The backup plan

Kenn Oliver
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Goaltender Devin O'Brien has been a saving grace for the Clarenville Caribous

In his first six starts with the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League's Clarenville Caribous, goaltender Devin O'Brien registered five wins and a 1.83 goals-against average. — Photo by Kathy Gosse/Transcontinental Media/Clarenville Packet

As comfortable as Devin O'Brien may look sitting at the end of the bench wearing a baseball hat and acting as doorman for line-changing teammates, he looks even better between the pipes, stopping pucks.

Last season, his second as Roger Kennedy's backup with the Mount Pearl H.J. Barlett Electric Blades, O'Brien started in just six games ... all against the lowly Bell Island Blues.

But even after recording a 6-0 record in those games, O'Brien didn't get a call for training camp as the Blades geared up for the inaugural season of the newly-formed Newfoundland Senior Hockey League.

"I was kind of disappointed," O'Brien says. "It's not to put the guys in the organization down because I know they did a lot for me when I was there, but the lack of communication is what hurt in the end."

When the season opened in late October, O'Brien found himself without a net to mind.

But when the Clarenville Caribous lost backup Lee Smith to a concussion four games into the season, O'Brien got a call from general manager Derek MacPhee offering him the chance to assume the role of backup to Jason Churchill, last year's Allan Cup MVP, who told the club he would not be available for all 24 games this season.

"They needed a backup goalie, but also a goalie who could play at this level. They didn't need someone to be just continually sitting on the bench as they had in the past," O'Brien explains.

It was Caribous coach Ivan Hapgood who put MacPhee on to O'Brien, who played a total of 13 games for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's St. John's Fog Devils in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.

O'Brien would go on to enjoy a stellar career with the Mount Pearl Blades junior club, winning the league's goalie of the year honour in his second season and being named the playoff MVP in the Blades' 2009 run to the league title.

"Let's face it," Hapgood says, "anyone who was good enough to be a third-stringer in (the QMJHL) must have some potential and maybe he's been the unlucky victim of circumstances having to fall in behind some guys who were a notch or so ahead of him."

In early December, with Churchill unable to make it down from Halifax where he lives and works, O'Brien got his first nod of the year.

His opponents? The Blades.

The result? A 4-1 win.

"I'm after beating them twice now, taking four points on them," O'Brien says.

"They can't be too happy about that."

O'Brien has gone on to pick up wins in back-to-back starts against the defending Herder champion Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts and one against the C.B.N. Eastlink CeeBee Stars, the only team to beat him this season. But Hapgood says that loss, coming after his first win over the Blades, should have an asterisk next to it in the standings.

"He played a great game in Mount Pearl and tweaked his groin in the second-last play of the game and had to start Sunday in Harbour Grace.

"He had two great periods, but he played through a lot of agony and pain in that game."

O'Brien says the few starts for the Caribous have helped him feel like he is back in junior days, when he carried the lion's share of the workload for the Blades. It's also made him feel as if he's part of the team, not just a backup.

"You're always part of the team when you're there, but in the back of your mind, you don't really feel a part of the team until you actually play," says the ginger-haired puckstopper.

O'Brien has relished being part of what he calls a "very professional" organization.

"The first week I went out, I thought I was playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs," O'Brien says.

"The amount of time and thought they go through is unreal. Even something as simple like having oranges and bananas and everything set up before a game."

And in Clarenville, O'Brien says there are no favourites.

"You can walk in there having played 500 games in the NHL, or never having played a game in senior hockey in your career and you're all treated the same."

Despite his success and desire to stay in the rhythm, O'Brien is ready to yield the crease to Churchill as the latter returns to action this weekend for a home-and-home series with the CeeBees.

"Once he's there, he's the man," O'Brien says of Churchill. "It's not my team, it's his team."

Game times are 7:30 Saturday night in Harbour Grace and 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Clarenville Events Centre.

In other NSHL action this weekend, the Corner Brook Royals make their first visit to Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium for a two-game set against the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts. Twitter@telykenn

Organizations: Mount Pearl H.J. Barlett Electric Blades, Newfoundland Senior Hockey League, Bell Island Blues Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Toronto Maple Leafs NHL

Geographic location: St. John's, Harbour Grace, Halifax Clarenville Mount Pearl Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium

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Recent comments

  • Who cares
    February 08, 2012 - 15:23

    Who cares? Most guys in senior hockey think themselves way more important than they are. Case in point, this article.

  • Bill Whiffen
    February 05, 2012 - 00:48

    Strange, didn't Mt. Pearl hold open tryouts. Anyone could've went and tried out. Sounds like sour grapes because he was a backup last year and didn't want to go and do it again. I doubt anyone got a call for training camp, let alone a backup goalie. Pretty sure the ad in the telegram said, anyone interested in playing for the Blades, practices are...., not calls were made we don't need you. Sounds to me he was too good to try out and expected a call to walk on to a team. Gavin, bad comment on the backup, but I heard he thinks hes better than kennedy, he needs his head examined.

  • Gavin
    February 04, 2012 - 15:32

    Nothing like throwing your former team under the bus. Lucky you don't face them again. No doubt Mt. Pearl have issues, their backup wouldn't stop a bus. I know their issues lie with the owner and GM. No players want to deal with them. Sole reason why Mckim and Pearcey left. probably the reason why Chaplin gave it up too. Then they bring a new guy in part way through the year, sounds lime poor management. Caribous have a good organization, great team but a coach that yells change and teaches nothing. Without guys like Dustin Russell and Churchill to help call the shots they would struggle. They have enough talent to get by. Already a lot of players talking about jumping ship after years end.

  • Jonny
    February 04, 2012 - 12:31

    The Mt Pearl organization CANNOT like this article. If the Caribous organization is run like a professional outfit, what's Mt Pearl? Bush League? Cant be treating players like this without consequences.