VANCOUVER — There are a lot of ways players handle “The Phone Call” they’ve been dreaming about since they were little — the call they receive in the minors to tell them they’re going to get an opportunity to play in the National Hockey League.
Ryan Johnson, who is in charge of player development for the Vancouver Canucks, has had the pleasure of making a lot of these calls over many years. Some players, Johnson said, just start yelling with excitement at the other end of the phone line. He said sometimes there’s emotion or just silence as players process what they are being told.
How did Canuck minor-league goalie Arturs Silovs react on Tuesday when he got the call to play his first NHL game?
“He said: ‘OK, sounds good, thanks,” Johnson said. “That’s Arturs.”
For a 21-year-old sixth-round draft pick from a country that has sent only six goalies to the NHL, a goalie who was fourth on the organizational depth chart when this season began and had played only 21 games in the minors his first two professional seasons, Silovs’ calm mindset is nearly as great an asset as his athletic frame and ability to learn.
Saturday, in his second NHL start with the Canucks, the Latvian stopped 35 of 37 shots to help his team beat the Philadelphia Flyers 6-2 at Rogers Arena. Anthony Beauvillier’s two goals and Elias Pettersson’s five-point night, which included a pair of late, shorthanded, empty-netters, also helped.
But what was really important to the reeling team was a positive moment to make everyone feel good, like a lanky kid from Latvia, who split last season between the AHL and ECHL, becoming a winning goalie in the greatest league in the world.
“Anytime someone plays their first game or scores their first NHL goal or you’ve got a young goalie coming in and getting a big win on a Saturday night in Vancouver, you’re just happy for guys like that,” veteran defenceman Luke Schenn said a few minutes after handing Silovs the game puck. “There’s a few moments like that in your career that are that memorable. I remember my first game and first NHL goal; those are memorable moments. To see a young guy come in here, get the opportunity to come in with some injury situations, it’s great for him. We’re all real proud of him.
“Coming from Latvia. . . not a typical upbringing to go to the NHL. And for him to do it at 21 years old, I’m sure his family’s going to be pretty pumped back home.”
“I think they’re proud,” Silovs said. “It’s like a small country; not many players have an opportunity to play in the NHL. I’m actually really glad I’m from that country. They gave me opportunities to play for national teams, which gave me confidence.
“I was working really hard for this (chance). You know, I had ups and downs in the American Hockey League. But I got more stable, which gave me the opportunity to play here.”
With starting goalie Thatcher Demko still working his way back from a groin injury suffered Dec. 1 and both NHL fill-ins, experienced minor-leaguers Spencer Martin and Collin Dellia struggling to make saves, the Canucks recalled Silovs to play Wednesday against the New York Rangers.
The idea was to give their top goaltending prospect a glimpse of what it will take to play at the next level. But when Demko left practice early on Thursday, Silovs stuck around for the weekend and got a second straight start.
Amid intrigue over Demko’s status after one report Thursday that he had suffered a “setback,” coach Rick Tocchet said Saturday that Silovs may stay with the Canucks next week when they go a long way to play a pair of road games in Nashville and St. Louis.
Tocchet said after the Canucks’ skate Saturday morning that Demko, who said this week that he hoped to back up on Saturday night, needed a maintenance day due to his heavy practice workload this week.
“We need some positive stuff around,” Tocchet said when asked about Silovs. “It’s been kind of negative. What’s positive for me is that we worked on our D-zone coverage the other day and we had a good practice. I thought defensively that coverage — we’re not perfect — but I thought it was a lot better. That’s a positive for me the way they responded after practice.”
Tocchet was unhappy with his team’s defending against the Rangers, who won 6-4 on Wednesday and scored five times on 27 shots against Silovs.
The goalie said he felt a lot more comfortable on Saturday, when he was beaten only by a deflection and power-play rebound.
Indicative of how bad both defending and goaltending have been for the Canucks, the two goals Silovs allowed matched the team low since Martin, who cleared waivers Tuesday and is in the American League on a conditioning assignment, beat the Vegas Golden Knights 5-1 on Nov. 26.
Vancouver goalies had allowed at least four goals in 14 of the last 17 games. No wonder the Canucks were on another 1-4-1 tailspin before beating the Flyers.
Interestingly, half of the six Latvians who have put on pads in the NHL have played in Vancouver.
Arturs Irbe was the Canucks’ starter for most of one season, 1997-98, and Peter Skudra backed up Dan Cloutier for two seasons, starting in 2001-02.
A few of Silovs’ minor-league teammates, including Saturday goal-scorer Phil DiGiuseppe, are now also with the Canucks, whose lineup against the Flyers included nine players who weren’t in Vancouver when the season began.
“The strides I’ve seen him take in the last year and a half have been tremendous,” DiGiuseppe said, three weeks after his own callup from the AHL. “If he can build that much in a year and a half, we can sit back and see how far he can go. He’s a good kid.
“This is huge individually for him and collectively as a team. You want to play well in front of a guy like that and get him his first win for confidence, and help him build his career.”
And make everyone happy for a change.