'You've dreamt of this your entire life': Inside stories of the NHL's COVID fill-ins

'You've dreamt of this your entire life': Inside stories of the NHL's COVID fill-ins

IT’S A THOUGHT we’ve all had at some point.

Where will we be when that life-changing, career-shifting moment happens? How will it feel to know a dream is about to come true?

Karl Taylor was somewhere in Iowa, boarding a bus for a six-hour ride to Milwaukee.

Cole Schwindt was pulled aside by his coach after playing back-to-back American Hockey League games.

Andy Zilch was refreshing his email inbox, trying to will a long-awaited notification to appear.

Each would end up receiving the same message: Their long-hoped-for NHL debuts were coming.

The circumstances weren’t ideal. North America was in the midst of an outburst of the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19, with the far-reaching human toll that went with it. While the impact on the hockey world was not nearly as dramatic as it was elsewhere, the NHL saw dozens of players sidelined through league protocols. But from those challenging times, stories emerged about people who had worked and waited for years to reach the pinnacle of their careers. All they needed was an opportunity.

Finally, the door was open.

KARL TAYLOR WASN’T supposed to make his NHL head-coaching debut this past December.

When the Nashville Predators first called Taylor, the longtime bench boss of the team’s AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals, it was about filling a supporting role behind Dan Hinote, who had been promoted temporarily from Predators assistant coach into the head job after John Hynes tested positive for COVID.

Taylor had just finished coaching against the Iowa Wild, and not even an NHL call-up could save him from the long bus ride home. He arrived back in Milwaukee around 4 a.m., took a nap, packed another bag and set off for Nashville with Admirals assistant coach Scott Ford.

“We were a backup plan,” Taylor said. “So we just went there with open eyes and prepared to help out in any way we could.”

On the morning of Dec. 16, with Nashville scheduled to play the Colorado Avalanche that evening, Taylor got another call: Hinote had tested positive for COVID too. The Predators needed Taylor to run their bench for the game against the Avalanche and the one the following night in Chicago.

After more than 16 years of coaching in the minors, from Alberta’s Red Deer College to the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, Texas Stars and now four seasons with the Admirals, Taylor’s moment had come.

In just a few hours, he would become an NHL head coach.

“When the call does come, it is a bit of a shocker as you’re living it in the moment,” Taylor said. “I went from helping to run the bench to being the acting head coach, which is a little bit of a curveball. Suddenly you’re [on Zoom] with the current staff and they’re assisting us. It’s a long road [to that point] for everyone. You’re excited that you got the opportunity, you’re excited that you’re able to [be there] for the organization that you’re working with.”

It wasn’t just Nashville’s coaching staff that had taken a COVID-related hit. The Predators had more than a half-dozen players sidelined in protocols, which meant many of the skaters suiting up for Taylor had come with him from Milwaukee.

That eased the brisk transition for him and Ford into a position they’d only imagined. When the coaches walked out to Nashville’s bench that first night, they tried to savor an accomplishment different from any that came before it.

“You get out there, it’s a full arena. We’d worked a long time for it, even if it was for a short-term visit on this occasion,” Taylor said. “That’s when you hear the crowd and then the puck is down, and the game begins and you’re in it. You first get challenged with having to make a decision as you’re trying to match lines, trying to implement the game plan. But once the game starts, I think you get more comfortable. In the end it’s just hockey. It’s just coaching. It’s what we do every day.”

Taylor wasn’t above indulging in a little pageantry, though. After leading Nashville to a 5-2 win over Colorado, he and the Predators took off for the second half of the back-to-back in Chicago. Jim Cornelison’s singing of the national anthems before Blackhawks games is legendary, and Taylor soaked in the experience at ice level.

“The [NHL] environment and the situation is obviously bigger and more enjoyable for Scott and myself,” Taylor said. “Chicago, that’s a special anthem. When it was over, Scott and I, we might have had a fist bump and a little smile. So that was an enjoyable moment through the process for the two of us. I’ve been coaching a long time to get to that situation. It was more enjoyable than any nerves that snuck in.”

The Predators won that night as well, 3-2 in overtime. The next day, Nashville was shut down by the NHL until after Christmas to recover from its COVID outbreak. Taylor went back to Milwaukee with a pristine 2-0-0 NHL coaching record.

“Are we proud of how we acted and how we worked? Yeah, we are,” Taylor said. “We’re very proud of the situation. We’re proud that they were comfortable having us there. But I think we’re most proud of how the players handled it and treated us just like coaches and like we’ve been there all year, and the credit goes to the players [performing].”

Looking back on a whirlwind 48 hours, Taylor is more convinced than ever he’s ready for the next level, and for the long haul at that. The 47-year-old never expected his first chance in the NHL would be so short. But now Taylor — and everyone else — knows what he’s capable of.

And he’s back waiting for the phone to ring.

“It’s just confirmation and affirmation that, OK, this is something that I can definitely do,” Taylor said. “And it gives you a little more confidence in what you’re doing. It also gives you a feeling of when the opportunity comes, that you’re prepared and ready to do it. And I definitely feel that’s where I’m at. I’ve just got to meet the opportunity. Hopefully it’s coming shortly down the road.”

KYLE SHAPIRO FIGURED his NHL aspirations were, in his words, just a “pipe dream.”

And then the NHL came calling.

The 28-year-old had been enjoying his first season as one of the New Jersey Devils’ emergency backup goaltenders, tasked with sitting in the stands during a few home games a year to be ready in the unlikely event one of the teams in action requires his services.

The Devils suddenly did. Goaltenders Mackenzie Blackwood and Akira Schmid had entered COVID protocols and New Jersey needed a backup for Jon Gillies against the New York Islanders on Jan. 13. Shapiro was their pick.

“It was always a little far-fetched for me to think about the NHL,” Shapiro said. “And I mean, there’s six or seven of us emergency backups that work the games. For the Devils to be willing to pick me? It really just meant a lot. They don’t want to bring in somebody who’s just here to be here, right? They’re going to bring somebody in to help them out. They want to bring somebody in who was at least capable and had some experience. I was pretty fortunate to get that call.”

Shapiro was on the Devils’ radar only because of overlap from his day job as assistant coach of the North American Hockey League’s New Jersey Titans. The last time Shapiro played competitively was in college, suiting up in 23 games for a Division III school New England College and amassing a .914 save percentage and 2.83 goals-against average.

Titans director of scouting Gary Biggs is close with Devils director of hockey operations Scott Litwack, and that connection led to Shapiro becoming an EBUG this season. A lifelong New Jersey fan, Shapiro’s expectation was to “go hang out and watch some games.” Now his boyhood team was offering Shapiro an amateur tryout and wanted him at practice that day before facing the Islanders the following night.

“It was pretty crazy,” Shapiro said. “But the Devils players brought me in there like I was one of their own, made me feel very welcome. Guys just coming up and introducing themselves to me, having fun on the ice, having some laughs while I’m getting scored on. I enjoyed it like I was 5 years old out there. Being able to dress for my favorite team growing up and everything, it was a moment I’ll never forget.”

When game time finally rolled around, Shapiro was struck by the atmosphere and how it felt like a culmination of not only hard work, but of realizing a dream he’d long since let die.

“You take it all in and realize what was actually happening,” he said. “I was sitting there on a bench in front of 18,000 people as a National Hockey League game is getting ready to start. I was taking a deep breath and started looking around and seeing all my friends and family in the crowd. That was the biggest moment.”

Shapiro never did get the David Ayres treatment, as Gillies backstopped New Jersey all the way to a 3-2 loss. For the most part, Shapiro simply was focused on staying calm, having a laugh on the bench and “getting the door open as quickly as possible.”

Luckily for Shapiro, he’s always thrived under pressure. It’s what drew him to goaltending in the first place, the importance of the position to a team’s success. Shapiro’s personal development was always spearheaded by one person though, and it was that man’s opinion about his NHL experience that Shapiro cherished the most.

“My dad, he was pretty speechless about it all. And he’s not going to tell me everything he feels,” Shapiro said. “But my coaches told me how my dad was acting watching it all, and it was pretty cool to hear that he was so proud of me, and he was so happy to see that I was able to live out a dream. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable experience for me.”

THE FIRST CALL Cole Schwindt made to share news of his NHL debut was to his mom, who immediately burst into tears. The next was to his grandmother.

There was another family member Schwindt couldn’t talk to. The 20-year-old Florida Panthers prospect lost his father just five months before being tabbed for a turn with the big club, making the momentous occasion a bit melancholy.

“That hit close to home but at the same time you’re knowing that he’s watching,” Schwindt said. “It’s too bad that he couldn’t share the experience with me, but to just share that with my family and let them know that this is exactly where I want to be, I know he would be proud of where I am.”

Schwindt was headed from the Panthers’ farm team in Charlotte to lace up in his first NHL game Dec. 16. Florida had been hit by a wave of COVID cases and was undermanned against the Los Angeles Kings. Schwindt, a third-round pick in the 2019 draft, was the Panthers’ first choice to fill in one of the gaps.

The call-up came with too little notice for any family members to attend, but Schwindt’s good friend and Panthers forward Owen Tippett was waiting for him.

Tippett happened to be with Schwindt when he got the news of his father’s passing. That bonded the former minor league teammates even further, and Tippett advised Schwindt ahead of his NHL debut to just be himself and take advantage of the fourth-line slot.

“Owen just said take it shift by shift and play your game, don’t get too sidetracked and just keep pushing,” Schwindt said. “As a young kid dreaming of playing in the National Hockey League, I think getting on the ice for that first shift was unbelievable. The fans were awesome all night. The atmosphere in that rink was unbelievable.”

Schwindt was determined to keep his focus on the game action, yet it did occasionally get pulled toward the many stars in his midst.

“You’re looking down the bench and you’ve got [Jonathan] Huberdeau near you. It’s crazy; you want to ask them for an autograph,” he said. “And playing alongside Joe Thornton was very cool. Then you’re going against Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick was in the net. These are guys that I had watched growing up. It was surreal.”

DECLAN CHISHOLM KNOWS that feeling well. His own NHL debut was just as sudden, and appreciatively head-spinning.

The Winnipeg Jets prospect was initially recalled because of uncertainty surrounding player availability due to COVID. Chisholm practiced with the Jets prior to their game in Detroit on Jan. 13 and realized he was one of only six defensemen there. At the same time, Chisholm heard Dylan DeMelo had cleared COVID protocols and was skating, so Chisholm might not be needed after all.

He still traveled with the Jets to Motown, unsure of how the next 24 hours would go. Jets coach Dave Lowry still couldn’t give him a definitive answer the following morning, so Chisholm went out for the pregame skate with no expectations.

“It was 10 minutes after Coach said he couldn’t tell me [whether I’d play],” Chisholm said. “And then Brenden Dillon gets pulled out of the room for COVID protocol. So Lowry just looked at me and said, ‘You’re in tonight, better go text your parents.’ Instantly, I ran to my dry stall and called my mom, called my dad, and told them the news. It was a quick turnaround.”

While his parents quickly began making the four-hour drive to Detroit, Chisholm just tried to stay calm. Winnipeg’s fifth-round draft choice in 2018 knew he’d be paired with veteran Nate Schmidt, which helped quell any worries that cropped up.

“The first shift, I’m obviously really nervous,” he said. “I just want to get the first shift out of the way. You’re overthinking what you’re going to do out there and then I got out there and I just kind of went blank and just played my game. I made a nice play, and I think the nerves instantly went away when you realize that you’re playing in the NHL [with Schmidt] and you’ve dreamt of this your entire life and your teammates are guys you’ve played on video games. It was unforgettable.”

Winnipeg shut out the Red Wings 3-0 and Chisholm was pleased with the positive reviews from his 13:44 of ice time.

“I think I turned some heads and made some people realize that I can play at that level,” he said. “And that if I continue working hard my time will come and I’ll get my opportunity again. It gives you that reassurance and confidence for the future and to continue forward. It’s almost like a relief you get that first game out of the way, and you just need to work toward proving yourself consistently.”

If Chisholm didn’t imagine getting his first taste of the NHL because of a pandemic, he’s grateful for the opportunity that supported his growth toward the next level.

“Now you don’t want to settle for anything less,” he said. “You just want to keep on playing there because of how much of a rush it was and how much fun I had.”

ANDY ZILCH TALKS for a living. That’s how he earned good word of mouth — and an NHL audition.

It was late December when the San Diego Gulls’ play-by-play broadcaster got a call from Anaheim Ducks vice president of marketing Merit Tully. Anaheim play-by-play man John Ahlers had tested positive for COVID, and Tully knew Zilch would be the ideal replacement. Zilch had been manning the radio booth for Anaheim’s farm team since 2018 and appeared on local television as well. The organization loved him.

The only problem was this wasn’t Tully’s decision to make. All he could offer Zilch was an endorsement.

“[Tully] called me and said, ‘I recommended your name to fill in for John but it’s not actually up to me,'” Zilch recalled with a laugh. “It’s technically Bally Sports [the Ducks’ broadcasting partner] that chooses. But he said, ‘I feel like you have the Ducks’ sizzle to your call and we want to reward you for the hard work you’ve done with the Gulls.’ So he said, ‘Good luck and I hope you hear from them.’ Sure enough, about 30 minutes later I got an email from Bally Sports.”

The timing was perfect. San Diego had just delayed its own road trip to Tucson because of COVID issues, making Zilch available to Anaheim for its games against Vancouver on Dec. 29 and Vegas on Dec. 31. His initial thrill of finally reaching the NHL quickly gave way to him feverishly watching recent Ducks games, studying game sheets from Anaheim’s PR department and familiarizing himself with how Bally Sports does its broadcasts.

“I’ve seen a lot of the players from when they were in San Diego,” Zilch said. “So my homework was more learning the TV format, learning what to do during the games and then focusing on who they were playing. I was invited into the Zoom meetings that the teams were having, getting acclimated with some upcoming news. I’m very familiar with [Ducks coach] Dallas Eakins because he was here in San Diego [from 2015 to ’19] and he gave me the pleasure of asking the first question on the day of the game and wished me a congratulations, which was really cool of him.”

Before he knew it, Zilch was miked up beside analyst Brian Hayward about to call his first NHL game. Unlike a player who can briefly bask in the ceremony of his big-league debut, Zilch was responsible for providing that atmosphere to viewers at home. There wasn’t time to become emotional, although Zilch couldn’t avoid that entirely.

“I didn’t think about excitement or that I was doing an NHL game until about a minute and a half before we went on air, and that’s when I could literally feel my heartbeat through my feet,” he said. “It was like, ‘OK, this is it, this could be your demo tape, this could be an opportunity. Who knows who’s seeing this?’ That was when I got a little nervous. But then I just started realizing, ‘You’ve done this before, so just keep on going.'”

Zilch left Honda Center that night thinking he’d earned “a C+” for his efforts and was determined to improve upon it two nights later when Anaheim faced the Golden Knights. Watching the broadcasts now, Zilch wouldn’t be so hard on himself and wouldn’t compare his performance to that of a longtime NHL announcer like Ahlers.

Having achieved a lifelong goal — at least temporarily — Zilch could instead reflect fondly on his years of struggle, all the times he asked, “Why am I doing this?” while selling tickets or cold-calling fans just to stay afloat in the business. It made the NHL call-up more special, both for him and for the man who waited right alongside him for that fateful email to arrive.

“My dad is always asking me like, ‘You got news? You got interviews?’ And I’ve told him, ‘Dad, I’ll let you know if I know something,'” said Zilch, who began his career working ECHL games in 2012. “So I called him and I said, ‘Well, Dad, here you go. I’m doing the games for the Ducks for the rest of the week.’ That was so meaningful to finally call him with some news about the NHL.”