Less than two hours before puck drop against the Winnipeg Jets, the Washington Capitals faced a goaltending quandary. Braden Holtby, the team’s scheduled starting goaltender, would not be able to play due to an upper-body injury. Pheonix Copley was forced to tend the twine for the second straight night. The Caps top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov couldn’t be called up from Hershey because the Russian’s flight would not arrive in time, leaving the team without a backup.
The Stanley Cup champions turned to the Winnipeg Jets’ emergency goaltender pool and signed 31-year-old Gavin McHale, a six-foot, seven-inch University of Manitoba hockey coach, to be the team’s backup goalie. The jacked physical trainer, who played three seasons of junior hockey and posted a sub-.900 save percentage during his time in the WHL, spends his Saturdays playing on a beer-league team called Shake N Bake.
Plucked off the street, McHale selflessly skipped dinner and grinded through rush hour traffic to be an NHL hockey player for the evening.
“I got here as fast as I could, basically told everyone I knew and got here as fast as I could,” McHale said. “I was coming from the south end so I had to fight a bit of traffic, but I was weaving my way in and out.”
The Capitals, Alex Ovechkin in particular, didn’t take it easy on McHale during warmups.
According to The Athletic’s Murat Ates, Ovechkin took the first shot on McHale. Nicklas Backstrom took the second.
Capitals aren't going easy on McHale at all, ha. Ovechkin and Backstrom wire back to back wristers on shots one and two of the night.
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) November 15, 2018
“In warmup, I saw TJ working his shootout moves,” NBC Sports Washington’s Craig Laughlin said laughing. “I saw Ovi shooting high on Gavin McHale.”
Laughlin added that the tendy made “a couple of nice stops.”
“You know, I was totally star-struck, and then the nerves started to set in, realizing the situation at hand,” McHale said. “And then I settled in as the game got going, and the normalcies of hockey kind of took over.”
Despite only being with the Capitals a day, McHale was treated as if he was an 15-year NHL veteran.
McHale was given his own locker and nameplate.
The emergency goaltender got free Caps locker room gear. He wore his own stitched jersey and received number 41.
“If I get to keep [the jersey], it’s getting framed really fast,” McHale said. “There’s a couple of puck marks too surprisingly.”
The last Caps player to wear that number was Jaroslav Halak in 2014.
After coming out and skating for warmups at his hometown NHL arena, McHale retreated to a bar stool set up near the Capitals tunnel at the corner boards. While he didn’t sit with his new teammates on the bench, the goalie watched from behind the glass, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice if they needed him.
“That’s a unique situation,” Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said of McHale’s signing in the understatement of the year. “Something (we) haven’t had to go through for the last several years. He was fine in the warmup. A great opportunity for a local guy. As we’ve seen in the league over the last couple of years, you never know. He was great coming into our room and talking to our guys. I liked having him around.”
McHale felt the same.
“I think the biggest thing is every guy was so nice in here and made me feel so good,” he said. “Just to be a good person it’s a really important piece of what hockey players are. This is a pretty successful team last year so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”
When pressed if he was an actual fan of the Capitals though, McHale joked that “I’m not at liberty to say right now.”
The game was McHale’s second NHL game of his career. He once served as the emergency goaltender for the Colorado Avalanche as well, but got less of the star treatment. The team didn’t let him keep his NHL debut jersey.
“I reached out on social media but never heard back,” McHale said.
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