Men’s Hockey News

With his goalie equipment stowed away at the University of Toronto (U of T) and the U SPORTS men’s hockey season in the rearview mirror, Jett Alexander uses a seemingly lacklustre Saturday afternoon to study for his upcoming exams. But, as he sits in his living room reviewing notes, Alexander’s phone rings.

Brandon Pridham, the Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager’s name, appears on his phone screen. Alexander picks up and hears his voice—his face flushes. His heart drops as he listens to Pridham’s first few words.                                 

“He called me and said, ‘You’re going to be an NHL player for the night,’” Alexander recounts. “My heart was probably beating 160 beats sitting there doing nothing.”                          

Alexander’s face went red as he sunk into his couch. His head laid on the armrest, his feet on the top of the back of his sofa as he gazed out his living room window. His eyes fixed on the building across from his downtown Toronto condominium as he tried to soak in Pridham’s words.         

“It was so surreal,” Alexander said. “It was like, Oh my God, I need to listen because I’m gonna forget what I have to do if I don’t listen to him now, and I don’t want to have to ask people later.”                   

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Credit Seyran Mammadov / Varsity Blues

Eligibility paperwork, contracts, arrival times, and other information are what Alexander absorbed during his brief phone call with Pridham.

As the Maple Leafs assistant general manager requested, he kept the news quiet, only telling those closest to him. First, Alexander called up his parents separately, who live together on a farm two hours away in Prince Edward County, Ontario. A chorus of questions followed his announcement.                                       

“My parents were like, ‘What do you mean? You’re playing in an NHL game?’” Alexander said.                           

Next, he called up his girlfriend, Kelsey DeMelo. DeMelo took a calmer approach. Alexander discussed possibly sitting on the Maple Leafs bench, but she’s heard that before. However, her casual approach quickly faded late in the afternoon that Saturday. Back at their condo, Alexander went up to his girlfriend giddily.                          

“Kels, they’re making me a jersey with my name on it,” Alexander said. “This is happening.”

Excited, DeMelo called up her dad, Paul.                             

“I called my dad, and he’s, like, the biggest Leafs fan in the world,” DeMelo said. “My Dad was so excited. So, he got my whole family tickets, super last minute, and we all went to the game.”                          

Alexander and DeMelo went to the game separately. He drove to his university’s rink, grabbed his equipment, and took off to Scotiabank Arena. However, Alexander is thankful he took DeMelo’s car, as his truck wouldn’t have fit in the Maple Leafs’ underground parking.

An equipment manager met Alexander in the parking lot, helped bring his gear up, and walked him through the depths of Scotiabank Arena, through the backdoors, and into the Maple Leafs dressing room.

“It helped me settle in,” Alexander said. “Just first-class treatment, and it just shows you that people are aware and making an effort to make your life easier and make you feel welcome, but it’s definitely a little bit different than the normal Emergency Backup Goalie (EBUG) experience. When I sit in the stands, I always just leave my equipment in the car.”                          

Arriving at Scotiabank Arena, Alexander was less nervous about serving as an EBUG. He had already done it the season prior with the Colorado Avalanche. The visiting Avalanche came into Toronto needing a goalie to fill in as their American Hockey League (AHL) call-up made his way to the arena—insert Alexander—who got a call from Pridham, signed an amateur tryout, and was the second-last to leave the pregame skate, beat out by Nathan MacKinnon.

Due to COVID-19 protocols, Alexander sat idly inside Scotiabank, listening to the crowd’s cheers, clapping of sticks, and chopping of skates from the visiting team’s tunnel. He stayed there until Justus Annunen arrived, relieving him of his duties and letting him go to his girlfriend in the stands.

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Credit Alex Wauthy

The cap-strapped Maple Leafs were missing goaltender Matt Murray due to injury and didn’t have the financial means to call up Joseph Woll from their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. With the EBUG connection between U of T and the Maple Leafs, Pridham called up Alexander, giving him a chance to backup Ilya Samsonov, the Maple Leafs starting goaltender, on their home closer.                                             

The venue let Alexander enter the Maple Leafs locker room and take in the sights and sounds of his favourite team.

The players, coaching staff, and nutritionists approached him, shook his hand, and made small talk with the wide-eyed netminder. Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs head coach, told him to enjoy the moment.

Everyone made an effort, showing they cared about Alexander, allowing him to ease into the anxiety-ridden environment. Despite being thrust into this crazy situation and appreciating their hospitality, Alexander’s goal was to be a fly on the wall—avoid getting in the way and be as little of a distraction as possible.

Alexander felt like a little kid inside the locker room. Amidst the preparation and focus exhibited before warm-ups, he watched the Maple Leafs perform pregame rituals, crack jokes, and other subtle nuances.

“I think seeing that was a little bit settling,” Alexander said. “They’re just the same as us, the same as kids—they just get paid a lot of money to do it.”                      

DeMelo watched Alexander take the ice during pregame warm-ups before heading to her seat in the nosebleeds. She watched as the Maple Leafs jumped out to a 4-1 lead early in the second period, and she watched as an injury scare almost sprung her boyfriend into action with half of the game remaining.

Silence fell over the fans in Scotiabank Arena at the midway mark of the second period as Samsonov appeared to tweak something with the playoffs just over a week away. He knelt on the ice, hunched over, before slowly getting up. While fans were scared for their goalie, Alexander, sitting on the bench, realized he might be entering the game.            

“I was nervous because it was really early in the game,” DeMelo said. “I knew it wasn’t a super important game; they were already going into the playoffs, but if he did go in, I wanted him to do well. I wanted him to go in, but not that early because it seemed intense and scary.”

On the bench, Alexander recounts Zach Aston-Reese turning to him and offering advice.                     

“He looked at me and said something like, ‘Well, just be ready, and you’ll be fine if you need to go in,’” Alexander recalls. “I won’t say exactly what I said, but there’s a funny GIF of it, but it’s along the lines of ‘Can you imagine,’ with a little more profanity.”    

A television timeout followed, and Samsonov skated over to the Leafs bench to speak with a trainer. Alexander, sitting within earshot of their conversation, eavesdropped as they talked. He followed up with Samsonov, who admitted he was a little sore. But just as he told the media following the game, “Sammy never breaks.” And Sammy held up.                                                     

With 1:10 remaining in the third period and the Maple Leafs boasting a dominant 7-1 lead over the visiting Montréal Canadiens, Keefe told Alexander he was going in.

With no time to process his words, he hopped over the bench, got a hug from Samsonov, and began grabbing his equipment. Everything happened so fast that he didn’t have time to be anxious.                   

“I just kind of got thrown in there,” Alexander said. “He [Keefe] told me, and then 20 seconds later, it was puck drop in our zone. It was kind of trial by fire, which was definitely the best way to do it—nothing could have prepared me for that.”                                                     

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Credit Kelsey DeMelo

In the second-to-last row of the 300s, DeMelo and her whole family were screaming with joy. Her dad, with a blue sports coat covering his Maple Leafs’ jersey, was dancing and encouraging the surrounding fans—Habs supporters included—to dance with him, while DeMelo, on the verge of tears, watched as Alexander took one last swig of water, grabbed his goalie stick from the trainer, and skated to the Maple Leafs crease, which he would command for the next 70 seconds.

“My Dad has always joked, ‘It’s my dream for one of my daughters to marry a Leafs player,’ like, he’s a huge Leafs fan,” DeMelo said. “My dad loves Jett anyways, but this was the craziest experience for him—I’ve never seen him as happy about anything.”                      

People looked around and saw her bursting with emotions. They asked if she knew him, and she proudly responded, “That’s my boyfriend.” The sea of blue and red joined her in cheering on her boyfriend, 18,000 people celebrating one man.                           

The bright lights of Hockey Night in Canada shined down on Alexander. People seemingly stacked on each other, with their eyes following the EBUG touch NHL ice for the first time. He got a standing ovation and cheers reigned for every stride he took, but Alexander didn’t notice. He blacked out, with his brief moments of clarity focusing on not tripping on his way to the Maple Leafs net.                              

He approached the crease, taking the scenes, sights, and sounds in with a nervous tint. He noted how prominent the colour blue coated the crease, how small he felt with fans in the 300s feeling like they were on top of him, how new the boards were, contrasting the rustic, character-filled look of Varsity Arena, and how pure the glass between him and the raucous fans was.                                       

“They’re right there,” Alexander said.                                                     

Up 7-1, a playoff spot clinched, and 70 seconds remaining, he realized no fan in the building would be upset if the Canadiens beat him, but his competitiveness deflected these thoughts.

Once the puck dropped, he was officially an NHL goaltender.                                          

“The puck dropped and I was like, ‘Okay, you’ve done this before,’” Alexander said. “This is obviously a very different level, but you can fake it for a minute and 10 seconds.”                                        

Aston-Reese, Wayne Simmonds, David Kampf, Luke Schenn, and Erik Gustaffson were the five blue sweaters on the ice for Alexander’s first official shift. The Canadiens won the draw, and Jesse Ylönen whistled a snap shot wide, bringing the netminder up-to-speed.

Michael Markovic, one of the night’s referees and a former U of T men’s hockey player, approached Alexander between whistles.                                              

“Between one U of T alumni to another, this is really cool,” Alexander recalls him saying. “I’m really happy for you.”                                             

The match ended with Alexander Kerfoot holding the puck along the boards to the right of Alexander, killing off the remaining seconds in the game. The Maple Leafs’ goal horn sounded, Maxine Nightingale’s ‘Right Back Where We Started From’ blared over the speakers at Scotiabank, and just as quick as it started, Alexander’s NHL debut was over.     

If given the opportunity, Alexander would drop everything and do it again, but if this is it, in DeMelo’s eyes, it couldn’t have gone any better.

“I wish he had a little bit more time, but I think it was a perfect NHL career.”

Alex Wauthy is a fourth-year Sport Media student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). Throughout his time at university, Wauthy has written for various websites and publications, like The Eyeopener, TMU's student newspaper, and multiple sports outlets and teams, where he attended the Hockey Hall of Fame and Raptors 905 games in person, and more. Please find all of his work on X at @AlexWauthy. During his fourth year, Wauthy pitched, produced, and became the editor-in-chief of Vault Magazine

Vault is a 70-page U SPORTS-based magazine focused on bringing the reader as close to the athletes as possible through long-form feature stories, profile pieces, and more. These pieces look at various U SPORTS athletes' experiences, like their journey to the NHL, mental health, recovering from ACL tears, and more. Additionally, the magazine also features three mini-documentaries produced by the Vault team. The Vault team is taking preorders for a physical release in January, coinciding with a digital release in the coming weeks.