By Chris Lund
When Damian Rhodes put on his Maple Leafs jersey in 1991 he thought it might be his only chance to play in an NHL game. Neither Rhodes nor the Leafs knew that the 112th pick in the 1987 draft would go on to play more than 300 games in the NHL.
After completing a career with the Michigan Tech Huskies where he averaged 34 saves a game, imagine what a relief it must have been in 1991 when Rhodes made his NHL debut against Detroit and stars such as Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman.
Surprisingly, Rhodes stymied the Wings, turning away 25 of 26 shots and leading the Leafs to a 3-1 victory - a rarity that season. With the win, he became the first Leaf goaltender to triumph in his rookie debut since Allan Bester in 1984.
“That was awesome,” Rhodes said. “For a little bit I thought that would be my only game in the NHL so I thought that, if it was, it couldn’t have gone any better. Toronto just kind of took a chance on me. I spoke to Bob Stellick once who told me ‘We never expected you to make the big team.’”
Two franchises would have been very different if he hadn’t.
Despite never getting a shot at the No. 1 job with the Leafs due to starter Felix Potvin, Rhodes “had a blast” in Blue and White and was sad to leave for Ottawa. Many Leaf fans still look back at the Potvin-Rhodes tandem as the last time the team had legitimate goaltending depth.
His move also marks the last time the Senators had true expansion growing pains.
“The day I got traded Tom Chorske told me, ‘We don’t have a coach right now.’ It was my first day there,” Rhodes said.
At least they had a goalie.
Rhodes’ arrival was a start and, coupled with the hiring of coach Jacques Martin, gave the Sens a foundation they needed. Two years later, Ottawa fans saw Rhodes’ best against future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur as the Senators won their first ever playoff series.
To this day, Rhodes reflects fondly on the six-game series.
“Beating the Devils, it was definitely my proudest moment as a hockey player,” he said. “I just remember that series how relaxed I was too and that really helped me play well. It was, by far, the best.”
On Jan. 2, 1999, Rhodes etched his name in history once again when he became the first goalie to record a goal and a shutout in the same game.
“It’s kind of ironic because had I let one goal in I would have had the game-winner,” he said. “I’m not sure which would have been better - the shutout or a game-winner.”
As all NHL trivia junkies will tell you, Rhodes was traded that summer to Atlanta and became the first Thrasher. Despite his dream to play for an American team, the move was ultimately bittersweet for Rhodes who had difficulty leaving Ottawa.
“Looking back I kind of wish I had stayed in Ottawa,” he said. “I had forgotten how good it was to be on a good team.”
With the Thrashers now in Winnipeg, Rhodes is optimistic for the future of the franchise in a small, yet hockey-mad market where the league employs a salary cap to encourage competitive balance.
If it does work out, we’ll be able to trace the franchise’s roots all the way back to its first win: a 2-0 shutout by none other than Damian Rhodes, the last of his career.
Post-hockey life for Rhodes has been much like his time in goal - filled with once-in-a-lifetime moments. The avid golfer once caddied for PGA Tour legend Fred Couples in 2009.
“The coolest part was to hear them talk to their caddies and hearing what shot they want to take, where they want to put it,” Rhodes said.
The hardest part?
“Carrying a 50-pound bag for four days in 100-degree heat.”
Rhodes has since taken his talents to Cleveland, Ohio - his wife’s hometown - where they are raising their two children. He is focusing on personal training and corrective exercises because of the difficulties athletes have staying healthy. He wants to help prevent athletic careers from being derailed by injuries.
“I want to get up to training athletes and keep them from getting injured,” he said. “It’s what I want to do now.”