His brief taste of life in the NHL whetted James Reimer’s appetite for a long and successful career under the big top.
The former Red Deer Rebels netminder was on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster for 12 days before being reassigned to the club’s American League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, last weekend. The 21-year-old made one trip with the NHL squad — flying to Vancouver last week — and it was a major eye-opener.
“Yeah, you get treated pretty well (as an NHL player), almost too well,” said Reimer, when contacted this week at his Toronto apartment. “It’s a lot of fun, being able to travel on a private plane and not having to go through customs or any security. You get off the plane and the bus is right there. You get on and it takes you right to the hotel. So it’s a lot of fun, especially when it’s something you’re not used to. It’s quite the experience.”
Reimer and the Leafs flew into Vancouver on Thursday and two days later the netminder was on his way back to Toronto and the AHL Marlies after goaltender Jonas Gustavson was cleared to play with the NHL team. Reimer’s time with the big club was short, but certainly sweet, and left him craving for another shot.
“When you get a taste of something you’ve dreamed of, you always want more, especially when it comes to playing hockey and playing in the NHL,” he said. “To be able to experience it and be with the guys and just see what life is like at that level and how much fun it is . . . it really makes you push a lot harder.”
Reimer was a premier Western Hockey League stopper during his three seasons with the Rebels and was selected by Toronto in the fourth round of the 2006 NHL entry draft. The Winnipeg-born goaltender posted a 2.81 goals-against average and .910 save percentage during his draft season and improved to 2.66 and .912 the following year.
Reimer’s best WHL season was his last, although he appeared in only 30 games due to a severe ankle injury. His 2.73 GAA and .916 save percentage with a non-playoff team was truly impressive, and convinced the Maple Leafs brass that he was ready for the pro ranks.
“The biggest thing for me, I feel, is that I got better every year I was in Red Deer, and that’s what NHL teams look for,” he said. “Having the success that I had my last year there really helped me to get a contract and gain their (Maple Leafs’) trust and confidence.”
Reimer spent most of the 2008-09 season with the Reading Royals of the ECHL, recording a 3.30 GAA, a .904 save percentage and a 10-7-3 slate. He was called up to the Marlies for a brief stint and allowed 10 goals over three games while posting one win, and also played six games with another ECHL team, the South Carolina Stingrays, winning all six while posting a sparkling 1.32 GAA with two shutouts and an equally admirable save percentage of .961.
For now, he’s a full-time member of the Marlies and is expected to share duties with Joey MacDonald, who’s currently with the Maple Leafs due to an injury to Vesa Toskala. Others in the picture, and currently on the Marlies roster, are minor-league veteran Adam Munro and the recently-signed Andrew Engelage.
“With it being such a crazy start to the season with both Marlies goalies getting called up when (Toskala and Gustavson) went down with injuries, I’m not quite sure what the (goaltending) plans are. No one has really talked about that to either MacDonald or myself,” said Reimer. “I think we’ll be splitting the spot, and if anything (MacDonald) will probably get the majority of games to start.”
If Reimer is the Marlies’ No. 2 stopper this season, he won’t complain. After all, he played just one season in the ECHL before taking the next step.
“As long as you’re getting better and moving up, you should be happy,” he insisted. “You always want to be the No. 1 guy and you always want to be in the highest league possible. But as long as you’re getting better in the situation that you’re put in, that’s what counts.
“To be in an upper league, even as a No. 2 guys, is good. I’ll make the most of it and hopefully prove that I can be a No. 1 and keep going from there.”
Reimer, whose apartment is just five minutes from the Marlies practice rink (the team plays home games at the downtown Ricoh Coliseum), knows he can play in the NHL, although his major-league experience consists of a pair of preseason games.
In September, Reimer appeared in two exhibition contests, sharing a 4-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers with MacDonald and surrendering two goals while playing the first half of a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Both nights I played against a pretty good squad, against guys like (Flyers forward Mike) Richards. It was a new experience for me and it was a lot of fun playing against guys you’ve watched on TV,” he said.
Reimer is in the second year of a three-year deal he signed with the Leafs in 2008 and is fairly confident he’ll be with the organization long term.
“I think so, but a lot of things can change,” he said.
“From my experience, some things can happen just like that. It looks like there might possibly be some room for me, but if you don’t pull your weight they’ll get someone else to take that spot that might be open. Right now I’m just trying to make a name for myself in the AHL and hopefully do well, get another call-up and work from there.”