Four months ago, Peter Budaj was schmoozing on the floor of Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., scribbling autographs and snapping pictures for season-ticket holders. Dressed in his black No. 31 Reign jersey and dark-blue jeans, Budaj had posted up at a table near the penalty boxes. The line to meet him stretched along the boards, wrapped below the goal line, and then doubled back up the zone, some several hundred strong. No other player at the event, team officials remarked later, would attract a crowd even half that size.
They had good cause to flock. In 60 games for the Los Angeles Kings’ AHL affiliate last season, the bushy-bearded Budaj—pronounced BOO-DYE, abbreviated to Boods—led the league with 42 wins, nine shutouts and a .932 save percentage, ultimately earning the Baz Bastien Memorial Award for best goaltender. He backstopped the Reign into the conference finals, earning esteem from fans for his sturdy play and sociable personality alike. It is indeed telling that, upon learning the subject of a reporter’s inquiry, the receptionist at Ontario team headquarters practically squeals with glee. “Peter?” he says. “What a freakin' boss."
As the night progressed and the fans slowly inched toward his table, Budaj stole periodic glances at the video screen above center-ice. It was Oct. 12, 2016, the eve of Ontario’s season opener. The Kings, meanwhile, were in San Jose that night, so their game against the Sharks was being simulcast at the Reign’s rink. Late in the first period, L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick tried pushing off the inside edge of his right skate but slipped instead, hurting his groin. As NBCSN analyst Brian Boucher broke down the injury, which eventually required Quick to undergo a non-surgical procedure, Budaj remarked something along the lines of, “Well, better keep my phone on.”
In that moment, before Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford called and summoned Budaj, the 34-year-old had no way of predicting what would come next. After training camp he had been dispatched to Ontario as the organization’s third goalie, a veteran on a two-way contract behind Quick and Jeff Zatkoff, told to stay ready in case of an emergency. This was easy; two straight years in the minors had familiarized him enough to the particular demands of this job.
But the success that followed? The 23 straight appearances for Los Angeles? The league-leading seven shutouts? The resurrection of an NHL career once thought to have fizzled?
Come on. Get real.
“When you look at when I was at the beginning of the year, or maybe two years ago, not many people would give me this kind of a chance to become anybody,” Budaj says. “Nobody, I think, in the hockey world would believe that I’d be here.
“Not even me.”
The phone was ringing again, this time on Wednesday afternoon. The Kings were in south Florida, fresh off consecutive 5-0 losses to Washington and Tampa Bay, in which Budaj allowed nine goals on 36 shots. On the other line was Dusty Imoo, goalie coach of the Reign. Together, they had already endured far tougher times than this brief blip in Budaj’s magical season. Now, Imoo was simply calling to ensure no further damage would be done.
“We wanted to touch base to make sure he’s able to stay on track,” says Imoo. “Hey, it’s two games. So let’s not get too crazy, let’s make sure he feels he can get back on his game, no problem. It wasn’t like he’s been really sucking, per se.”
Arguably better than anyone else in hockey, Imoo knows what it looks like when Budaj, per se, sucks. Just before the ’14-15 season began, Budaj was traded from Montreal, where for three years he had backed up Carey Price, to the Winnipeg Jets, who promptly waived and reassigned him to the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps. Imoo was coaching the IceCaps’ goalies at the time. In his newest pupil, he found a project.
“It was a year of change for him, and not in a good way,” Imoo says. “He was very disappointed and took things personally. It just started to snowball. He lost a lot of focus and confidence and didn’t deal with it very well. Was trying really hard. Working really hard. But it kept on spiraling downwards.”
By season's end, Budaj—once a bona fide NHLer who won 31 games with Colorado in his second season—had appeared 19 times for St. John’s and recorded zero wins. “He hit bottom,” Imoo says. “It was a kick in the ass.” His goals against average stood at 3.55 and his save percentage was .888, both career-lows at any level since he was 17 years old, a Slovakian emigrant dressing for the OHL’s Toronto St. Michael’s Majors.
“My mindset was completing wrong,” Budaj says. “I was trying to get back to NHL right away, focusing on what other guys are doing, what people think of me, what kind of impact the game’s going to have. You’re focusing on the outcome of the situation, not the process.”
The following summer, Budaj entered free agency as an uncertain and unwanted commodity. He received no contract offers, except for a pro tryout agreement from the Kings, who had recently hired Imoo as their goaltender development coach. Imoo backed Budaj internally, recommending him not based on numbers but the work ethic he saw in St. John’s. Plus, he knew Budaj wouldn’t lack for motivation.
“This could be the best thing for you, in the sense that you don’t have anything,” Imoo told Budaj, “You’ve got to treat this like you’re nobody, like you’re a kid trying to show you can play hockey again. Let it go. Start fresh. See where this takes us.”
The new goalie ambled to the back of the bus, interrupting the veterans as they dealt another hand of cards. “What are we playing?” Budaj asked, surprising his teammates with both strong English and bravado, atypical of other 20-year-old international prospects. “One of the only rookies jumping into the game right away,” says Brian Willsie, then a Hershey Bears winger. “Positive, great attitude, really popular with all the guys.”
This was—and still remains—Budaj to a tee. In Los Angeles, Zatkoff calls him “a mentor, always available to chat. There’s not many experiences he hasn’t dealt with. In Hershey, he harbored no qualms about staying late after practice so skaters could pelt more pucks. “I wish I had some dirt stories, but he’s just such a nice guy,” Willsie says. “He’s got that infectious laugh.”
A year and a half after the Colorado Avalanche drafted him 63rd, Budaj arrived in Pennsylvania for his first season of pro hockey in ’02-03. Around the same time, John Walton joined the club as its radio play-by-play voice and manager of communications. During the Bears’ first road trip, to Norfolk, Va., Walton brought along his son, Jack, then 3 years old. After practice one day, without prompting, Budaj pulled Jack onto the ice and let the kid take a few shots. “Jack ended up becoming a soccer and hockey goalie,” Walton says. “I look back at Peter and think that’s where it started.”
For similarly affable reasons, a trainer once bestowed upon Budaj the nickname, “Flanders,” after the Simpsons’ Bible-thumping, hi-didily-ho-ing neighborino. Various images of the character have adorned Budaj’s goalie mask ever since, though he swears that he’s never watched more than half an episode of the show. “I know the story of Ned Flanders,” Budaj says. “Believe me, I’m not even close to how perfect he is. I think it was because I always had a smile on my face and always tried to be excited and thankful. But he’s absolutely perfect. He doesn’t do any mistakes. And I do many, many, many mistakes in my life.”
So there again is Ned, smiling and waving along the side of Budaj’s current mask, a gray-scale tribute to the Kings’ 50th anniversary designed by Swedish artist Dave Gunnarsson. On the back plate, Budaj asked to include one of his favorite Bible verses. Joshua 1:9 goes like this: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, and do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
It was with such fearlessness that Budaj approached his tryout at Kings training camp, but he still faced an uphill battle toward earning a full-time contract. Then fortune intervened. Only after J.F. Berube, an AHL All-Star who had led the Reign to the ’14-15 Calder Cup, was plucked off waivers by the Islanders, and only after fellow prospect Patrik Bartosak ran into both injury and legal issues, did the door open enough for Budaj to sign a one-year deal worth $100,000 at the minor-league level. His first start came Oct. 21, 2015, against the Bakersfield Condors. Budaj made 21 saves in a 5-0 shutout, his first victory in more than 18 months. “Your shoulders go back a little bit, your chest sticks out a little bit more,” Imoo says. “That’s when he felt good again.”
The long road back to the NHL crested after Quick’s injury, when Budaj replaced Zatkoff during the third period of an Oct. 18 loss in Minnesota. Budaj then won his next four starts, all of which reached at least overtime, and seized the No. 1 role. He’s endured several losing streaks stretches since, including three of at least three games, but has largely held down the fort in front of a stingy Kings unit that cedes just 25.5 shots per game, fewest league-wide. Through Wednesday, only Washington’s Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, had posted as many clean sheets as Budaj’s seven. Earlier this week, after blanking Colorado and Philadelphia in back-to-back games, Budaj was named the NHL's third star.
“He’s just been riding,” Kings forward Marian Gaborik says. “He’s been playing well. We don’t give up much as a team. But if we do, he’s been there.”
Assuming all goes to plan, Budaj might not occupy the starting net for much longer; earlier this month, Quick practiced for the first time since his injury. If and when Quick fully recovers, though—he’s working on an indefinite timetable—Budaj will almost certainly remain on the NHL roster. (One source described his job security in even firmer terms: “There’s no way he’s going down.”) After enduring so much, the freakin' boss has earned at least that.
“Sometimes the road goes different paths than you wish to go,” Budaj says, “but I always believe it’s the right path for you.”