celebration because that meant someone had scored on James Reimer, the goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Think about that, though. That meant James Reimer, the goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was playing floor hockey in the little school gym in Morweena, Manitoba. That meant he was still just James Reimer.

"Obviously they appreciate the success I've had, and they all love hockey just as much as I do, so they're excited for me," Reimer said. "But my value is in who I am, not in what I do."

Reimer spent most of the summer the way he spent the previous two: working with his personal trainer in Maple Ridge, B.C., near Vancouver. He said he didn't work any harder than he had before. If he said that, it would cheapen what he had done before. "I always try to work as hard as I can," he said. But he said his mindset was "maybe a little different."

He focused on nutrition – not eating after a certain time, mixing in organic foods when he could, filling up on fruits and vegetables instead of junk food. Though he is listed at 208 pounds, he said he is between 215 and 220 – and that is 15 to 20 pounds lighter than he was at the end of last season. He said he wasn't worried about his weight as much as he was his health. He has more energy on the ice.

"For me, it's all about what makes sense," Reimer said. "I'm pretty sure eating some broccoli instead of a cheeseburger will help me win a few more games."

Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf(notes), a training fanatic, has noticed a difference. "He trained hard over the summer," Phaneuf said. "He looks really good, and I'm excited to see how he starts."

Three years, $5.4 million. The only nod to newfound fame and fortune might be a new mask. Reimer said one might be coming within the next couple of months. Asked if it would include a Transformers-like character – Optimus Reim? – he smiled, played coy and said: "Who knows? There's a little more to the story, and we'll see when it comes out. … I think everyone will understand."

Reimer said he treated himself to "a little TV." How little? "A couple of inches," he said with another smile. But after signing his new contract, his most important purchase was a townhouse in Toronto. He and April had been renting.

"I think my wife said it best," he said. "In the one week we were living in a townhouse, it felt more like home than the whole year we had in our apartment."

He said there is just something about owning your own place, just something about putting nails in the wall without asking a landlord, just something about knowing "you won't have to move out …"

He caught himself.

"Hopefully," he stressed with a laugh, "in the next year or whatever. It's a nice feeling."

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