Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jonas Gustavsson walks out of the dugout to the outdoor hockey rink for practice at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, in Detroit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Detroit News, David Guralnick) DETROIT FREE PRESS OUT; HUFFINGTON POST OUT
James Reimer didn't get his first set of new goalie pads until he was 15.
"They came in a big box, and I never had anything like that happen," he said. "I was pretty pumped. I think I probably slept with them for a couple nights."
Fellow Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier got an earlier start and pads just about every year.
"I was a pretty lucky kid," he said. "My parents treated me well."
Reimer, Bernier and Detroit Red Wings goaltenders Jimmy Howard, Jonas Gustavsson and Petr Mrazek were all like kids at Christmas in recent weeks showing off their special Winter Classic gear. But this game presents its own unique dilemma as each goalie had a mask and pads made up for a game that he may or may not play in.
"You've got to keep the hope that you're still going to play in it and just go about your business as usual," said Howard, who has been nursing a knee injury of late.
Reimer and Bernier are used to uncertainty after almost half a season of splitting time in the Leafs' net. Going into Sunday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Bernier had started 22 times and Reimer 18.
The Winter Classic is technically just one game out of 82 in the season, but it means a little more because it'll be played in front of 100,000-plus fans at Michigan Stadium.
"It'd be too bad if you didn't play," said Reimer, who had blue and white pads with the Leafs' vintage logo and a matching mask made up for the New Year's Day game. "Obviously you want to play and you want to go out there with your new gear and have some fun with it. But that's not the reason that I'd be bummed that I didn't get to show off my new gear."
Bernier, who like Howard and Gustavsson had vintage-style brown pads made up for the event, emphasized that the goaltending competition is not about one game, not even the Winter Classic. Regardless of whether he starts or plays, he plans on donating the mask and pads to charity afterward.
"Obviously I'd like to play in that game, it'd be pretty special," Bernier said. "But that's up to (coach) Randy (Carlyle)."
Howard, who has been out since Dec. 10, could be cleared to play Monday in Nashville. He also hopes that Detroit coach Mike Babcock gives him the start for the Winter Classic.
Before Howard was injured, there seemed to be no doubt he'd be in net in Ann Arbor. But his absence opened the door for Gustavsson and Mrazek to at least think about taking part in the annual game.
“You can pick some different colours than you usually do, so it was fun," said Gustavsson, who has a mask with the Red Wings' vintage word marks on it to go with brown pads. "It's probably a one-time thing, so you really want to make it as good as possible."
That was Mrazek's theory, too, even though the 21-year-old didn't go the traditional route with his pads, which are bright red with child-like snowman drawings on them. The idea came from his equipment manager with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins, Brad Thompson, and it drew plenty of internet attention earlier this month.
"Teammates, I think they like it," Mrazek said. "I knew a couple people, they don't like it, they think it's ugly or (think) I'm like a kid. But no one has (done) it before, so I think it's a good idea. I love it."
If Howard is back for the game against the Predators, Mrazek could get sent back to the Griffins just in time for their outdoor game at Comerica Park in Detroit against the Toronto Marlies.
"I will try to wear them wherever I go," he said. "If I could wear (new gear) every game, I would."
That would get quite pricey, but with the NHL's showcase event and the charm that comes with it, the cost is more than worth it.
"Even now, you still get that excitement when you get new gear, especially when it's different and you can have a little more fun with it," said Reimer, whose mask still has traces of the "Transformers" because of his Optimus Reim nickname. "It's one of the perks of being a goalie."
One of the downsides is that only one goalie gets to start for each team.
"When it comes to that game, I have no idea what's going to go into Randy's decision, if it's just based on the last game, or last month or last who knows what," Reimer said. "We're pushing each other like we always do. We'll see what happens in the Winter Classic. Either way it's going to be a great experience. Obviously you'd love to play, but it's going to be a lot of fun."
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.