Russian Goalie Memories: A Recall From Deep in the Heart of Texas and A Dazzling Debut

download (1)Christine Muschi/Reuters

Capitals backup goaltender Ilya Samsonov is in his first season in the NHL and is seen as the future in net for the team going forward. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle takes a look back at a former Caps first-round netminder and Samsonov’s fellow Russian who was considered the team’s future in the crease and a memorable turn of events 11 years ago this week.

On December 12, 2008, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears were in the midst of road trip far from home deep in the heart of Texas.  The Chocolate and White had just finished playing a game against the San Antonio Rampage the previous evening and were on a bus en route to Houston to play the Houston Aeros (now the Iowa Wild) the next day.

At the time, 2006 first-round pick Semyon Varlamov was one of the Bears’ netminders.  While the team bus was en route to Houston, Varlamov’s received a phone call from fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin, who had given Varlamov his number in training camp if the need for help ever arose. However since then, the two countrymen had not been in contact…until now.

Ovechkin notified Varlamov that Capitals starting goaltender Jose Theodore had sustained a hip injury and his services would be needed that night for the Caps’ game against the Ottawa Senators.

At the same time, then-Bears’ Head Coach Bob Woods received a phone call from Washington reporting that Theodore had injured his hip flexor muscle during the morning skate and that Varlamov was to report to Washington for that night’s game. Then-Bears’ radio play-by-play broadcaster John Walton had been seated across the aisle on the bus from Woods, and overheard the conversation and the details of Varlamov’s expected travel itinerary.  Walton looked at Woods and asked, “Did you say the flight is 1:30 pm out of Houston?”, to which Woods confirmed.

Walton expressed doubt as to whether the team would make it to Houston in time for a 1:30 flight. The bus eventually pulled into a roadside rest area where Varlamov and his gear were loaded into the rental car that the team’s trainers had been driving.  The rental car would be driving to the airport however there was no way that Varlamov would make it to Washington in time.

In Washington, then-backup goaltender Brent Johnson was set to start against the Senators. The team’s website producer at the time (now Video Coach) Brent “Stretch” Leonhardt, who had manned the other net in practice, would serve as the emergency backup goalie for the game until Varlamov could arrive. The team had signed Leonhardt to a professional tryout offer in anticipation of having to use an emergency backup and had prepared a locker room stall for him.

Varlamov finally arrived to the arena at the 10:57 mark of first period and had been changing into his playing gear on the ride to the game. With the goalie drama ended, the Caps played the rest of the game without worry, beating the Senators 5-1.

After the game against Ottawa, the Caps traveled to Montreal where they had a game scheduled against the Canadiens the following day.  Given that Johnson’s hip was sore as well, it soon became apparent that Varlamov would be making his NHL debut against Montreal.

Then-Head Coach Bruce Boudreau commented on the situation, saying,

“Let’s see what he’s got. The last time I saw him [in Hershey] he was great. If it’s baptism under fire, well then it’s baptism under fire. We’ll see how he reacts to it.”

Varlamov’s first NHL game started off well when Capitals Center Nicklas Backstrom scored a power play goal about halfway through the first period, on assists from Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, a score that would hold up through one period of play.

Backstrom Goal Dec 13 2008

Montreal tied it in the second but the Caps pulled ahead on a goal from Michael Nylander with two and a half minutes left in the game on assists from Alexandre Giroux and Viktor Kozlov. The score would hold through the rest of regulation, earning Varlamov his first win in his debut, a game in which he stopped 32 shots.

Further Reading
WaPo Capitals Insider: Story of Game on Dec 12, 2008
WaPo Capitals Insider: Story of Game of Dec 13, 2008
NHL Game Report For Dec 13, 2008
100 Things Capitals Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die by Ben Raby

Pictures courtesy of

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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