Winter Classic a homecoming for Habs’ Mike Condon and his father
BOSTON — Gun holstered at his hip, walkie-talkie clipped to his lapel, Sgt. Ted Condon waited outside the Ritz Carlton for his shift to start. “Massachusetts State Police: Official Business,” read the sign on the dash of his unmarked SUV, idling down the block behind a chartered bus. Now into his third decade on the force, Condon had dressed in full uniform this New Year’s Eve morning—pants tucked into tall boots, tie knotted at his thick neck, hat tugged low over his crew cut. This was unusual attire for members of the Violent Fugitive Apprehension Section, who wore plain clothes when chasing bad guys, but these were unusual circumstances. In a few minutes, the Montreal Canadiens were headed to practice for the 2016 Winter Classic, which gave Condon the rare chance to escort his son to work.
As the father of Mike Condon, the current starting goaltender for the NHL’s most storied franchise, the hometown kid set to oppose the hometown team on Friday afternoon, this week had already brought new kinds of chaos for an officer well versed in handling whatever dropped into his lap. He drove the car of Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, to the impound lot for forensic analysis. He was present outside the house in Watertown where police apprehended Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, ending the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber. He helped capture Gary Alan Irving, a serial rapist who evaded authorities for 34 years. He summed up the gig like this: “You get people that need to be gotten.”
But now? Mic’ed up by a television crew, cell phone buzzing with interview requests, two buses booked to bring family and friends to the tailgate in Lot 20, looped into transport duty for the special occasion? “I think we’ve all aged quite a bit through the process,” said Zach Condon, Mike’s older brother. Nearby, Ted fiddled with his walkie-talkie and shook his head. “A rags-to-riches story,” he called it. “Cop’s kid makes good.” Three years ago, Mike was finishing his senior year at Princeton University, undrafted and thinking hard about life beyond hockey. He had a 120-page thesis to write and an entire future to plan. Maybe he would work on Wall Street, like many other political science majors. Maybe he would sign with a minor-league team for a few more tours in the crease. Maybe he would call in connections to find something elsewhere.
Friday, the 25-year-old Massachusetts native will face the Boston Bruins at Gillette Stadium, where he attended Country Fest during summers and sat in the upper deck for Patriots games, where his father bought drugs in the parking lot while undercover with the narcotics unit, where Tom Brady and Bill Belichick would soon sign the back of his goalie mask, wishing him good luck.
“How does this kid from college make this team?” Ted wondered aloud, throwing up his hands for emphasis. “This team? It doesn’t happen like this.”
Yet it did. A few minutes later, Mike emerged from the hotel lobby, sipping a cup of coffee in the morning cold, trailed by two cameras and a boom mic, members of the Epix film crew documenting the Winter Classic. He hugged his father and brother. He eyed the Sergeant’s stripes. “I barely recognized you,” Mike told his father. “Everyone’s scared of you.” Together, the Condon men smiled for pictures in front of a police cruiser and discussed Friday's plans. How much meat and beer should they buy for the tailgate? How many family passes did they need for after the game? And what about the…
Hang on. Not now. The other Canadiens were streaming onto the bus. Time to go.
“Hopefully the Sarg knows where he’s going,” Mike said. He joined his teammates and the caravan pulled from the curb, one cruiser in front of the bus, another behind it, Ted bringing up the rear, sirens blaring and lighting the way.
The story begins in the driveway of the family home around age 6, when Zack and his buddies needed someone to play goalie. Since Mike always insisted on joining the crew in whatever sport they played, they stuck him in the net and pelted him with tennis balls, hardening the kid with tough love. A former Division II quarterback and tight end in Pennsylvania, Ted taught Mike to skate but didn’t have enough time to coach, too busy pulling 90-hour weeks on the force. He did, however, volunteer as the equipment manager for the local hockey organization, which meant stuffing their garage with pads, helmets and sticks. “I think that’s where Mike got the goalie bug,” Ted said, one hand on the steering wheel as the escort churned down Interstate 95.
The obstacles only amassed from there. When Mike was around 7 years old, his parents divorced. “Dad wouldn’t be around as much anymore,” was how adults explained the situation, but hockey kept them glued together. To make ends meet, Ted pulled late-night detail at construction sites and early-morning shifts on the force, arriving home after Mike fell asleep and rising before he went to school. It helped pay for paint jobs on the helmets and alterations on the pads and, eventually, tens of thousands in tuition when Mike enrolled at Belmont Hill. “That was the thing, you see your dad working so hard to get you these goalie pads, you’re going to put every ounce of sweat and blood you have into practice and into those games,” Mike said. “Why would you put your dad through that if you weren’t going to give total effort?”
The separation hardened Mike, fostering a resolve he believes helped guide his path toward the NHL. After the divorce, Ted began living with a firefighter friend in Natick, where on weekends he and his sons squeezed into one bedroom in the back of the house. He eventually rented a house from someone who knew Mike’s grandmother, who didn’t mind if rent came four or five months late. The heat often broke so they took “Navy showers,” briefly coating themselves in the chilly water, hopping out to soap up, then jumping back in to rinse off. Once, after Zach enrolled in the Merchant Marines, he returned home from sea to find the toilet water frozen.
“I didn’t really have what you’d call a traditional childhood growing up, family dinners and all that,” Mike said. “It was a lot of time eating alone and you’re doing what you can with what you’ve got. You’re just trying to go to school and do the things you’re supposed to do. No one had time to hold your hand through the maturation process. You had to figure it out for yourself.
“But I also had good examples, so it was easy to follow my brother and my dad. Now that I look back on it, those were the biggest lessons I’ve gotten in terms of preparation for life, just being able to operate independently and being okay with being alone.”
This helped lay the groundwork for Mike’s signature win at Belmont Hill over a juggernaut Noble and Greenough squad that included a future Winter Classic opponent in Bruins winger Jimmy Hayes. It boosted him to enrolling at Princeton out of high school, even though other schools advised him to head the junior route instead. It fortified his decision to leave Princeton midway through his senior spring semester and sign an amateur tryout agreement with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign, loading books from the school library into his suitcase so he could finish his thesis in hotel rooms while his teammates partied. By the time he returned to campus for graduation in early June, he had accumulated $200 in overdue fines. Thankfully, the signing bonus from a two-year deal with the Canadiens, who had been impressed with Condon’s work in Ontario and later Houston of the AHL, helped cover the costs. “I ended up getting a B-minus,” Condon said. “Not a very good grade for a thesis, but I’ll take it.”
And now here he was, standing outside the dressing room at field level of Gillette Stadium, fresh off the bus and waiting for practice to start. He had brought a bag loaded with Canadiens gear—mittens, scarves and a winter jacket—for Ted and Zach to distribute to the family. “Alright, I’ve got to go get dressed,” Mike said. As he walked away, Ted called after him.
A few minutes later, after he disappeared into the locker room, Condon formally learned that he would start the Winter Classic, his 26th appearance of the season, one more surprise hurtled his way. Condon arrived in Montreal for training camp on Aug. 20 and checked into a Comfort Inn, fresh off a rigorous off-season of workouts. “He looked like an MMA fighter when I saw him,” Zach said. “He was that cut up.”
There was a reason. All summer, Mike and his trainer set their sights on the No. 2 job behind Carey Price, the reigning Hart Trophy winner. After several strong exhibition performances boosted Condon past fellow backup candidate Dustin Tokarski, the Habs told him they had budgeted between 15 and 20 starts in 2015–16, roughly one every four games.
“Then,” Condon said, “it’s like, here we go, right into the fire.”
On Oct. 29, Price incurred a lower-body injury against Edmonton, which thrust Condon into the starting role for the next nine games. He responded with five wins, all but one at Bell Centre, and posted a .904 save percentage, continuing a scorching start that rocketed Montreal atop the league standings. Then, right before Thanksgiving in his third game back, Price aggravated the same issue and was ruled out until after the calendar turned. The spotlight further trained onto Condon. He won two of his next three decisions but, in conjunction with a team-wide slide, has only recorded one victory since Dec. 1.
For the working-class family grounded in service—in addition to Ted’s 30 years in state police, Mike’s grandfather sailed in the Pacific fleet during World War II and Zach worked for the Merchant Marines on rigs in Africa and Brazil—the constant attention has come as somewhat of a shock. Ted still dislikes watching Canadiens games on television, at least until they’re winning. Mike worries that all these interviews might affect his father’s work, particularly if some criminal wants revenge on the cop who put him away. On a recent visit to Montreal, Zach marveled at how many fans swarmed his brother on the street.
“I used to fly under the radar, playing in the AHL and East Coast League where no one gives a s---,” he said. “I had to delete Twitter and Instagram. Facebook’s getting pretty crazy too.”
Thanks to the family’s put-your-head-down ethic, everything felt manageable. Practice had ended a half-hour ago and Condon had just returned from a press conference down the hallway, settling into a seat inside an empty locker room. Before long, Ted and Zach wandered in for a tour. Mike showed them the helmet autographed by Belichick and Brady. Zach squatted down and took pictures of P.K. Subban’s skates. Ted unhooked his gun belt, placed it on a chair, and headed for the bathroom. A team official wandered past and approached Mike. The team bus was leaving soon. Would he make the trip back?
“No, thank you,” Mike replied. “I’m going with my dad.”