TAMPA — Kyle Konin was just getting off the ice Thursday after his weekly morning skate with the Lightning alumni when he saw he had three missed calls from general manager Julien BriseBois.
“I was like, ‘Oh, boy, I either did something really bad or something really good,’ " said Konin, a St. Petersburg resident and former college goaltender who paints goalie masks for a living.
About seven hours later, Konin, 23, was suited up for the Blues as their backup goalie for their game against the Lightning at Amalie Arena. Though he didn’t play, Konin led the team onto the ice for warmups and sat on the bench.
“I didn’t expect any of that,” Konin said. “I’d say everything just surpassed my expectations. I guess my expectation was that I was going to get a jersey and get to sit on the bench.”
Konin is the emergency backup goaltender for Lightning home games. Each NHL team has to have an emergency backup available at home games who can dress should either team need a goaltender in the 11th hour.
It might be the rarest, and most interesting, opportunity in professional sports, when a normal person can go from spectator to participant, if only for a day.
Most times, emergency goalies are never called upon for duty.
But when Blues starter Jordan Binnington went into the league’s COVID-19 protocol Thursday morning and the team was unable to call up a backup from the AHL due to salary-cap issues, Konin was called into duty to back up Ville Husso.
Leading the boys
For Konin, it was a dream come true.
He spent most of his childhood in Clearwater, and his first time on skates was at a Lightning youth camp in Brandon. He once skated as the Thunder Kid before a Lightning game.
His parents, Jeff and Gina, are Clearwater residents and Lightning season-ticket holders, but Thursday’s game wasn’t on their plan. So Jeff jumped online to buy seats behind the visitor’s bench, close enough to have a good view of the stool on which the backup goaltender sits and far enough away so the family wouldn’t be a distraction. Kyle’s wife, Hannah, and her family also were there.
Hours earlier, Konin had walked into a dressing room full of strangers who became his teammates for the night. The Blues outfitted him with a jersey, but the rest of his gear was from the equipment bag he lugs to each home game, including the pants he wore with lightning bolts on the side.
For warmups, Konin was prompted to the front of the visiting-team tunnel by captain Ryan O’Reilly to take his rookie lap, a tradition before a player’s first NHL game. Forward Vladimir Tarasenko tapped Konin with his stick, sending him out. Forward Brayden Schenn shouted, “Let’s lead the boys, ‘Konzy.’ No bucket (helmet).”
“I was kind of against it for a while,” Konin said. “I was just like, I don’t know if it’s more of, like, a thing you have to earn or whatever. I just was kind of like, I don’t know if I should. But all the boys were like, ‘Oh, no, you’re going, you’re going.’ So at that point it was kind of like they decided that for me.
“It was a good time, and it’s pretty cool to kind of get the full NHL experience.”
A few rows above the bench, Konin’s parents watched with pride. Jeff told himself not to take video with his phone because he wanted to completely take in the moment.
“It was the coolest thing ever,” Jeff said. “It’s everybody’s dream to have that opportunity. Just to see out of my own eyes was just, when you’re a dad, you want to see success for your kids, right? That was a moment for (Kyle) that he could soak in. And he knew when he came out of that, building up to it, during it, afterwards, that we were all there supporting him.”
Part-time goaltender, full-time entrepreneur
As the local emergency backup goaltender, Kyle attends every home game. He sits behind the home bench in Section 130 ready to grab his equipment bag and help immediately if either team loses a goaltender due to injury.
But the timing of this opportunity — the Blues knew early in the day they’d need his help — allowed him the rare chance to be an NHL player for an entire day.
“I got the full experience for that,” Konin said. “Normally, you’re going to the game and just trying to stay mentally ready, but you can’t really do anything physically until something happens.”
Konin’s path to hockey was as winding as the one that took him from Tampa Bay and back. His hockey ambitions, and those of younger brother Chris, took him north to a prep school in New Hampshire. After a stint in juniors, he played college hockey at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich.
Along the way, he became an entrepreneur.
After he started painting his own mask, Konin’s parents got him an airbrush kit as a Christmas gift. At age 12, he started a painting business. During prep school days, Konin painted about 20-30 masks for college programs. Now he operates a custom airbrushing and goaltender mask design business, Nujax Airbrush, out of his home in St. Petersburg after being in Clearwater. He has painted about 50 masks this year.
“I’ve always been a goalie, and I’ve always loved art,” he said, “so they were two things that kind of went together.”
Konin plays for the Proformance Therapy A-League team in the Tuesday night beer league at the TGH Ice Plex in Brandon. His commitment to the Lightning has forced him to miss some games, including the league’s championship game Tuesday. He also coaches goaltending at Xtra Ice in Tampa and plays in roller hockey leagues.
When Lightning players were returning to Tampa to begin training and skating in the offseason, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was still in Russia and the team hadn’t finalized its deal with Brian Elliott to be his backup. Lightning alumni Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson told the team about Konin, and he started filling in during informal workouts.
That opportunity led to an invitation from BriseBois to serve as the emergency backup this season.
And an eventual NHL callup.
“It’s kind of an interesting scenario in sports,” Konin said. “I don’t think there’s really any other sport where someone can just hop right in there.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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