If you’ve been paying attention to the wider hockey world during the last week, chances are you’ve seen it, and you’re as in just as much awe as everyone else: a goalie for the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye sprawled in his crease on his back, his left arm wrapping around his body to stop the puck from finding the wide-open net, a game-saving stop in overtime.
Yeah, you’ve seen the save, but do you know who Jeff Lerg is?
Do you know the 5' 6" goalie who has made more saves during his Michigan State career than Ryan Miller? The Jeff Lerg who tore both ACLs within the first seven months of his professional career?
Jeff Lerg is not a one-save wonder. He’s a goalie with a height disadvantage. But don’t tell him that.
“I’ve done enough work to get somebody to take a chance on me,” he says.
Lerg has always been small. Not as small as the smallest goalie in NHL history—Hall of Famer Roy “Shrimp” Worters stood 5' 3"—but small enough to not be noticed.
Yet not too small. Not too small to win a national championship at Michigan State in 2007. Not too small to finish his career with the second-most saves in NCAA history (3,996). Not too small to be mentioned in the Michigan State pantheon with Miller, nor too small to be a Hobey Baker Award finalist in 2008.
“I’ve never been big,” Lerg says. “The nets have always been the same size. The puck has always been the same size. I’ve just had to adapt. And I feel like I’ve adapted at every level.”
But Lerg knows what the hockey world thinks. Even though he had what he says is “as good a career as you can have as a goaltender,” no NHL team has showed interest. And Lerg knows why. “Just due to my size,” he says. All Lerg had to hold on to was an offer from the Trenton Devils in the ECHL.
Yet the world has always given Lerg a reason to have a chip on his shoulder. This time, it was tearing both ACLs within seven months. Heartbroken, he felt helpless as the hockey world passed him by, unable to garner momentum from his college career, with a new crop of NCAA free agents gaining jobs.
“I was white noise,” he says.
Tom Newton has been at an assistant coach at Michigan State for 26 years. He coached Miller. He’s coached 29 other NHLers and been a part of more than 700 victories during his coaching career. And he loves Jeff Lerg.
“He was one of the most focused athletes I’ve ever seen,” Newton says. “He was very organized. He was a 4.0 student. Very focused. Very driven.”
Newton had known Lerg before the goaltender arrived at East Lansing, watching Lerg as he made his way up the Detroit-area youth hockey ranks. Back then, Newton saw talent, but was worried about the kid’s height. He loved how Lerg played in bantam, then fretted that midget hockey players would blow the puck by him top-shelf. But Lerg became the best midget goalie in the area.
Newton thought the USHL would eat Lerg up. But Lerg was named the Goaltender of the Year after his 2004-05 season with the Omaha Lancers. The Spartans coach even thought at Michigan State that players would take advantage of Lerg, but Lerg won a National Championship and became an All-American.
“He just defied the odds,” Newton says. “His size forced him to be technically perfect. I coached Ryan Miller, as technically sound of a goaltender as there has been in college hockey. And Jeff was every bit as technically sound.”
Newton doesn’t know if Lerg can advance past the ECHL, as teams are traditionally wary of smaller goalies. If he gets to the AHL, he thinks Lerg can thrive there. But wherever Lerg ends up, Newton isn’t worried.
“I’ll never be surprised when Jeff Lerg is successful,” he says. “He’s a successful person, and it won’t stop with hockey.”
And as for that save?
“The save was incredible,” Newton says. “But not even close to how incredible he is as a person.
Lerg spent a few seasons playing in Italy and France after his injuries—not exactly hockey hotbeds. When he came back to the ECHL in 2014-15 with Toledo, he put up solid numbers: 2.37 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
This season he has been better. Through 29 games, he owns a 2.17 GAA and a .925 save percentage. He even finally broke through to the AHL, playing 25 minutes in a game with the San Diego Gulls.
“If it didn’t go well, it would be proving everybody right,” says Lerg. “If it did go well, it would be proving myself right.”
Lerg didn’t let any of the 11 shots against him get past.
You can thank roller hockey for the miracle save. Goalies can’t slide on concrete, so they have to get creative. That’s what Lerg learned playing during his summers. And when Fort Wayne Komets forward Garrett Meurs had the net wide open with Lerg on his back, it was time for desperation.
“A Dominik Hasek move,” Lerg says. “It was a combination of some skill, will to stop the puck, and some luck.”
Lerg says he’s enjoyed the media attention. But he wants more. He’ll turn 30 in a few months. He wants to escape the ECHL, challenge himself at a higher level, either in North America or Europe. More than that, Lerg just wants a chance, height be damned.
“Just be at peace with what I put in my career,” he says of his goals. “Knowing I’ve given my all.”
And made more than than one desperation miracle save.