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In case of emergency, the Wild call this digital marketer/goalie from Edina

TeMo Photo at temophoto.com

TeMo Photo at temophoto.com

Connor Beaupre is ready.

It’s a Sunday night at the Xcel Energy Center. The Wild are fighting for their playoff lives against a feisty Washington Capitals team.

Up in the press box, Beaupre leans forward toward the glass. He’s wearing a sharp blue suit the color of tropical ocean water over a matching checkered shirt with brown loafers. His bushy hockey beard neatly matches his thick brown hair; his easygoing energy matches the affable vibe around the arena’s upper rim. It’s a place where he spends a lot of time.

Beaupre points out a pair of off-ice officials in dark suits unfolding a cribbage board in the press box.

“They play so fast, I don’t even know how they’re enjoying it. But they keep score every night.”

Connor seems to know most of the staff members, scouts, and former players who drift around the arena’s media space, loading up their complimentary hot dogs with spoonfulls of onion and relish. As people pass, they say, “Connor!”—always with the exclamation point in their voice, the way you’d greet a regular at your favorite bar. This press box, among the urns of coffee and the steam trays of free franks and the quietly intense cribbage games, is as much Beaupre’s milieu as the 72 inches of ice between the goalposts.

TeMo Photo at temophoto.com

TeMo Photo at temophoto.com

Because there’s more than just his athletic build separating him from the assembled sportswriters with barely disguised potbellies and white hair. Something that sets him apart from all the thousands of people in the stands. Beaupre is sipping a water and ignoring the hot dog bar because he may, conceivably, be summoned by a team official to go join the professional hockey game below. He drove to the arena with a full set of pads in his car, just in case.

Connor Beaupre is Minnesota’s Emergency Backup Goaltender.

 

Every sports fan has daydreamed it at least once, in the same way you might fantasize about being called out of the audience to sing a few tunes with your favorite band: The game is on the line, a critical injury leaves the home team shorthanded, and the coach scans the crowd for an unlikely hero to join in and save the day. And it’s you.

In the National Hockey League, that fantasy is a little closer to reality. A somewhat eccentric rule, number 5.3, states that when any team suffers injuries to its goalie and backup goalie, “that team shall be entitled to dress and play any available goalkeeper who is eligible.”

Once upon a time, that meant whatever assistant coach or team staff member could fit into the pads. In the modern NHL, the emergency backup is a specially designated amateur player who waits at the ready at every home game. The Wild cycle through several. Beaupre mostly splits time with the longer-tenured Santino “Tino” Vasquez, and sometimes former semi-pro players Zach Sikich and Matt Lundin are on hand as well. But Beaupre is the stalwart, sitting up near the arena’s roof for 20 to 25 of the Wild’s 41 home games.

It’s a little piece of the NHL that rings truer to the league’s pond-hockey origins than to the corporate giganticism of contemporary professional athletic franchises. Nestled among the salary caps and TV rights and merch sales and players unions is one guy, who has a regular job, who might at any moment become a pivotal part of the game.

It’s happened before.

The most recent—and highest-profile—example is David Ayres. The 42-year-old Toronto-based former Zamboni driver got called onto the ice in February when both the Carolina Hurricanes’ goaltenders went down with injuries. Ayres joined the game in the second period with the Hurricanes leading 3-1.

He started off shaky, letting the first two shots into the net. But in the third period he settled in as Carolina’s defense coalesced around him and went on to make eight saves in the Hurricanes’ 6-3 victory, becoming the first emergency backup goalie in the history of the league to record an official victory.

In 2018, 36-year-old accountant Scott Foster played most of a period for the Chicago Blackhawks at home against the Winnipeg Jets. It was the most prominent appearance by an emergency backup until the movie-ready story of Ayres, who never thought he’d play hockey again following a kidney transplant—and who now has a perfect 1-0 record as a professional hockey player.

All this attention has elicited some scrutiny from the NHL. General managers and league officials are pondering how one of sports’ strangest rules may need to evolve again. That could potentially lead to big changes for Beaupre, Vasquez, and all those other hopefuls watching games at arenas around the country, knowing their equipment bags are waiting in their trunks—just in case.

 

As the puck drops in the Wild’s contest against Washington, Beaupre peers down over the action. The first few times he served in this role, he says, he felt a little jittery.

“You’re watching the flow of the game, seeing how they’re shooting, if you’re gonna get shelled,” he says.

“As far as I can remember, I always skated,” Beaupre says.

“As far as I can remember, I always skated,” Beaupre says.

Now he watches the game like an enthusiastic fan, grinning at good plays from either team and offering up occasional commentary on the action.

“[Alexander] Ovechkin gets a hat trick every time I’m here. If I did go in, I hope he’s already got three so maybe he won’t score anymore.”

Beaupre’s analysis is on point. Ovechkin looms along the wing, like a bird of prey, and slams a one-timer past Wild goalie Alex Stalock early in the first period. Not long after, he repeats the same play, with the same results. The first period isn’t even over and he’s two-thirds of his way to the hat trick. Beaupre smiles and shakes his head in admiration. Moments later he’s doing play-by-play on an especially spirited fistfight between Washington’s Brenden Dillon and Minnesota’s Ryan Hartman, narrating like he’s a boxing commentator.

This all comes naturally to Beaupre, son of former Minnesota North Stars goalie Don Beaupre, who played 17 NHL seasons with four different teams. The senior Beaupre is on hand to watch the game with his son after a family weekend spent up north snowmobiling.

Connor says he’s been on skates since not long after he was born.

“There’s pictures of me as a little kid—when my dad got traded to Ottawa—at like two or three, with a little mini-hockey stick. We lived in a hotel, and I guess I always used to get the doorman to play. As far as I can remember, I always skated. I almost feel more comfortable on skates now. I spend a lot of time on the ice.

“I wanted to play goalie all the time. When we played in Mini-Mites, right away I wanted to be the goalie. Even though there were no goalies, I’d go stand by the net. People say the crazy gene for goalies gets passed down. My sister played goalie too.”

Connor with his dad, former Minnesota North Stars goalie Don Beaupre.

Connor with his dad, former Minnesota North Stars goalie Don Beaupre.

That was always their choice, Beaupre says. His father was happy to help his kids learn techniques between the pipes, but he was far from an overbearing hockey dad.

“He was never a guy who said, ‘You’re going to hockey six days a week.’ He would never drag me to the rink. If I didn’t want to go, he left me at home. But I always wanted to go. What was really great is he never made me go to anything, he would always ask.”

The younger Beaupre ascended through youth league hockey and went on to play for his high school in Edina. During his junior year he traveled to Canada to play with a Junior League team but decided to return to Minnesota for his senior year. Just a few games into the season he was injured and replaced by another goaltender.

“You kind of lose your options if you don’t play any games your senior year. No scouts get to see you,” he says.

He opted to go to the University of Denver, where he played club hockey, and eventually transferred to the University of Minnesota to finish his degree in marketing and entrepreneurship.

These days his mornings start around 7:30 when he gets up to walk his dog Rooney, a Golden Doodle-Irish Setter blend. Then it’s on to meetings and emails for his freelance digital marketing business, where he specializes in video and photo marketing for real estate clients. His evenings are full, too; six days a week during the season he’s the varsity and junior varsity goalie coach at Academy of the Holy Angels in Richfield.

And of course, there’s that other nighttime gig, the one where he watches the professional games he might be asked to join.

Left to right: Bill McClellan, Beaupre, Patrick Griswold, and Jarred Hummel—varsity boys hockey coaches at Holy Angels.

Left to right: Bill McClellan, Beaupre, Patrick Griswold, and Jarred Hummel—varsity boys hockey coaches at Holy Angels.

Sometimes, he’s called in to serve as a practice goalie for the Wild, or for the visiting team if they need a fill-in. That’s where he gets to experience NHL-caliber play, running drills and facing shots from all-stars, with as many as 300 pucks launched his way in a grueling 45 minutes. It’s an intense physical demand on a guy who otherwise plays beer league games and hasn’t done organized practice in years.

“After one of the practices I was talking to Dubie [Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk] and he was like, ‘If I take two days off from practice and I come back, I’m wiped out after the first one.’”

All this practice is unpaid, volunteer work. Beaupre is doing it for the thrill and for the love of the game. He doesn’t grouse about the money or the time commitment or the physical toll. If he’s talking hockey, he’s smiling.

And of course, there’s that distant, lottery-ticket chance of playing a few minutes professionally, at the sport’s highest level.

The closest he came to action was two years ago against Calgary, when Dubnyk got hurt in the second period. Beaupre went downstairs to put on his equipment. In accordance with league policy, he couldn’t sign a preemptory temporary contract yet, or even put on a jersey, much less go sit on the bench. He waited there as the game wound on, another full period. Then overtime. Then a shootout.

“It got to the third period and went into overtime and I could go in for 3-on-3 overtime, totally cold, from the stands. They had [Johnny] Gaudreau and [Sean] Monahan and all these great players on Calgary at the time. I could be in a 3-on-3 situation with great players who are going to get great chances.

“Then they went to the shootout! You’re always thinking, one stupid play, if [backup Stalock] extends on one shootout play and gets hurt, I could go out there and be like, ‘Okay, make a shootout save against Johnny Gaudreau, one of the best stick handlers in the league.’ You could go out there for one shot and that’s the only time you ever play, and you either win the game or lose the game.”

When he’s not at the Xcel, Beaupre coaches hockey for the Academy of Holy Angels.

When he’s not at the Xcel, Beaupre coaches hockey for the Academy of Holy Angels.

Stalock didn’t get hurt. The game ended. Beaupre took off his gear.

 

You can’t talk about emergency backup goalies without talking about Paul Deutsch.

Aaron Sickman, the Wild’s media relations director, chuckles at the mention of the name. “The Paul Deutsch phenomenon!”

Deutsch is a phenomenon indeed, and a true Minnesota character. In 2011, the day before Thanksgiving, the owner of screenprinting business DePaul Lettering in Apple Valley got a most improbable phone call. Deutsch was a beer-league hockey player who didn’t even take up netminding until age 37 and would sometimes fill in as a practice goalie thanks to his connection to assistant coach Mike Ramsey, an old pal from high school in Roseville. Then-starting goalie Niklas Bäckström’s wife was due to deliver a baby any time, and the goaltender the team called up to sit behind regular backup Matt Hackett was flying in on a plane that wouldn’t land until just before game time. The team needed someone at the ready to serve as their emergency backup goaltender.

They phoned former practice goalie Deutsch. At the time, he was 51.

“You’re 51. You’re signing a pro contract. You’re the second-oldest guy to Gordie Howe to sign a pro contract,” Deutsch marvels even now, nine years later. (He’s still running that Apple Valley screenprinting shop.) But the good-humored Deutsch isn’t quite so sure about referring to himself as a phenomenon: “My family doesn’t say that, but maybe other people do.”

He says he’d worked out with the team so many times that the scope of the situation didn’t occur to him until he got to the rink, where dozens of reporters waited to speak to him at a press conference. It began to dawn on him that this was real, that he might in mere hours be sitting on the Wild bench during the game—and playing, if just one guy pulled a muscle or tweaked a tendon.

“That whole day was fantastic, from getting there to being treated like a player,” Deutsch says. “All those years in practice I carried my own gear in and out of the arena. That day was the first day the equipment manager grabbed my stuff. He said, ‘You’re on the team now.’”

Deutsch got close to fully suiting up. He was in his gear in the locker room before the game, trying not to look out of place. “I have no pre-game routine. I don’t know what to do.” With less than an hour to spare, Hackett’s plane landed in Bloomington, and he arrived to play backup.

“It was a couple hours of madness,” Deutsch remembers. “There was a moment there when I got greedy, because I wanted more. Now that you’re there and you’re in uniform and it’s a game day. I thought, Gosh, I want more. I mean, I don’t wanna play... but....”

In the near decade since the Deutsch Phenomenon, the NHL has evolved the rules for the EBUG unit. No longer do they rely on an assistant coach to don the pads or call around town hoping to find somebody—anybody—to hurry over and play. Now the league requires that every team maintain one emergency backup goalie in the building during each of its regular season home games as well as every playoff contest.

The catch is that emergency backup isn’t just there to fill in for the home team. He’s available to play goalie for whichever team needs one, home or away.

That’s exactly what happened in the Ayres situation. The 42-year-old was Toronto’s EBUG, but it was the visiting Hurricanes who required his services. When Ayres made his eight saves to help Carolina win the game, he was helping defeat his home team.

Here, the same folksy informality that governs the league’s EBUG policy could result in controversy and costly conflict. What if the hometown emergency goalie potentially did less than his best backing up the visitors? It’s where the large-scale business realities of the NHL clash with the quirky human-interest story, explains the Wild’s Director of Hockey Operations Chris O’Hearn.

“That being said, you could also say, this is a multibillion-dollar business,” O’Hearn explains. “Some team might miss the playoffs because all of a sudden this had a ramification? Well, that’s silly.”

Currently, the league’s rules are both vague and cumbersome. The Wild’s other emergency backups, Sikich and Lundin, have some minor-league professional experience, which complicates matters. O’Hearn explains that if either of those two go into the game, they have to sign a professional tryout contract, which goes against a team’s salary cap. If a team’s cap space is maxed out, they can’t legally use that goalie, which requires one of the two amateurs, Beaupre or Vasquez, to be in the building at all times during a game.

Nor does league policy dictate if and how an emergency backup is compensated. Beaupre says the routine is different everywhere, from guys who have the promise of making a little money to those who don’t practice with the team or get the friendly press box treatment he does. They’re just sitting somewhere in regular seats, watching the game and waiting to see if they need to go get their equipment bag from their car.

While keeping the current system has its drawbacks, the potential solutions are complicated as well—all to address an issue that, historically, almost never arises.

“Why don’t we just pay some guy $100,000 a year and he travels with the team all the time?” says O’Hearn. “It makes sense. But, at the same time, where’s that guy practicing? Is he working out with the team? Even, say it’s 50 grand. It sounds easy. You start adding in the hotels, which, those aren’t cheap. We don’t stay at the Holiday Inn when we’re on the road. Per diem. Insurance. You’re talking six figures for each team. Does the league say, ‘Let’s all collectively spend three or four million dollars to erase this one game a year where some guy gets in for six minutes? Versus: Is there some value to the league having something like [Ayres going into the game] happen?”

The Ayres story has been great PR for professional hockey, and the oddball rule has a scruffy charm. “The league’s not like, ‘Oh, we need to stop this from happening ever again,’” O’Hearn says.

 

The final horn sounds, and the game ends. The Wild put up a tenacious fight but fall to the Capitals 4-3, putting a significant damper on their playoff aspirations. Beaupre is almost right: Ovechkin scores a pair of goals and adds an assist, but he doesn’t quite complete the hat trick.

Beaupre gets up to find his dad, who’s also at the game, to leave. He’s got a dog to walk tomorrow, emails to send, a meeting, some high schoolers to coach. This night at the Xcel ends like every other. He watched, he went home. Statistically speaking, that’s all that will ever happen.

Except that just maybe, one time, it won’t.

Later, he elaborates on the mixed feelings an emergency backup has about the potential to enter the game. Does he hope to hit the ice someday?

“You do and you don’t. It’s tough to describe. It’d be a fun challenge to go out there just to see what would happen. For Ayres, I think I was more nervous for him than he was. You really have nothing to lose in those situations, so you get less nervous the more you think about it. It’s an opportunity to do something cool, but I never hope anyone gets hurt.

“It’d be a cool thing to do and say you did. And my dad played so, hey, whether I played one minute or a whole game, he did it too, so it’d be cool to say I did something like that too. You dream about it as a kid. And it’s kind of a loophole way to get into it.”

Deutsch is more certain, these years later, that he’s glad he didn’t actually see any ice time.

“It would have been embarrassing if I had to play,” Deutsch says. “It would have been awful! I would have gotten a new nickname.” He says the prospects are much brighter for Beaupre, though. “He’ll get his chance and it’ll be special for him. This isn’t shellshock for him because he grew up in the pro world, so he gets it.”

Beaupre says he can foresee the emergency backup position evolving into something more official, but for now he’s happy to remain at the ready. If he does get summoned onto the ice, he just wants to focus on the shooters, hope the defense helps cover him, and above all, to make sure he doesn’t “let in any cheesy” goals.

“Nobody expects you to stop everything. If you do, like Foster did in Chicago, that’s awesome, that was incredible, he made some great saves too,” Beaupre says. “And if you win the game that’s even cooler.”