TAMPA — He sits about 20 rows behind his (not really) teammates every game at Amalie Arena. Somewhere in the building, his (not yet official) contract awaits his signature. Hanging in the balance are his (pretty please) NHL dreams.
Meet Nick Sullivan, the beer league player who is a heartbeat away from becoming the Lightning’s emergency goaltender. Well, actually, more like a bruised knee and a twisted ankle away.
A week ago, it was a job that only hardcore fans even knew existed. And then a one-time Zamboni driver named David Ayres was forced into action in the second period in Toronto and ended up riding out Carolina’s 6-3 win against the Maple Leafs. In the days since, the 42-year-old has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, had his stick sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame and flew to Raleigh, N.C. where the mayor proclaimed it David Ayres Day.
“Oh, great,’’ Sullivan says grinning, “so now I’ve got a tough act to follow.’’
Chances are, the call will never come for Sullivan. While tales of emergency goaltenders were colorful and more frequent 60-70 years ago, they rarely happen in today’s NHL. Ayres was just the second emergency goalie since the start of the 2017-18 season, which averages out to roughly one-every-3,200 games.
He knows the odds, but still Sullivan shows up every game. He doesn’t get paid, but the Lightning do give him a pair of premium tickets and a parking space in the players’ lot.
By day, Sullivan, 38, works as an IT recruiter at an office in Ybor City and on game days he eats a light dinner and gets an iced coffee on his way to Amalie where he’ll meet his wife or a friend and watch the game from the stands.
His equipment stays in his truck, and he says he rarely even thinks about playing until someone crashes into a goaltender. That’s when he checks his phone and waits for the text message that will tell him to go downstairs and start putting on his equipment in case the backup goaltender gets hurt, too.
In his three years in the role, Sullivan has only come close twice. In March, 2018, Peter Budaj got hurt with nine minutes remaining and Sullivan sat in the Lightning locker room while Andrei Vasilevskiy finished the game. And in the season opener last year, Roberto Luongo left in the second period for Florida and Sullivan spent the rest of the game in the tunnel in case he was needed by the Panthers.
So does Sullivan imagine scenarios that would officially make him an NHL player?
“No, no, no. I just feel that would be bad juju. I can’t wish that on anybody, even if it’s nothing serious,’’ he said. “It would definitely be cool though. It’s everybody’s dream since you were 5 years old shooting pucks in the driveway, right? You’re not thinking 'Oh, I’m going to play minor league hockey someday.’ The NHL is the dream.’’
The job of emergency goaltender has evolved over the years. It used to be more haphazard, with teams grabbing anyone they could find. Later, some teams used their own goaltending coaches, who were often former NHL goalies. For a long time, Lightning communications director Brian Breseman, who played club hockey at East Carolina, was the team’s emergency goaltender.
Three years ago, the league decided team employees were no longer eligible to be emergency goalies but the NHL said every franchise had to have someone available who could fill in for either team on a given night.
That’s what led the Lightning to Sullivan. Born near Niagara Falls, his family moved to Tampa when he was five and he began playing in youth leagues in Clearwater a short time later. Sullivan went to some high-end hockey camps but figured out pretty quickly he was not an elite-level player.
His USF club team used to practice at 6 a.m. at the Lightning’s training facility in Brandon and that’s where he met some players during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Lightning players would have informal practices during the lockout, and captain Dave Andreychuk asked Sullivan if he wouldn’t mind sticking around and act as their goaltender.
That began a long relationship with Sullivan filling in at odd practices for the Lightning and even some visiting teams when they were short a goaltender.
Sullivan, who is 6-2 and 220 pounds, still plays a couple of days a week for different adult league teams in Brandon. The guys in the league and his co-workers know about his role with the Lightning, but very few others.
“I’m not real big on telling people,’’ Sullivan said. “But a lot of my friends will. ‘Oh, he’s the emergency goalie for the Lightning.’ They do it all the time in bars. I’m like, 'Stop using me to talk to girls.’ ’’
The world seems to be split on how the Ayres story, and emergency goalies in general, look for the NHL. Some think it’s the best story of the season, others think it’s an embarrassment. A top league official told NHL.com this week that the emergency goalie rule may be revisited in the offseason.
It’s not like teams need three goaltenders. You’d prefer your younger goalies play regularly in the minors, and you don’t want your regular goalies having to sit too often in the NHL. So that means potentially paying someone to be a fulltime practice goalie and emergency backup in those ultra-rare occasions when they’re needed.
And, unlike a third baseman pitching an inning in a baseball game, most skaters have no experience as a goalie, which makes Sullivan a better option than, say, the sixth defenseman.
No one can recall an emergency goalie ever playing for the Lightning, although Carolina used one for the final seven seconds of a loss at Amalie Arena a few years ago. Hardly anyone realized he was in the game, and the Hurricanes only did it as a thank you for their equipment manager who had been serving as the emergency guy for years.
In the meantime, Sullivan is content to wait. His season tickets are great, and the opportunity is too good to pass up. He knows the odds are slim so he swears he won’t be disappointed if he never gets in a game.
I asked Sullivan if his gear matches Lightning colors, and he admitted it didn’t but he does have a pair of Vasilevskiy’s old gloves that the team gave him.
“I think they actually have a Lightning (jersey) for me down there,’’ Sullivan said. “I heard they did, but I’ve never seen it.’’
For the record, the team does have an emergency sweater.
The name SULLIVAN is stitched across the back above the No. 30.
It sits in a closet just waiting for the Lightning’s (not really) goaltender.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.