New York’s Madison Square Garden has played host to NBA and NHL championships, a Pope, an Ali-Frazier fight, Elvis, and one of the most famous moments in NBA history when Willis Reed limped onto the court in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. On Thursday night, it may have played host to one of it’s most truly unique stories.
Prior to Thursday night, most people in the Phoenix Coyotes front office and locker room didn’t know the name Tom Fenton. By the end of the team’s game versus the New York Rangers, everyone in sports did.
Fenton, a former college hockey goalie at American International College who finished his career 1-12-1 with a 3.60 goals-against average, was getting his haircut Thursday when he got a call that would change his life.
The call was from the Coyotes’ head of pro scouting Frank Effinger and he was asking Fenton if he wanted a chance to play on one of the biggest stages in sports. It was something that was almost too good to believe for the young netminder.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Fenton told Sports 620 KTAR’s Doug and Wolf Friday morning. “I thought it was my buddies playing a prank on me. But once I talked to a couple of people from the organization, I made my way down to Madison Square Garden to realize how serious everything was.”
The circumstances that led to the 26-year-old amateur goalie getting the call were unique in their own right. Hours prior to the game starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov became ill with flu like symptoms. With Bryzgalov unable to play, backup goalie Jason LaBarera was forced into action and the Coyotes were forced into finding a backup.
Due to time constraints, the team was unable to call up a goalie from their minor league system so they found Fenton, who was working in the athletic department of nearby Manhattanville College.
The goalie quickly went to his apartment to pick up his equipment from college and headed to the arena where he signed an emergency one-day contract with the team. An experience that Fenton could only describe as surreal.
“The whole experience was pretty surreal,” he said. “There were definitely a couple of times where I thought he [Labarbera] might have gotten hurt and I started maybe sweating on the bench. I was just trying to take everything all in. I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity so I just didn’t want it to fly by.”
Despite the short notice and having never met the team before, Fenton said everyone treated him great and made the experience truly enjoyable.
“They were all great. Keeping me really relaxed,” the goalie said. “Just joking around with me. Saying like Doan shoots high so watch out for him in warm ups. Them actually getting me a new stick not allowing me to use one of my old college sticks because they said it was too ugly. Things like that.”
Fenton never made it into the Coyotes 4-3 shootout loss, but he thinks he would have been able to perform if he had been called upon.
“There was a couple big time scoring opportunities that LaBarbera made some great saves so I don’t know about that one,” he said. “I think I would have made the saves a goalie should make. I hope to say I’d do alright. They shoot and skate, they’re pros there’s nothing like it. I’d hope I wouldn’t embarrass myself to say the least.”
Although the entire experience sounds like the script for a Disney film, it was an evening that Felton, the Coyotes and fans will never forget. It was the night a man walked off the streets and into Madison Square Garden lore.
Listen to the entire Tom Fenton interview with Doug and Wolf