“Why do they call you the radio guy?” he asked.
“Because I am the radio guy,” Jason Shaya recalls saying that day, aware of the apparent absurdity of the situation. “He was probably taking shots on Henrik Lundqvist three weeks earlier and now he’s down in the ECHL taking shots on me.”
This week, Shaya, still the Checkers’ broadcaster and a house league goalie in his spare time, took part in his fourth professional practice of the season. For the last 10 years, he’s been filling in whenever needs arise due to injuries, recalls or whatever else might happen to one of his team’s actual goaltenders at any given time. As he puts it, and the numerous teams he’s been around seemingly agree, ‘No one likes practicing with just one goalie.’
New this season is his appearances with opposing teams. When Oklahoma City’s Richard Bachman went down with an injury during a Dec. 16 game in Charlotte, Shaya practiced in his stead the next day. This time, Florida Panthers goalies Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya both got hurt the night before their San Antonio Rampage affiliate was set to play the Checkers, pressing Shaya into service at Wednesday’s morning skate.
Amateurs don’t often get the face the likes of two-time NHL 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley, as Shaya did Wednesday. It could cause some nervous moments. If it mattered.
“I could stop every puck in practice and be the greatest practice goalie ever in one session, but I’m still going to call games and be in the broadcast booth that night,” he said. “I have no aspirations to do anything other than that.”
Shaya remembers a small group of veteran Checkers not skating in that day’s exhibition game taking it easy on him in his first-ever AHL practice in 2010-11 (“Zack Fitzerald lobbed a puck at me from the blue line and asked if that was OK,” he said). However, that’s rarely the case.
“Most teams go the other way,” he said. “It’s, ‘You’re coming into our ice and we’ll show you. You wanna play with the pros, huh? Try to stop this one, jerk.’”
Keeping in mind that Shaya didn’t take goaltending seriously until his adult life and had to be told the basic fundamentals of a stance at his first pro practice with the United Hockey League’s Motor City Mechanics, it’s become something of an unlikely side gig.
“I only had about five years of being the worst goalie ever and being out there with your buddies who are all terrible,” said Shaya of his goaltending experience before starting to make his practice cameos. “Stepping out on the ice with professionals made me so much better so quickly because either you get better or they don’t ask you back. They kept asking me back, so I must not have been that bad.”
He might have even made some history when taking a morning skate with the ECHL Checkers alongside injured defenseman Chris Snavely, who became his de facto color commentator that season.
“I’m convinced we were the only broadcast team to ever skate with the team in the morning and then call the game that night,” said Shaya.
It’s less likely to happen now that he’s working in the AHL and the Checkers are able to sign or recall established goaltenders from a lower level, but he dressed for approximately five of Charlotte’s ECHL games. In one of those circumstances, a trickle-down coincidentally also triggered by an injury to Montoya, who was with AHL Hartford at the time, he had a few nervous moments.
“We’re in the locker room and our goalie says he has to use the bathroom with four minutes to go in the intermission. I wasn’t leading the team on the ice, that’s for sure, but guys were going on the ice and I was sitting on the bench. My heart was going 1,000 miles an hour, but I felt like they were about to drop the puck and then he comes barreling out and gets in his net. Then for the next four or five minutes he didn’t see a single shot and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I could have done that.’
"Same period towards the end, he gets run over. I turn as he starts to get up I make the silent cross, and then I look up and the whole press box started dying laughing. They were all holding their breath. It was a tie game, so that was pretty scary.”
Dressing for games proved awkward at times.
“One year I had just met the team and some guys didn’t know what my name was,” he said. “We scored a goal and I thought, ‘Do I put my glove out on the fly-by? Yeah, I’m on the team, I’ll put my glove out.’
“Five guys skated by, and as every one got to me they took their glove away. Not one guy tapped my glove. I sat there the rest of the time not doing anything. It was so embarrassing.”
The situation in Florida this week, one that saw 41-year-old goalie coach Robb Tallas dress but not play, likely has several hockey coaches questioning what they would do in a similar situation. According to AHL rules that are believed to be identical to that of the NHL, Shaya would be eligible to play in such a situation. Of course, he’s already got a job to do at the rink, so using an already-dressed forward or defenseman would also be possible.
Should that happen, which one?
“Probably Kyle Hagel because he’s not afraid of the puck,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels after a long pause. “He’d dive and he’d put his face first to make a save. He has no fear out there, so that would be someone I’d want in the net to get hit with a puck.”
“Really?” said Hagel when learning of that. “If I was called upon I would definitely step in and do it, but there are probably a couple of other guys. We were talking about it in the locker room this morning and Trevor (Carrick) and Brody (Sutter) were both fighting over who should be the goalie. Both are big, twiggy, lanky-type guys that might do a better job than I would.”
Shaya made a different pick.
“I’m going to go with Carter Sandlak because he blocks the most shots,” he said. “He’s one of those guys that’s fearless. There was a game in Oklahoma City where he blocked a shot with his right foot and same shift blocked a shot with his left foot. He was crippled going to the bench, and that takes a lot of guts.”
So does practicing with a pro team, which has its own occupational hazards partially related to his 5-foot-6, 170-pound frame.
“I get hit in the head a lot, but they’re all accidents,” said Shaya. “Riley Nash told me one time that my head is in the perfect spot when I go down in the butterfly, because when I go down my head is in the upper 90 where most goalies their shoulder is there.”
Bumps and bruises aside, he’s not likely to turn down the chance to briefly live the dream of being a pro hockey player anytime soon.
“It’s a lot of fun, because no one else in any other position gets to play with the team,” he said. “We’re lucky. Was the equipment guy for the Chicago Bulls playing ball with Michael Jordan before the game? Probably not.
“Until they don’t ask me to come back or until I get too old, I’ll always love doing this.”