Not your average streak
Moments after his record-breaking, 268-minute, 17-second shutout streak came to an end, netminder Barry Brust looked up into the stands in San Antonio to take in the curious sight of thousands of stuffed animals sailing onto the ice.
"Once they scored, it started raining teddy bears," the journeyman netminder recalled in a recent interview.
It was pure happenstance that Brust's American Hockey League record shutout streak -- one that eclipsed a mark set by Hall of Famer Johnny Bower in 1957 -- coincided with a charity stuffed animal drive put on by the San Antonio Rampage. Still, the surreal moment was in keeping with what has been an extraordinary fall for Brust, a native of Swan River, Manitoba, a farming community near the Saskatchewan border, and goaltender for the Abbotsford Heat, the top farm team of the Calgary Flames.
In the absence of NHL hockey, these are the stories that remind us that the game is not defined by the NHL and its perpetual labor problems.
Let's take "the streak" for instance.
When training camp started, the Heat found themselves in the awkward position of having three netminders: Danny Taylor, who established himself last season as the Heat's No. 1 guy; Leland Irving, a former first-round draft pick who was seen as a potential heir along with Henrik Karlsson to the Flames' goaltending throne when Miikka Kiprusoff moves on; and, of course, Brust.
Originally drafted 73rd overall in 2002 by the Minnesota Wild, the 29-year-old Brust signed an American Hockey League deal with the Flames organization this past offseason after spending last season playing in Germany.
Even though Brust was part of a Calder Cup-winning team in Binghamton two years ago with the Ottawa Senators' top farm team, it's fair to say that Brust was a bit of an afterthought, at least from the outside.
But Abbotsford head coach Troy Ward knew Brust from their shared time with the Houston Aeros of the AHL and felt he was an underappreciated goaltending talent.
"I knew Barry was very, very capable of great things," Ward told ESPN.com this week.
"I'm not at all surprised by what he's accomplished."
Normally when a goaltender gets on a hot streak, certainly when he pitches a shutout, he's back between the pipes. But the Heat's abundance of goaltending options has created a different dynamic, one that has had to operate outside hockey convention.
Having three goaltenders vying for playing time is never an ideal situation. Throw in the fact the AHL schedule is heavily weighted to weekend games with long periods of idle time during the week, and you have the potential for one of the three goaltenders to be idle for a week or even two weeks between starts.
For instance, Brust did not earn his first start until the second weekend of the season on Oct. 20. He allowed a goal by Vancouver prospect Zack Kassian at 8:19 of the first period and did not allow another until Nov. 24 when he was beaten twice by the Rampage in San Antonio. In all, he went 268 minutes and 17 seconds without giving up a goal.
But in between, both Taylor and Irving got starts, meaning Brust had to deal with the questions and the attendant pressure of approaching Bower's consecutive shutout mark even though he wasn't necessarily playing in every game.
"I think that's what made it all the more special," Ward said.
One of the reasons the three-headed goalie monster has worked so well in Abbotsford -- the Heat boast an AHL-best 12-2-4 record and a league-leading goals-against average -- is that they are one of the rare franchises that employs a full-time goaltending coach.
Jordan Sigalet's job is to try and keep the goaltending machinery well-oiled, which means making sure the third goaltender is getting extra work before regular practices.
"Obviously it's not a great situation having three goaltenders," Sigalet said this week.
"But it's worked out pretty well so far. I think a lot of it speaks to their character."
Brust insisted that, in spite of the awkward rotation, he's become a better goaltender working with Sigalet and his peers.
"It's a competition, but at the same time, we teach each other," Brust said. "I know they've made me a better goaltender."
Sigalet admitted watching Brust approach Bower's long-standing shutout mark was stressful.
"Spread out over two weeks like that you can't not think about it. I think I was more nervous than when I played," Sigalet said.
As the minutes ticked away toward Bower's record, Brust recalled looking up at the clock in San Antonio. It was late in the period and the puck was in the opposing end. He thought to himself, "Yes, this is it. Maybe this is really going to happen."
Then the Heat took a penalty and the faceoff moved back into the Abbotsford zone.
"I was like, 'Oh no, why did I think that,'" Brust said with a laugh.
The moment passed and Brust extended Bower's record by more than a period, 26:26 to be exact, before allowing one to slip past him.
In some ways, there was a sense of relief at the end of the streak.
The Heat won the game in San Antonio as Brust stopped nine of 11 shots in the shootout. The Heat are undefeated when Brust plays, and he is 5-0 with a microscopic 0.59 GAA and .978 save percentage, allowing just three goals all season. Now the team can get back into its normal rhythm without the sidebar of a record-setting shutout streak to deal with.
"It was just a chance to kind of step back and just try and get our heads around things," Brust said.
"All good things come to an end."
How this plays out when (if?) the NHL returns to action makes the story in Abbotsford even more compelling.
Under Calgary GM Jay Feaster, the Flames and their farm team preach a merit-based system for rewarding players and staff. That means the Flames will have to decide who will back up Kiprusoff.
Assistant GM in charge of player personnel John Weisbrod said it will be the goaltender who is deemed best-suited to giving the team the best chance to win.
If that's Barry Brust, so be it, Weisbrod said.
Brust's career arc is similar to that of Tim Thomas; something that is not lost on Weisbrod, who was with the Bruins when they won their first Stanley Cup since 1972 behind Thomas in 2011.
Thomas, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, bounced around the minors and in Europe for years before getting a shot as an NHL starter late in his career.
Weisbrod tells his scouting staff they have to look at goaltenders with a different eye in terms of their evolution.
"I tell them they need to think of goaltenders in dog years," he said. "So many goaltenders don't hit their prime until their late 20s. That's exactly why we signed Barry is that philosophy of goaltenders developing more slowly."
Weisbrod has followed Brust's career and feels Brust's commitment to conditioning and dedication to the craft has never been better, and the results speak for themselves.
Brust makes no bones about his desire to find his way back to the NHL.
He has appeared in 11 NHL games, all for the Los Angeles Kings during the 2006-07 season.
"That's the goal. That's always the goal," he said. "But at the same time, you can't think about it. When I'm thinking about things, I'm slow to react."
So far this season that hasn't been an issue.
MORE NHL HEADLINES
- Rangers win 8th straight; top 3-coach Devils
- Devils GM Lamoriello to help behind bench
- Devils' Elias, Ryder diagnosed with mumps
- Kings rely on dominant defense to top Sharks