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Backchecking: Jeff Reese

Jeff Reese played for Toronto, Calgary, Hartford, Tampa Bay and New Jersey in his NHL career. (Getty Images)

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Jeff Reese played for Toronto, Calgary, Hartford, Tampa Bay and New Jersey in his NHL career. (Getty Images)

By Kevin Glew

The true MVP of the Philadelphia Flyers last season might have been goaltending coach Jeff Reese.

After all, the energetic ex-NHLer managed to coax extraordinary performances out of three ordinary goalies.

“The goalies are the ones making the saves,” said Reese, deflecting any praise to his netminders. “For me, it was exciting to see each of the guys step up when they had the opportunity. I couldn’t be prouder of the goalies I worked with last year.”

At the start of the season, Ray Emery was the Flyers’ go-to puckstopper, but abdominal and groin injuries limited him to just 29 games. Brian Boucher struggled when he took over the top job, but waiver-wire pickup Michael Leighton thrived until an ankle injury in March thrust Boucher back into the starter’s role. The longtime backup was solid down the stretch and into the second round of the playoffs, before he was shelved with a knee injury. Leighton then returned and led the Flyers to within two wins of a Stanley Cup championship.

“It was a busy season,” Reese said.

Working for the Flyers has been a dream come true for Reese, who grew up worshipping the Broad Street Bullies and Bernie Parent.

“It’s a big thrill to be working here,” said the 44-year-old. “I see Bernie all the time, which is pretty cool. Even at my age, it’s still a thrill.”

Raised in Brantford, Ont., alongside the Gretzky family, Reese began playing goal when he was five.

“I played with Wayne’s brother Keith all through minor hockey,” he said. “Keith is a year younger than me, but he played a year ahead. We hung around each other all the time. We skated quite a bit on that rink in their backyard.”

Though small in stature, Reese excelled in net and soon found himself playing for the Hamilton A’s of the Ontario Provincial Junior A League in 1982-83, before being selected by the London Knights in the first round of the 1983 Ontario League draft.

Despite his 5-foot-9, 155-pound frame, Reese impressed the Toronto Maple Leafs enough to convince them to choose him in the fourth round of the 1984 NHL draft.

“I was excited to be drafted, but at the time the Leafs had about nine other goalies,” he recalled. “But playing in the Leafs organization was a good lesson, it showed me that if you play well enough and work hard enough, a position will be found for you.”

After a season and a half just outside Toronto with the Leafs’ American League affiliate in Newmarket, Reese made his NHL debut Jan. 10, 1988. Over the next five seasons, he played 69 games with the Leafs, before being dealt to Calgary in the blockbuster trade that brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto in January of 1992.

Reese played 26 games for the Flames in 1992-93, including a contest on Feb. 10, 1993 against San Jose in which he registered three assists to set a record for the most points in a game by a goalie.

“Nobody really knew it was a record until the next day,” Reese recalled. “I figured that maybe Grant Fuhr or Ron Hextall or Billy Smith had done it, but they hadn’t. It’s a nice record, but I think somebody will tie it some day.”

Reese was dealt to the Hartford Whalers the following season where he backed up Sean Burke until he was traded again, this time to Tampa Bay in December of 1995. He helped the Lightning advance to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

With the exception of three games with New Jersey, Reese toiled with the International League’s Detroit Vipers in 1996-97 and 1997-98, backstopping them to a Turner Cup championship in 1997 and taking them to within one win of another title in 1998.

Reese had retired when the Leafs called and convinced him to play for their AHL club in St. John’s in 1998-99.

“After I came out of retirement, I was playing in the NHL three weeks later,” Reese said. “Curtis Joseph and Glenn Healy were hurt, so I got an opportunity to play some more games in the NHL.”

In 2001, Reese accepted a coaching position with the Lightning. He helped transform Nikolai Khabibulin into the elite goalie who backstopped Tampa Bay to a championship in 2004.

After eight seasons with the Lightning, Reese agreed to join the Flyers in June of 2009. He believes the challenges he faced last season have made him a better coach.

“We were very fortunate to do what we did last year, but hopefully we stay a lot healthier this year,” he said.

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