DENVER -- The Toronto Maple Leafs were guests of the University of Denver on Wednesday, which meant a lot of blue on the ice instead of the usual crimson of the local Pioneers. But wherever an NHL team goes, there is always blue coming from the mouths of players. Through the glass at the Leafs' practice that day, those who had even the most basic lip-reading skills could discern some of George Carlin's famous seven words you can't say on TV. Indeed, propane shapes the curves of hockey sticks while profane shapes the conversational tilt in a hockey rink.
There is one player, however, to whom "darnn it" would be punishable by having his mouth washed out with soap. That player is rookie goaltender James Reimer, a devout Mennonite who religiously-devoted Maple Leafs fans are praying can deliver them to the playoffs. So far, those long-suffering supplicants have had nothing but kind words for the play of Reimer, 23, who took a 16-7-4 record into Thursday's contest with the woeful Colorado Avalanche. Surging Toronto got 25 saves from its young Mr. Clean and ended the day with a 4-3 win, three points behind Buffalo for the eighth Eastern Conference playoff spot, with the Sabres having two games in hand.
"There's a lot of pressure, but that's what makes the game fun. The more pressure there is, the more fun winning is," Reimer says. "I'm just trying to enjoy the ride right now and take it day by day."
Reimer did not even play hockey until age 12, which is considered by most hockey people as being older than the Dead Sea Scrolls when it comes to getting started in the sport. But growing up in the Canadian province of Manitoba, he couldn't avoid the game forever. With a big frame that would fill out to 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, Reimer took to goaltending and decided to give it a real shot. He was taken in the fifth round of the 2003 Western Hockey League Bantam draft by the Red Deer Rebels, a team coached by Brent Sutter -- who is believed to have uttered a profanity or two in his time.
Reimer had a 7-18-3 record during his first season (2005-06) with Red Deer, but he showed enough promise that former Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson, Jr. was persuaded to take him 99th overall in the 2006 NHL draft. He continued to progress through Toronto's system, first the East Coast League, then with the Marlies of the AHL, before a combination of injuries and struggles for the Leafs' top two goalies -- Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson -- prompted Toronto GM Brian Burke to give Reimer a shot.
Reimer has been the proverbial hot goalie ever since, with that spiffy won-lost record, not to mention a .924 saves percentage, 2.51 GAA and three shutouts. In Tuesday's 3-0 whitewash of Minnesota, he stopped 29 shots, including three breakaways.
Giguere, who knows a thing or two about getting hot late in a season, has gladly tutored Reimer as much as he can -- even though he might be keeping himself on the bench by doing so. "He reminds me a lot of me when I was his age," says Giguere, who won the Conn SmytheTrophy as playoff MVP in 2003 and the Stanley Cup in 2007 with Anaheim. "Not to flatter myself, but when I see him (at 23), I see some of myself in him. If you watch his game, he makes everything look very simple. It takes a lot of work to be in the right position all the time, and he's doing that very well."
History is littered with goalies, however, whose great starts in the NHL were followed by quick flameouts. Jim Carey, Patrick Lalime, Roman Turek, Jose Theodore, Roman Cechmanek -- the list is long and cluttered with netminders who at one time were supposed to be the Next Big Thing, only to find themselves sitting at the end of the bench with a towel around their necks not long after.
"You look at his numbers as a pro, they've been great right along," says Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "But you do have to look and say 'I don't know if he's even played 80 games yet as a professional.' So, you don't want to get too far ahead. Not that I'm thinking about next year, but a lot of goalies who were good in their first year -- like a lot of players -- their second year is kind of difficult. The second time around the league is pretty difficult. But we'll enjoy how well he's playing right now and go from there."
Said GM Brian Burke: "This kid is a genuinely nice young man, but he is also very competitive. And he is even-tempered, with a short memory. He shrugs off tough outings, he ignores criticism. I believe he can handle the Toronto fishbowl. He has been very fortunate to have Jiggy along as a stablemate."
Indeed, Reimer seems to have a preternaturally sunny disposition, having come as far as he has so unexpectedly. He's always been that way, says Manitoba-based agent Ray Petkau, who discovered Reimer in a recreational league tournament when the goalie was barely a teenager and has had a close bond with him since.
"People will say they can't believe how nice he really is, but it's not an act, he really just genuinely cares about people," says Petkau, who keeps a close eye out for anyone in the big city who might try to take advantage of the small-town, nice kid. "There are a lot of sharks out there. I've gotten nothing but calls lately from business about James Reimer, wanting to jump on the bandwagon with endorsements and things like that. I do worry a little about him being in an environment like that, with the kind of person he is, but we talk daily and I emphasize some of those things to him."
Reimer, currently earning $596,667 with his contract up after the season, is only thinking about making his next save and bagging another victory in the Leafs' desperate run at the postseason -- not money or personal glory. "My parents are great parents, and they made me realize what's real and what's important," he says. "They instilled a lot of great things in me. But I very much want to win out there. I wouldn't be here right now, doing all this, if I didn't."
Family values, honesty, treating his fellow man with respect. These are the things that James Reimer swears by -- so to speak.