The Moose has settled in: Brian Elliott backstopping the Flames' playoff hunt
- It's no easy task to get Brian Elliott to release one of his famed moose calls, but his Calgary Flames teammates can count on him giving everything else to the season.
The first key to fashioning the perfect toilet paper necktie is to track down some two-ply. Much stronger than the generic, single-ply brands sold at your local convenience store. Next, you’ll need dexterous, dainty mitts, for knotting the actual thing. It’s still toilet paper, after all. No sense shredding your creation before the big reveal. “And then,” Brian Elliott says, working toward the final, most important lesson, “you’ve got to rock it when you get to the dance floor.”
No issues there. Four years ago, when former St. Louis teammate Chris Stewart got married in July 2013, Elliott disappeared from the reception, loosened his actual tie, and emerged sporting a slightly more creative cravat. “And his dancing is above average. He was just out there killing it,” says Kevin Shattenkirk, another ex-Blues player. “He does it sometimes when we’re out too. He’ll go to the bathroom and get it and want to formal it up a little bit. It’s his staple.” Call him the Charmin’ Charmin.
To friends and fans, though, the Calgary Flames’ bedrock goalie simply goes by Moose. As it turns out, Shattenkirk, Stewart and St. Louis forward Ryan Reaves were also at the forefront of that tradition, because every time Elliott led them onto the ice for pregame warmups, they would spot the moose-inspired designs that adorn the backplate of his masks. Before long, the St. Louis crowd had been trained to roar, “MOOOOOOSE” at every save. So now do Flames faithful at Scotiabank Saddledome.
In an era of lazy, abbreviated, surname-based monikers—Stewie! Reaver! Sha…nevermind—Elliott’s stands alone. He’s certainly not the only “Moose” to have charged through the NHL; Mark Messier, Andre Dupont and Johan Hedberg all sported the cervine sobriquet during their careers. But Elliott certainly has the most deserving backstory. “”He’s earned that nickname and he owns it,” Shattenkirk says.
Among the closest childhood buddies of Elliott’s father, Bill, was a world-champion moose caller named Owen Scott. “If you can believe that’s a thing,” Elliott says. And if you didn’t, one glimpse at Scott’s black Dodge pickup truck would educate you proper. Splashed across the side doors were airbrushed images of Scott making moose calls. On the front hood was a picture of a giant moose. The license plate read MRMOOSE. And whenever he honked the horn, the truck wouldn’t beep but instead bellow like a moose. “It was the whole shebang,” Elliott says.
Over the years, Scott remained a close family friend. When the Elliotts’ home in Ontario was under construction one summer, Scott handed over the keys to his house and spent three months living in a Fifth Wheel Camper. He and Bill Elliott, a television director and producer, once filmed a video titled, “Calling Them In,” in which Scott taught hunting and calling moose. That’s how Brian learned the proper technique, using the birch bark and fiberglass tools that Scott would craft.
So after Scott unexpectedly died during Brian’s freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, he started wearing goalie masks with the MRMOOSE license plate on the back. And when he was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award after leading the Badgers to the 2006 NCAA championship, Elliott leaned back from the mic during his speech at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, cupped his hands and, as he might say, rocked it. “The guy from ESPN asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said no,” Elliott says. “Then on live TV he said, ‘Let’s hear the moose call!’ So that’s the only time I’ve really done it on command, I guess. Just two seconds before that I said no, I don’t want to do it. Then I got bullied into it.”
Like tracking one of the antlered creatures through the forest, coaxing Elliott to call can indeed be an elusive endeavor. Several teammates report hearing it once or twice, but only “once you get a couple Buds in him too,” Shattenkirk says. Still, Elliott wears the name with pride. And if you want to get metaphorical with the mammal, Elliott’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, will confidently oblige.
“The analogy of a moose, you think of an animal with fortitude and strength,” Overhardt says. “Moose is definitely on the loose up in freaking Alberta, right?”
Okay, back into the loo.
Not St. Louis, mind you, where Elliott played five seasons for the Blues, twice led the league in save percentage, won the ’11-12 William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed by a team, and recorded 104 wins in 164 starts. But the bathroom, the john, where Elliott found the only tool necessary for endearing himself to fellow Flames, after St. Louis traded him during last June’s NHL draft.
“It probably goes back to toilet-paper ties, right?” he says. “You have to build those friendships, you have to build that trust to know you’re going to give it your all and you expect them to give you everything. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
It’s Tuesday afternoon. With his wife Amanda behind the wheel, Elliott chats from the car. They just finished seeing Beauty and the Beast, seizing onto the rare opportunity for a midseason date. The night before, Elliott had stopped 24 of 26 shots in a 4-2 victory over Colorado, his 13th in his last 14 starts. (The only setback, 4-2 in Washington on March 21, came despite Elliott making 40 saves, including 11 from Alex Ovechkin.) And with the Los Angeles Kings in town Wednesday night, another win would clinch a playoff berth for Elliott and Calgary.
Contrast this with how Elliott started the season, 3-9-1 through mid-December and temporarily benched for backup Chad Johnson. At the time, the Flames were altogether struggling to implement new coach Glen Gulutzan’s system, which as a result had them bleeding primo scoring chances. In St. Louis, Elliott tended net in front of an experienced, sound defensive corps that includes Olympian Jay Bouwmeester and workhorse Alex Pietrangelo. In Calgary, he had an .885 save percentage through 13 starts.
“From a distance, you can just look at statistics and results and think, he’s having success now, he’s turned his game around, he’s a completely different goalie now, he’s done this different with his style,” Johnson says. “But if anyone’s actually watched the team from the start of the year and watch us now, it’s a drastic change. We don’t give up breakaways, we don’t give up two-on-ones or three-on-twos or wide-open shots in the slot. He’s had time to work on that, but we’re playing so much better. I don't think his game needed to change.”
If anything, life just needed to settle down. On Oct. 2, 10 days before a season-opening loss to Edmonton in which Elliott allowed six goals, Amanda gave birth to their first child, Owen. “We were trying to get doctors secured, what hospital we were going to use, getting to Calgary in time, making sure he didn’t come too early so I could be there for it,” Elliott says. “That was a big transition. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but that was the biggest thing for me, now that I think about it, along with the hockey stuff and all that.
“For some reason it didn’t all come together, then you put all the stresses of you want to be the best for your team, you’re coming into a new city, the weight of the world can come on you if you don’t stop it in its tracks.”
Well, what’s a little more professional adversity to someone who has already worked through so much? As a teenager, Elliott was passed over in the Ontario Hockey League draft and regularly got hammered on a rebuilding Ajax Axemen squad in the lower-level Ontario Junior Hockey League. In 2003, the Ottawa Senators made him the 291st pick, or as Elliott puts it, “second to last overall in a round that doesn’t exist anymore.” In Feb. ’11 he was traded midseason from Ottawa to Colorado, before eventually signing a barebones, one-year deal with St. Louis. For all his success there, Elliott never settled into a regular starting role either; the cast of partners included Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Miller, Jake Allen and, briefly, Martin Brodeur.
“He’s never been the number one,” says Flames forward Troy Brouwer, who also spent last season with Elliott in St. Louis. “And if he was, I feel like it got away from him with trades or different things. That’s a tough position for a guy to be in, and as a result I think it’s made him more competitive.”
Known for stone-faced intensity as much as his nickname (or neckwear), Elliott caught fire for the Blues down the stretch in ’15-16, allowing one or fewer goals in 13 of his final 21 starts. The hot streak carried into the playoffs for a time—St. Louis outlasted Chicago and Dallas in seven each during the first two rounds—but consecutive losses to San Jose dumped Elliott onto the bench and Allen in net for Games 3-5 of the Western Conference finals. He returned for Game 6, a 5-2 loss that ended the Blues' longest postseason run in 15 years, and was traded one month later.
“It’s really about finding that rhythm,” he says. “Sometimes it takes more time than others, or sometimes you can just stroll right into it. My career, throughout my whole life, it’s always been you’ve got to battle your way through, you’ve got to fight for every start you get. I don’t want it any other way. I don't think you’re going to get very far if everything’s given to you.”
As the Flames approach just their second playoff bid this decade, Elliott finds himself on the other side. His numbers this month (9-1-0, 1.77 GAA, .941 save percentage) are sterling. He credits conversations with goalie coach Jordan Siglet, who gives Elliott daily details to focus on, like keeping his toes at the top of the crease, and former Blues goalie coach Jim Corsi. “A lot about, ‘Don’t be a victim,’” Elliott says. “Always be the attacker rather than the victim. I think just those little mental changes help a lot.”
Unfortunately, the current positive vibes weren’t enough to convince Elliott to unleash his moose call over the phone to a reporter. He laughs and apologizes. But after the Hobey Baker incident, Elliott explains, the next public show has been saved for something truly special. “I said the next time I’ll do it,” he says, “is when I’ve got the Stanley Cup.”