“Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.”
To Anthony Felice, those words are more than just a line from the movie “Rudy,” it’s the way he’s approached his time as the resident emergency backup goaltender in the Devils organization.
And early in the first period last Sunday, while everyone else in Reading’s Sovereign Center counted down another two minutes and 14 seconds in an ECHL game, to the man between the pipes for Trenton, it was much more than that. Those 134 seconds served as a dream coming true.
Now 37 years old, Felice’s story is well-documented. A fitness manager at New York Sports Clubs in Mamaroneck, NY — where he undoubtedly makes more than the $50 or so a day he earns as Trenton’s backup — the Bronx-born goalie had been cut from seemingly countless teams over the past 15 years. But after impressing and befriending Devils scout Jan Ludvig, things began to change for him.
Felice was invited to Trenton Devils training camp prior to the start of the 2007-08 season, but a back injury prevented him from being able to compete. Starting towards the tail end of that season, Felice — among others, but he more than most — has served as the team’s emergency backup goaltender. But the league’s rules are pretty strict in allowing players in Felice’s position to play.
The ECHL rulebook reads as follows: “In a situation where one or both of a Member’s Active Roster goaltenders is unable to play due to injury, illness or recall, that Member is permitted to add a Emergency Backup Goaltender to its Active Roster. The only condition whereby an Emergency Backup Goaltender may play is if the Member’s regular goaltender(s) is physically injured and unable to start or continue playing a game after having started. Members may not use an Emergency Backup Goaltender regardless of the starting goaltender’s performance.”
He estimates he’s served as Trenton’s backup goalie 30 times over the past four seasons, not to mention three games as a backup at the AHL level. But those rules…those pesky rules.
“Honestly, I never really thought I had a chance to play before this one,” Felice said.
“There were some games we got blown out, but I knew about the emergency backup rule, so I knew I couldn’t go into the game based on a blowout. So I was kind of just sitting there. Those were the tough ones to kind of sit back and take a back seat to. Other than that, I didn’t really expect to play.”
And that all changed in the blink of an eye…the following is how those 134 seconds unfolded, as told by radio broadcaster Dan D’Uva’s call of the game (in italics) and Felice’s recollections (in bold)…
“Connelly down on the ice, and slow getting up here. Anthony Felice is the Devils backup goaltender today. Anthony has been the emergency backup goaltender, but was just signed to a contract today. With the length of time that Jeff Lerg has been in Albany, you can’t have an emergency backup indefinitely. So after a period of time, you need to either release your emergency backup or sign him to a contract, and that’s exactly what happened today.”
“Did you ever see Wayne’s World? You know when he’s trying to get Cassandra back, he’s getting the idea and he goes, ‘Wait a minute’ and he gets up, and then he sits back down? Honestly, I watched Shane get hit, and I’m like ‘All right, he got his bell rung.’ And then I’m looking, and I’m like, ‘He’s hurt.’ I see his helmet come off and I see the blood come out. I’m getting up and I didn’t want to be presumptuous and put my helmet on or start stretching or anything, and I’m kind of like bobbing up and down for a couple of seconds and looking over and wondering what’s going to happen.”
“Well, Scott Stanhibel, the Devils trainer, is out on the ice. Connelly, who lost his helmet on the play, appears to have had a stick in the face or something near the face because Scott Stanhibel has got a towel up in the face of Connelly and Connelly’s going to skate over to the bench. And he appears to be in some pain. The crowd here applauds Connelly, but all of a sudden, the Devils are going to be without their goaltender it appears. Kevin Dean has come over just as Connelly gets to the bench. They’re going to take a close look here and see what’s going to happen. This very well could be the first time we’ll see Anthony Felice in game action.
So there’s a long conversation here, and I think Kevin Dean, as much as anything, wants to buy some time. I would presume a timeout has been called. There hasn’t been much discussion here, but the opportunity has been given here for Scott Stanhibel to work his magic and maybe patch up Shane Connelly, who appears to have some sort of cut over his left eye. Kevin Dean has now pointed, and it looks like they’re going to send Felice into the game. Kevin just pointed towards his emergency backup goaltender, and what do you know, Anthony Felice is going to get into the contest.”
“Finally, Kevin Dean goes, ‘El Gato, get in there.’ That’s the nickname the guys gave me. So he goes, ‘El Gato, get in there,’ and I was like, ‘Uh-oh.’ There was just a quick adrenaline rush and a spike of the heart rate, and then I just kind of focused. I was focusing on not overshooting the mark, tracking the puck. I did almost like a quick mental review of everything Coach Terreri had told me; don’t overshoot the mark, track the puck, follow the puck all the way into your body, be relaxed, be fluid, don’t tighten up. That quickly, I went through that whole list as they were getting ready for the faceoff. And then I just started playing, and that was it.”
“Felice, who has long been the Devils emergency backup goaltender, will make his very first appearance. He just turned 37 years old on January the 24th. He’s 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, and the first chance in his professional ECHL career comes on a 5-on-3 penalty kill.”
“Honestly, it was more here we are, the situation is what it is. I can’t change it and say, ‘Can I get warmups’ or whatever. You work at it, do what you can do. And like I said, it was just focusing on all the things I can control. That whole mindset of controlling what’s in my realm to control was what I was thinking about. We were going to kill the penalty regardless of whether I came in cold or not, that wasn’t in my control. I just dealt with it. It was just I’m going to deal with it and do the best I can.”
“Royals on the right side, it’s up to the top…quick shot, save from Felice! And the puck to the far boards. And the Devils on the bench with big applause. Now Cruthers shoots, that’s deflected away to the far corner.”
“I remember the draw, I remember they were moving the puck really quickly. And I remember they had me moving side to side and I felt a little off-balance. I think I was exploding hard and I felt a little off-balance. I haven’t seen the footage, but I remember the moving back and forth. I thought that they would start cranking right away, but then they didn’t. Then the one-timer came from my left, so my glove side. So I came across to my right and the one-timer came and I think it was off Cruthers, I’m not sure. But it came and the puck hit me, and it hit me pretty square in the chest, so I knew I got over in time, I knew I was square. I heard my teammates cheering for me.”
“Picked up by Ross, to the point for Kwiet again, watched outside by Zajac. Right wing circle, looking and waiting, now back to the top, Gordon for Kwiet, now Gordon shooting off the side of the net. Felice was diving across, but Gordon just missed his mark.”
“The puck went into the corner and I tracked it, I was very vocal. You always want to be vocal and kind of quarterbacking the play, but I remember being extra vocal. I remember talking to Leads and telling him someone was on him. Then the puck was moving, and they did one from my right to my left, and there was a one-timer that went wide and hit the side of the net. I kind of dove across and did a little old school kind of dive, it wasn’t a push across. But they missed the target completely, and there was a reset after that.”
“40 seconds (left) on the penalty. Back up top, Kwiet to the left, and there’s a shot and that missed the mark from Perry and it’s over to the left side. Now Kwiet stops it with his skate. Zajac is without a stick and the puck goes over on the far side, back up top. Ross, to Kwiet, right side…puck went away from Gordon, 25 on the power play. Pressure on the corner, puck now out to the top. To the left side, Kwiet fires…in!”
“Power play goal for the Royals and it’s a 1-0 Reading lead two minutes into the contest. Well, Felice did make a save. The Royals missed with a couple of shots from the outside, but ultimately Felice is beaten to his low left side and one penalty is taken off the board. 1-0, the Royals have the lead, but they still have 20 seconds remaining on the other penalty. Remember, it was a high sticking call against Kell, and then you have the bench minor. Goal to Olivier Labelle, who was down low and just slung it from the left wing side, and it’s a 1-0 Royals lead.”
“And then after that, I think was the play where Darcy broke his stick and that’s when there was a back door play. I’m not sure, I’d love to see the footage, but I’m not sure if I should have backed off. Maybe I was a little too aggressive and I didn’t play the back door well and I played the shooter, and maybe I should have backed off…I don’t know, I’d have to see it. But the guy was right there, and he just tucked it in back door on the goal. But Kevin Dean said Marty wouldn’t have stopped that.”
(After about a minute of game time goes by) “Devils win (the faceoff), right wing circle, it’s down to Miller, to the far side Pender…good passing down low, trying to get it in front was Charleston back and forth with Lombardi, and now two Devils get taken down in front. Bouncing puck, Miller, and now we’ve got a whistle with a delayed penalty here, and we’re going to have interference against the Royals. Now, Shane Connelly looks to be healthy enough to where he’s going to come back into the game here and Shane Connelly…is apparently good enough to come back in. So Anthony Felice, making his ECHL debut, does give up the goal, but made a couple of saves and let’s be honest folks, he looked pretty good. There was well over a minute on the power play, and he did give up the goal, but there was another power play after that and he did make a couple of saves. So congratulations to Anthony.
“There were a few Trenton fans there that cheered for me when I came off, I could hear them cheering for me. That was a really nice thing. My teammates were cheering for me. It was kind of weird, I didn’t think I was coming off that quickly. I figured maybe I’d finish off the period or I’d be in there a little while longer, because I figured he was getting stitched up. I was kind of surprised I came off as quickly as I did. After the goal, I think I made the next save, a blocker save. And then after that, I felt really good and I was fine with playing. If they needed me to play the whole game, I would have been fine. And then it was like, ‘Well, time to get off.’”
And just like that, it was over. Blink and you missed it, but in 134 seconds, Anthony Felice had just become a 37-year-old rookie ECHL goaltender.
“It’s actually a dream come true,” said Felice during a phone interview.
“My girlfriend was talking to me because she wanted to go on a vacation and I’m indifferent to the whole thing. She goes, ‘You get so excited to disrupt your life and go down to Trenton and play hockey, but you don’t get excited to go on a vacation.’ I told her, I didn’t have rollerblades on as a kid, skating up and down my block dreaming of going on a vacation. That was never my dream to go on a vacation, it was always my dream to play. If it never happens again, I’m grateful for the two minutes and 14 seconds that I did have. It’s more than a lot of people will ever get to. People might say, ‘Well, big deal,’ but when I skate in men’s leagues and pick-up leagues and whatever, you think about these goalies that would die to have that opportunity.
Perhaps the best part wasn’t even getting to play. Felice calls his parents after every game he dresses for, whether he plays or not. Suffice it to say, this phone call went a bit differently than the last 30 or so had.
“I called my mother and I said, ‘I know I can die in peace now,’” Felice said. “That’s exactly what I told her, and she knew what I meant.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com