Commentary

Paul Deutsch: Rags to riches to rags

He was living the dream with the Wild. Trouble is, he (and they) woke up too soon.

Updated: December 1, 2011, 3:52 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Paul DeutschBruce Kluckhohn/NHLI/Getty ImagesPaul Deutsch, goalie, Minnesota Wild … long enough for a pregame interview, at least.

Forget for a moment that he's 51 years old. As Paul Deutsch jokes, "You can't see the wrinkles through my goalie mask." The important part of the story is that for a few hours last week, Deutsch was living a bolt-from-the-blue sports dream that plenty of weekend jocks would kill for, no matter what their age. Who ever gets a gift chance to sign a one-day contract to play for his favorite team, the NHL's Minnesota Wild, and be the emergency backup goaltender for a game?

Deutsch did.

Life has almost snapped back to normal now for him, but what a tale he tells when he picks up the phone at the five-man screen printing and embroidery shop he owns in suburban St. Paul on Tuesday and cheerfully says, "Sure, now's a fine time to talk. Just let me go to the other phone because this dryer here is making lots of racket."

It begins the day before Thanksgiving, which was shaping up as just another day at work. Deutsch has never played competitive hockey above the high school level and only took up goaltending at age 37 because his beer league senior men's pickup teams often lacked netminders. But because of his friendship with Mike Ramsey, the former NHL star and Minnesota assistant coach who was a high school classmate, he was moonlighting as an as-needed practice goalie for the Wild within a few years, giving the team's starters a day off or serving as a shooting target for rehabbing players to work out against.

"As I've often been told, 'It's your availability, Paulie, not your ability,'" Deutsch laughs.

[+] EnlargePaul Deutsch
Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI/Getty ImagesStyle, form … substance? Paul Deutsch worked on it all during warmups.

The unpaid arrangement stayed that way for the past 10 years -- until last Wednesday. That's when Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom learned at around 1:30 that afternoon that his wife had just gone into labor for the birth of their first child, and he hurried to be with her. The only other goalie on the Minnesota roster was Josh Harding. But what if he got hurt during that night's game against Nashville? The Wild quickly called its Houston minor league affiliate and told another keeper, Matt Hackett, to rush to Minneapolis. But this is the day before Thanksgiving, remember, the busiest air travel day of the year.

The first flight that Hackett could get didn't leave until 4 p.m. and it wasn't scheduled to arrive in St. Paul-Minneapolis until 6:30. That night's game against the Predators began at 7:05. Who knew if Hackett could make it on time?

There could be snow. There could be holiday traffic gridlock. There could be trouble.

"We could call Paulie," someone in the Wild front office said, knowing that under NHL rules, the Wild's only other option on such short notice was to sign an amateur player to an emergency one-day-tryout contract.

By 3 p.m., Wild goaltending coach Bob Mason had tracked down Deutsch at his shop and a contract was faxed over. "I signed and faxed it right back," Deutsch says. He was told to get to the arena. Now. But Deutsch says you'd be surprised at the things that run through your 51-year-old head when something this mind-blowing is suddenly presented to you, even if time is wasting. He looked down at what he was wearing -- "Jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and my steel-toed work boots, that was all I had " -- and while still on the phone with Mason, he said, "Bob, what should I wear? Do I have to present myself in a pro manner?"

Mason, whom Deutsch knows well, shot back, "Paulie? Just get your gear and get your A-S-S to the arena."

"Right!" Deutsch said.

As Deutsch hurried out the door, he passed his 18-year-old daughter, who happened to be home from college, and he sang out to her, "Hey! I'm going to skate for the Wild tonight!" She just nonchalantly said, "OK, Dad. We're going out to get something to eat."

"It didn't register with her," Deutsch says.

He quickly drove from his Apple Valley shop in suburban St. Paul to the Wild's arena without incident -- if you don't count the fact that, "Twenty minutes later, I'm standing in the building and I really don't remember how I got there. Nothing. The unconscious took over, I suppose. I don't remember passing anyone or anything else about the trip. I just remember thinking, 'THIS ... IS ... SO ... COOL!' And then, well -- "

Yes?

[+] EnlargePaul Deutsch/Anders Lindback
AP Photo/Jim MoneThink 23-year-old Predators backup goalie Anders Lindback was teaching the 51-year-old dog new tricks before the game?

"I did get a little greedy," Deutsch confesses. Suddenly it was as if there were dueling voices in his head -- a good cop sitting on one shoulder, a bad cop on the other -- and they were yelling in each ear. "I started to think, 'You know, this could turn out to be sooo cool!' Then, 'No, no, no, you better not think that way!' 'But I COULD get into the game!' 'No, just stop it! Don't even go there!'

"And honestly, I wanted the national anthem -- I did," Deutsch says. "I mean, if I could be down there on the ice, sitting on the bench for the start of the game? How cool would that be, too?"

Deutsch had been told to park in the players' valet lot beneath the arena (another first for him). One of three attendants looked at what he was driving -- "I have this crappy Dodge minivan, just my beat-up work van with the name of my company 'DePaul Lettering' on the side and all these dings and stuff"-- and the valet said, "You must be Paul." Deutsch noticed a gleaming white Range Rover next to his van and joked to the valets to make sure they didn't put any more dings in his ride, then he bolted for the arena door with his equipment bag in one hand and his hand-me down set of goaltender pads from ex-Wild goalie Manny Fernandez slung over his shoulder.

The absurdities and laughs really started to pile up at warp speed now. Was this really, really happening? What layman, let alone a 51-year-old beer-league player, ever gets a chance to be a pro jock for a game day, enjoy complete backstage access to the inner sanctum, see how the sausage is made and experience what life is like inside the velvet ropes?

When he walked into the Wild locker room, Tony Dacosta, the team equipment man, saw the gear Deutsch was lugging and said, "Here, let me take that for you." Laughing now, Deutsch says, "That never happened before, either." Then a ripple of concern ran through him because, Deutsch confesses, "I have a lot of non-pro stuff in my bag." Like what? "Well, I got my SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt in there. And I had a roll of toilet paper because at some of these crappy rinks my senior team goes to, there's no toilet paper. At 51, this is how the mind works. I'm practical."

Deutsch has a jovial, vivid way of telling stories about himself, and he does it with a Midwestern twang that seems lifted straight out of the Coen brothers movie "Fargo." ("Oh gosh." "You betcha.") After just two minutes of talking to him, you can see why the Wild have kept him on these past 10 years. He's hilarious. He's earnest. He's a born-and-bred Minnesota native and father of three who grew up playing backyard hockey with his six siblings, and he's damn fun good company -- a self-described "knucklehead" with an unending gold mine of wisecracks. Like this: He says a lasting regret about his NHL shot is, "I wasn't able to get my 75-year-old mother there in time to see her 51-year-old son's rookie debut."

What about his wife? Did she make it to the arena?

"I told her to stand down on baking the [Thanksgiving] pumpkin pies and get with our 14-year-old daughter to the game."

Once he was at the arena, Deutsch was hustled up to Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher's office and given a firm handshake and three more copies of his amateur contract to sign. Again he was told hurry up, get ready. But it wasn't until he got to the locker room that it finally hit him, "Oh, boy. This is the real deal now." The players were no longer as jocular and lighthearted as Deutsch was used to seeing at practice. They were getting their game faces on.

[+] EnlargePaul Deutsch
Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI/Getty ImagesSee any pucks in the net behind him? Nope? Let's remember Paul Deutsch this way.

"Some of them were on the treadmill, some were warming up on the bike, some were in the sauna and some were in with the masseurs, just all basically doing their usual pregame routine," Deutsch says. "But it's a little harder to know what to do when you don't have a pregame routine."

So he faked it. He tried not to stick out or get in anyone's way. There was a jersey with No. 33 and his name on the back hanging in his locker. He pulled it on, smoothed it out. How great is that?

Then he glanced at the clock.

The minutes to game time were melting away. All anyone knew was that Hackett's plane was still in the air. But nobody knew when or if he might get to the arena.

Word was getting around now about Deutsch's novel story, and the Wild allowed a TV camera crew to follow him a bit before the game -- a not-unheard-of experience for other pro athletes, but one that Deutsch, if you've gotta know, found "kinda creepy."

"When I went to get undressed, the cameraman followed me. When I got up to get some water, I turned around and he was there. Creepy."

Ramsey says he just happened to be at the game that night, too, and he laughed when Jacques Lemaire, Ramsey's former boss and the first Minnesota coach to use Deutsch for practices, called him on his cell phone. Lemaire was watching the game on TV.

"Jacques said, 'Is THAT our Paulie?' Then he swore something in French," Ramsey recalls.

Soon a Wild media relations man told Deutsch to follow him for his pregame media availability with reporters.

"Whoa whoa whoa -- what 'media availability?'" Deutsch said. "You're kidding, right? What do I do?"

"Just be yourself," the PR man replied.

A team spokesman says Deutsch regaled the 30 or so print and radio and TV folks in the room for perhaps five minutes. Many of them walked out of the room laughing. "I don't want to get Big Shot-itis -- I don't want to be that guy," Deutsch says. "But they were very nice to me. I was just afraid there could be this circus developing and it would be my fault if we lost the game."

Game time was almost here now. Still no Hackett.

Deutsch took the ice for team warmups. He vividly recalls how the entire arena exploded into sight as he came out of the tunnel for the first time, and "everything just looked so Christmas-y because our colors are red and green. And the lights, the lights were so much brighter for TV." Again, he had no idea what he should do. So he chatted up Nashville's backup goalie near mid-ice as they both stretched. Then, being a backup himself, if only for the night, it occurred to Deutsch, "I did want to face a few warmup shots myself. I would've been disappointed if I didn't."

One of the Wild players explained to Deutsch the etiquette was that when Harding wanted a break, he would skate out of the crease and Deutsch could slip in until Harding gave him the nod to "get lost."

So, how'd it go?

[+] EnlargePaul Deutsch and Brad Staubitz
AP Photo/Jim MoneBrad Staubitz, left, and the rest of the Wild had some postgame surprises in store for Paul Deutsch.

"All the pucks ended up in the back of the net," Deutsch says. (Here is video proof that he's only slightly exaggerating.)

Still, his only major faux pas came when he first stepped on ice with the Wild and began the usual hockey team warm-up ritual of skating around and around their end of the ice in increasingly faster orbits. "Before I knew it, they were all going the other way all of a sudden. I wasn't. I was like a salmon going upstream all by myself. And now they're dodging me and yelling, 'Paulie, OTHER way! Go the OTHER way!'"

There were only about 20 minutes to game time now -- "I COULD get into the game! No, stop! Don't even go there" -- and warmups were nearly done. Deutsch noticed the expressions on the Wild players' faces had become even more serious and focused. And when he looked at the Predators players at the other end, the same was true of them. They were flying around with a similar focused intensity, and that's when Deutsch started to experience another emotion.

"It was kind of scary, you know?" Deutsch says. "When I do real practices with the team, sometimes I can take 400 shots in an hour. That's really hard. That's a lot of action for me. And I pad up like the Michelin man. They also know I'm like the quarterback in the red shirt at football practice. The guy you don't hit. But now here I am, this knucklehead who's just out here because he went to high school with Mike Ramsey. And I started to think, 'What am I doing here?'

"I remember people screaming for various players, but I couldn't hear anything clearly. The Metallica music was too loud. I couldn't get any saliva in my mouth."

Still, Deutsch was so close now. He badly wanted to at least be on the bench in uniform for the game.

He wanted to hear that national anthem.

There were perhaps 15 minutes to go before the puck dropped when he clomped back down the tunnel with the rest of the team, turned the corner into the dressing room and saw that in his locker, there now hung a jersey with "Hackett" on the back. And all of his gear had been moved.

"Tony, the equipment guy, said, 'I've got you over here now, Paul. Hack is here, Hack is in the building' -- and that's all that was said," Deutsch recalls. "That's when my glass slipper broke. Just crashed to the floor."

That's brutal, he is told.

"Rats, huh?" he sighs.

Deutsch being Deutsch, there is a postscript to this story.

He watched the game from an upstairs suite. The Wild won, 3-2. Once in the locker room, the players were back to the laughing and joking guys Deutsch knew. Mike Yeo, the Wild's head coach, thanked Deutsch for helping out, and later joked to reporters it was a good thing Deutsch didn't get to play or, "We might have a goaltending controversy." (Said Deutsch: "That was awful nice of him.") Deutsch shook a lot of other hands, too, on his way toward the dressing room door. But before he could leave, a few Wild players said, "Whoa, wait a minute, Paulie. We need to settle up here."

Settle up?

Laughing again, Deutsch says, "They told me, 'You owe 200 bucks for violating the team dress code. Another 200 bucks for stepping on the Wild logo in the middle of the dressing room floor. And 50 bucks for the valet parking fee.'"

The final bottom-line: Deutsch was thrilled. How pro was that?

"They were just giving me the business. But even if they do try to collect next time I see them, I still got outta there for less than 500 bucks -- not bad, right?" Deutsch says. "I kept my jersey. The team said they're going to frame my contract and send it to me. And the Wild released me right after the game. So, wow -- you know what? I am now a free agent again."

So put out the word, far and wide. If another NHL team out there is looking for an emergency goaltender, Paul Deutsch, the youngest soul and blithest spirit in Apple Valley, Minn., is the man.

You can find him in the Yellow Pages.

Under "Screen Printing."

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY

ALSO SEE