Trying out to be the Florida Panthers’ practice goalie was a scary thrill
SUNRISE, Fla. — I arrived at the BB&T Center on Monday morning feeling nervous, but excited. The chance to skate on the same ice as elite NHL talent, as part of the Panthers’ Goal of a Lifetime contest, was thrilling, but also filled me with a sense of overwhelming fear. This was due in large part to the fact that I am a 30-year-old roller hockey goalie. I haven’t played ice hockey since I was in high school, and that was over a dozen years ago. I started playing roller hockey in 1993–94 during the Panthers’ first season and went to the tryout still determined to pursue my dream of playing in the NHL, but I was afraid I didn’t belong. I was afraid I didn’t have the right equipment. I was afraid I wouldn’t even remember how to skate.
Florida had been inspired to create the Goal of a Lifetime sweepstakes partly out of necessity. In a 3–2 loss to the Maple Leafs on March 3, starting goalie Roberto Luongo and backup Al Montoya had both gone down with injuries. If Luongo had not returned to finish the game the Panthers would have had to turn to their goalie coach, 41-year-old Rob Tallas. On Monday, it was Tallas who led two group workouts in which 58 hopefuls—myself included—went through speed and agility drills, blocking drills and faced penalty shots from former Florida players. The diverse collection of contestants had been chosen from a list of 1,500 applicants, and included former journeymen goaltenders, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and ESPN broadcaster Linda Cohn. The top two performers from the tryout would win the chance to compete in a shootout during the first intermission of the Panthers’ game against the Canadiens on Tuesday night, with the winner skating as Florida’s practice goalie for a day.
With the help of my friends—some of whom sent words of encouragement and one of whom graciously lent me some of his gear—I was able to stifle some of my fears. By the time I arrived at the arena, I had even started to believe that I could win. You need that sort of confidence as a goalie, even in roller hockey.
The first of several treats I received was at the registration desk, where I was given a blue practice jersey with the Panther’s logo on the front and the number 59 on the back. That wasn’t the first number I’d pick, but who was I to complain? I was actually walking into an NHL arena to play hockey!
From registration, I was ushered to the dressing room, which was filled with folding chairs and bags of goalie gear. I found a place at the very back of the room, settled into my seat and took in my surroundings. There were about thirty of us there, and the first thing I noticed was how incredibly quiet it was. Goalies have the reputation for being a bit strange. It takes a special kind of person—maybe even a crazy one—to stand in front of a hard rubber disk flying at upwards of 80 to 90 mph. I’m used to quirky behavior. But the deafening silence was bizarre even to me. Perhaps it was nerves. Perhaps it was mental preparation exercises. Whatever it was, it was weird.
Eventually a few of the guys broke the silence and livened up the room as we all got dressed. I’ve been in a lot of dressing rooms, but none like this. The equipment alone took up the majority of the room’s volume. Thirty goalies. Thirty gloves and as many blockers. Sixty leg pads.
We then were instructed by “Red Deer” Randy Moller, Florida’s radio play-by-play man, to make our way to the ice. The moment was unforgettable. Walking through the tunnel from the dressing room like every NHL player does before every game, that was too exciting to put into words. It was a feeling. The nerves, the fear that I didn't belong, everything subsided after I took my first step onto the ice—and didn't fall!
About 30 other goalies were wrapping up their tryout as my group joined them at center ice for a massive group photo. It was such an incredible thrill to stand at the center of the rink on the logo of the team that I have spent the majority of my life cheering for. (My hero was Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who inspired me to take up the position and model my game after his.) That picture is going to be framed and will hang on a wall wherever I live for the rest of my life.
Finally, the drills began. This was my big test. Could I actually stop shots off the sticks of NHL-caliber talent? After introductions and instructions from Tallas, I was assigned to Group 4, which consisted of five other goalies. We each took turns in net, facing Panthers’ alumni Radek Dvorak, John Madden and Marco Sturm, among others. The first time I stepped into the crease I took a deep breath. And then instinct took over. I stopped the first shot I faced. And then another. And another. I gave up a goal on the fourth shot I faced, a beauty high to my glove side. But by that point it didn’t matter. I knew I belonged. I could do it. I was stopping pucks on NHL ice!
I faced shots in a variety of different high-intensity drills that left me gasping for air. It gave me an even greater appreciation (if that’s possible) for the peak shape that goalies must be in. It was a phenomenal experience. I got to see what it felt like to take shots from current and former NHL players. And I even managed to stop a few.
In the end, the Florida brass did not select me as one of the two finalists from the tryout. Those honors went to Dustin Smith, a 26-year-old Southwest Airlines employee, and Bill Ruggiero, the 34-year-old owner of a paddleboard business. Both have plenty of experience. Smith played at Middle Tennessee State and practiced with the Predators a few years ago. Ruggiero, the brother of gold-medal-winning U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero, is a former professional and semiprofessional goalie. As it turned out, they were declared co-winners of the Tuesday night shootout.
Even though I didn’t win the contest, I achieved something great nonetheless. For me, it was all about overcoming fear and living the experience. For one day, I got to play the position I love in the sport I love in a professional setting. I got to look up into the stands and see my closest friends—who had taken valuable time out of their days to come and support me. I got to speak to my parents on the phone afterward and describe how exciting it was to participate in the tryout. I hope they know how much it has meant to me to have their love and support. Those are the things that made the day special for me.
The entire experience was surreal. And I will never, ever forget it. Thank you to the Panthers. They truly helped me achieve the Goal of a Lifetime.