Leafs goalie James Reimer keeps it in perspective

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

How’s this for a foundation? James Reimer grew up on a farm in Morweena, Manitoba, a hamlet in the country about two-and-a-half hours north of Winnipeg. He grew up in a religious, tight-knit family, watching his parents, Harold and Marlene, run their home-based business: Reimer Building Movers.

They moved houses for a living, still do, sliding steel beams underneath them, jacking them up, loading them onto trucks, hauling them away and settling them someplace new. James helped now and then, holding measuring tape, running blocks all over the place, checking this, checking that. He learned hard work and teamwork. He learned precision. He learned the satisfaction of a job well done.

“His job is kind of like his dad’s,” said James’ agent and close friend, Ray Petkau. “If either one of them screws up, everyone knows it.”

James’ job is tending goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The rookie, who turns 23 in a week, is the one expected to stop the puck down the stretch. And if you think the Leafs will have to move mountains to make the playoffs, five points out of eighth place with 16 games to go, think of what Reimer has done already. “I think back to the small community where I came from and all the steps and all the doors that had to be opened, all the little miracles that happened for me to get here,” Reimer said.

This is a guy whose parents didn’t want him to play organized hockey at first, who didn’t join a team until he was 12, who was discovered by accident at 13. This is a guy who started the season in the minors, fourth or fifth on the Leafs’ depth chart, but got a shot because of health and performance issues with the men in front of him. He is 12-5-3 with a 2.45 goals-against average and .924 save percentage and has become a fan favorite in Toronto, not to mention a sort of folk hero in Manitoba.

“I wouldn’t have probably bet a plugged nickel that he would be one of our goalies this year, to be honest with you,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “We wanted him to play in the minors and continue to get better and develop and try to stay healthy. Circumstances have allowed him an opportunity. He’s taken advantage of it. He’s much farther along than we thought.”

So what’s harder – moving a house or making the NHL? James thought that one over and smiled. (He often smiles. He never swears.) In the end, he had to point to his father and uncles, because moving a house is a long day’s labor. But he allowed that making the NHL is pretty tough, too.

“It’s kind of a one-in-a-million chance,” James said. “A lot of things have to go right just to get the opportunity.”

* * * * *

James always loved hockey. He played on outdoor rinks as a kid. Probably because his big brother, Mark, needed someone to shoot on, he strapped on street hockey pads to face real rubber. He begged to play in real games. But his parents said no.

They let him play soccer and baseball. But those sports were in the summer, and hockey season conflicted with the busy season for their business, late fall, and a hockey team would require hours of driving to practices and games.

That, and the Reimers had heard horror stories. “Some of the hockey stuff is rough and wild, and so we weren’t too sure that that’s the environment we wanted our kids to get into,” Marlene said. Said James: “They just didn’t want me to get into the lifestyle and not be prepared to take it on or make right decisions.”

But when James was 12, a local team was looking for a goalie. A parent of one of the players called the Reimers and asked if they would let James play. They said they weren’t interested. Then the coach called. Then the coach called again. The Reimers were starting to relent, but they didn’t say yes until James overheard his mother on the phone with the coach.

“He said, ‘Mom, please, I really, really, really, really want to play hockey. Please, can I play just one year?’ ” Marlene said. “And so we decided, ‘Sure, we’ll try one year and see where it goes from there.’ And that year has turned into a career for him.”

Petkau discovered James when he was 13, playing in a 14-and-older recreational hockey tournament in Steinbach, Manitoba, just south of Winnipeg. Petkau was a young agent just starting out. The only reason he was at the tournament was because a friend had asked him to play at the last minute. The only reason James was at the tournament was because his church team needed a goalie and the organizers made an exception, thinking a 13-year-old goalie couldn’t do any harm.

The thing was, the 13-year-old goalie didn’t look 13. He played so well that Petkau thought he was 17, 18 or 19. When Petkau found out how young James was and how he had been playing for only a year, he recognized that he had a raw talent on his hands. “He was rough around the edges, but he just had a knack for stopping the puck,” Petkau said.

Petkau approached James and asked if he wanted to play – as in play. “I was a shy little kid, and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” James said. “I didn’t really know what it meant.” Petkau approached the Reimers and talked to them about developing their son’s talent. “They were kind of shocked, like, ‘Our boy?’ ” Petkau said.

Yep. Their boy. After experiencing organized hockey for the first time, the Reimers had seen the good side – a way for kids to learn things like discipline and how to play with others. They had seen their son’s desire and potential. So they decided to sacrifice and support him, driving 45 minutes to practices, three or four hours to some games. They didn’t allow James to play summer hockey, thinking it was just too much, but they took him to top goalie schools from Alberta to Saskatchewan, and that might have helped keep him hungry.

Junior scouts doubted James. But the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels took a chance on him after watching him play only one game, and he spent three seasons with them.

NHL scouts doubted James. But the Leafs drafted him 99th overall in 2006 – on a day when he was four-wheeling in the countryside. The Leafs sent his hat and sweater to Petkau, who presented them to him at what became a high school graduation/NHL draft party on the family farm.

“It’s a crazy story, really,” James said. “When you’re a kid, you dream about it. I remember my kindergarten yearbook. What do you want to be when you grow up? A hockey player, right?”

* * * * *

October 2009. James, a second-year pro, had made the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate. He came home from practice one day with a big grin for his mother, who had flown out to help set up his apartment.

“Well, Mom, you want to go to a game tonight?”

“Sure, where?”

“The Leafs.”

“Sure,” Marlene said, thinking James had gotten tickets. “Let’s go.”

“Well, you’ll be watching, but I’ll be playing.”

Recalled Marlene: “That was the first time I realized, ‘This guy’s getting a chance. Maybe this is all going to be for real.’ My heart was just going. I knew he was just backing up, but just to dress as a Maple Leaf was amazing.”

January 2011. James had been called up again. But this time, he wasn’t just backing up. Less than two weeks after his NHL debut, a relief appearance against Atlanta, he made his first NHL start. Wilson kept it quiet in the media, but Petkau and the family found out in time to fly out for the game in Ottawa on New Year’s Day. In front of Petkau and some of his family – his parents; his wife, April; his sister Christy – James beat the Senators.

“We kept saying, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” Marlene said.

It was. Still is. James went 4-2-0 before returning to the minors. Since coming back up, he has gone 8-3-3 and been one of the main reasons the Leafs have climbed into playoff contention.

“He had done his work in the minors, and he was ready for the challenge,” veteran Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere said. “When he was asked to play, he wasn’t nervous because he knew he was ready technically and physically.”

Not everything has been perfect. James was pulled from his last start Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, allowing five goals on 19 shots through two periods of a 5-3 loss. And there are doubters again: Is he vulnerable to the glove side? Can he keep this up game after game? Will the NHL lifestyle change him?

But his mother and agent are confident. James was a good student because he couldn’t stand to make mistakes. He would figure out what went wrong and correct it, and it’s the same with goaltending. Hard work. Precision. But perspective, too.

“He puts that pressure on himself, yet it doesn’t get to him,” Petkau said. “He’s still smiling if he allows a bad goal.”

Petkau said there is “not a chance” James will change. James, a pending restricted free agent, has a $555,000 NHL salary and $62,500 AHL salary, plus bonuses. He’s in line for a raise and daydreams of helping charities for sick kids. On the back of his helmet is a yellow heart with the words “Ramona’s courage,” in honor of his cousin’s wife – and Petkau’s niece – who died of cancer 14 months ago in her mid-20s.

“It’s not about buying a BMW or a house on the lake or things like that,” Petkau said. “He’s pretty modest. None of this has gotten to him so far. He’s still the same kid.”

During the all-star break, a time when most NHLers jet off somewhere warm to get away from the game, James Reimer went back home to Morweena, Manitoba. He did what he has always done during midwinter breaks for Christmas or whatever else. He played on an outdoor rink with family and friends until 3, 4 or even 6 in the morning.

Well, one thing has changed. He no longer straps on the street-hockey pads to play goal like he once did. Now when he plays shinny, he tries to score.

“I don’t understand it,” Marlene said, laughing, “but he loves his hockey.”

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