On Wednesday night, Washington Capitals goaltender Brent Johnson battled through a nagging hip injury in a win over the Boston Bruins. Coach Bruce Boudreau was asked if Johnson would receive a break from practice the following morning. He acknowledged the possibility, and elaborated: "The goaltender for tomorrow's practice to standing beside you right there."
The goaltender in question was wearing a suit and tie on a 6-foot-7 frame -- his nickname is "Stretch" -- operating a camera during the press conference. Brett Leonhardt, 26 and from Grand Bend in Ontario, is a Web site producer for the team, handling mainly video content. He also played goal for the Div. III Neumann College Knights, a college outside of Philadelphia, and in juniors.
Boudreau's comment earned a laugh from the assembled media, but it turns out he was quite serious: Leonhardt would in fact take Johnson's place in Thursday's practice. But what elevated this story from quirky to sports legend was Friday's development: With Jose Theodore out with a hip flexor, Leonhardt found himself on the Capitals bench as an NHL backup goaltender against the Ottawa Senators.
So how did he end up there?
This week wasn't Leonhardt's first foray into the crease for the Capitals. Back in February, around the trade deadline, former netminder Olaf Kolzig was taking morning skates off for Washington. The team wanted two goalies during practice. So Nate Ewell, the team's director of media relations, told the team's goalie coach that Leonhardt had actually played in college.
Word leaked up to Capitals brass, and soon Boudreau was telling Leonhardt that his services were needed in practice. He signed a waiver, and faced shots from the likes of Alexander Ovechkin.
Dan Steinberg of the DC Sports Bog picks up the narrative:
In the dressing room he was between Quintin Laing and Tomas Fleischmann; Ovechkin and others came over to wish him well. The first shot came from Mike Green; pad save. Ovechkin tried going five hole but Leonhardt got his knees down in time and earned some stick slaps. Next time Ovie brought the noise high, and Leonhardt got a glove on it.
"It wasn't like this big SportsCenter save or anything, I just found myself kind of lucky," he said.
But afterward he got congratulations from coaches and players, and he said that after two or three drills "I felt comfortable, believe it or not."
"I think I held my own, that's about it, not even close to NHL material...but honestly after a time, it just felt like a regular practice back in college."
Truth be told, Leonhardt hadn't exactly kept up the goaltending after school ended. He played every Tuesday in a men's league at the Capitals' practice facility, but he played defense. He told XM Radio that his college coach, as a joke, brought him a full set of "player's gear" after graduation; and that he wasn't a fan of the constrictions of the crease.
But the Capitals didn't need a defenseman on Friday night; they needed a goalie after Theodore's injury. So with practice experience already under his belt this week, Leonhardt was told to be ready to go if prospect Simeon Varlamov didn't arrive in time for the game.
By late afternoon, it appeared Varlamov would be in town but not in time for faceoff. So Leonhardt was given No. 80 and was told he would participate in warm-ups before sitting on the bench as Johnson's back-up.
Mike Vogel of Dump 'n Chase, who works with Leonhardt for the Caps, explains the surreal afternoon:
With that in mind, we made sure he got a good meal in him for lunch (pad thai from Noodles and Company). After he completed the necessary paper work, Stretch started making calls home to alert his family and friends. Early in the afternoon, he and I headed over to Verizon Center, and he asked for some Dinosaur Jr. on the i-Pod.
Upon our arrival, he insisted on doing the Pre-Cap podcast as usual, so as not to arouse suspicions anywhere else. I can only imagine how Stretch's stomach was feeling about now. I told him to go lay down in one of the boxes and try to shut it down for half an hour or so, as is the pregame ritual when we're on the road. He couldn't, or wouldn't, and I guess I couldn't or wouldn't either, if I were him.
By the time we finished the show at 3:45 or so, Stretch was all sorts of shades of excited and nervous. I walked him to the room around 4:30 and wished him luck. Andy Mattice and I just came back from watching our boy, wearing No. 80, take warm-ups.
After the game, Leonhardt was back behind the camera in the Capitals locker room, his first NHL stint ending during the first period when Varlamov arrived at 10:57. He didn't see any game action; had he played, he would have matched the tallest goaltender in NHL history -- St. Louis Blues goalie Ben Bishop.
Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post reports that Leonhardt's contract "has expired," and Capitals Insider has more:
Leonhardt practiced with the team for the second straight day on Friday before learning that he might be making his NHL debut. "Early afternoon (general manager) George McPhee came over to my cubicle tapped me on the shoulder...he kind of scared me, he goes: 'Be ready,'" Leonhardt said.
He sat in the team's pre-game meeting, dressed in the locker room, skated in warm ups and received the full support of his new teammates before making his NHL debut.
"They were pumped," Leonhardt said. "(Sergei) Fedorov said: 'This is why I love this organization, this is great.' Mike Green just started laughing his head off then put his arm around me and said 'Let's go.' Even (Johnson) who doesn't talk before games came over, went through warm up with me said 'Hey have fun out there.' It couldn't have been more perfect."