High above the ice at the Wells Fargo Center, at the far end of the balcony press box, Justin Kowalkoski watches the hockey game from the dimly lit second row and, with only rare exceptions, that is all he does.
“I usually just enjoy the game. I’m a lifelong fan,” Kowalkoski says. “I don’t typically think about it.”
For Kowalkoski, and a small fraternity of other men who lurk in the corners of NHL arenas at every game, “it” is the reason they are there. They are the emergency backup goalies that each franchise is required to have on hand in the event that a team loses both of its goaltenders to either injury or illness.
They don’t get as far as the ice very often. In fact, in the 75 or so years of hockey’s modern era, an emergency backup has entered a game only three times.
Most recently, it happened last Saturday, when the 42-year-old manager of a Toronto minor-league arena played much of the second period and all of the third period for the Carolina Hurricanes. David Ayres, who also serves as a practice goalie for the Maple Leafs, became the oldest goaltender in NHL history to win his debut, as he made eight saves in a 6-3 win.
Kowalkoski, 33, who was home watching another game, started getting text messages immediately when Ayres came out of the shadows for the Hurricanes.
“I heard about it pretty quickly,” Kowalkoski says. “I was getting flooded with messages from people. Then, I followed the game pretty closely through the end of it.”
In a sequence that is quintessentially hockey, Ayres was not only mobbed by his temporary teammates after the game, but he was given a standing ovation by the Toronto crowd even though he had just beaten the home team. As Kowalkoski tracked the game, and the aftermath, was there a touch of jealousy?
“Oh, yeah. For sure,” he says. “What a cool experience. But I don’t expect it to ever happen.”
Kowalkoski, who has been an emergency backup at the Wells Fargo Center since the 2017-18 season, has gotten into uniform four times when a team lost either its starter or reserve during the game.
He has worn the jerseys of the Penguins, Canucks, Red Wings, and Senators, waiting patiently in a small room situated between the home and visitors locker rooms beneath the stands.
The Red Wings had him come out and sit at the end of the bench briefly in a December game last season after starter Jimmy Howard hurt himself in warmups, but emergency goalies are allowed to warm up before playing only if they are not on the bench, so Kowalkoski had to lumber back out of sight when Detroit became aware of that rule.
There isn’t much in this for an emergency goalie, even the rare ones who get onto the ice. They sign a one-day amateur tryout contract, and the pay is really the experience of being in an NHL game. The Hurricanes gave Ayres $500 and his jersey. James Reimer, one of the Carolina goalies who was injured last Saturday, has made approximately $75,000 per game-played the last few years.
Kowalkoski operates on a gratis basis with the Flyers. He gets his seat in the press box and dinner and, very occasionally, something more, and only in an emergency situation. It is the hockey equivalent of a flight attendant asking if there is a doctor on board.
“The thing I always explain to people is that goalie is a different position. It isn’t like football where everyone on the team can throw a pass,” Kowalkoski says. “You can’t just put a defenseman in goalie pads. It’s a unique position.”
It is the position Kowalkoski has played since he was a 7-year-old growing up near Minneapolis. He was a good skater, but he also had four older brothers, and when the basement games were taking place at home, Justin was swaddled up and stuck in goal. He found that he liked it.
“I’m generally a somewhat shy person. I enjoy the subtle spotlight of being a goalie,” Kowalkoski says. “You don’t get all the glory or all the credit, whether positive or negative. I guess I have the personality to handle both. I like the perspective. You’re not scoring goals, but it’s an important position.”
As a young player, coincidentally, Kowalkoski was on the same Minnesota elite youth team as current Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen. He played through high school and then four years at Colgate University in Upstate New York.
Graduating in 2008 with a geology degree, Kowalkoski opted to begin his career rather than trying to pursue hockey further. He was hired by Roux Associates, an environmental consulting firm in Logan Township, N.J., where he works as a senior geologist, commuting from his home in Media, Delaware County.
Kowalkoski stays in hockey shape in a men’s league at Oaks Center Ice in Phoenixville, playing for a team named Peter North Stars against such opponents as Moosies and Bruised Fruit. Most games, his team has two forward lines and a few defensemen. In the team’s most recent game, against PW Alumni, Kowalkoski was the winner in a 2-0 shutout.
“Not to toot my own horn, but you don’t see that a lot in rec hockey,” he says.
His connection with the Flyers was made through a former Colgate teammate who was playing for the Reading Royals, the Flyers’ affiliate in the ECHL. The Flyers were looking for emergency goalie candidates and Kowalkoski’s information was passed along.
Three years later, he’s still at it, sitting in the shadows near the ceiling, usually just watching the game like any other fan. Occasionally, as when the story of David Ayres comes along, he wonders if fate will ever touch his shoulder in the same way. He would like that chance.
“Absolutely,” Kowalkoski says. “You really never know how it would go. Scott Foster had seven saves [a 36-year-old accountant who, as an emergency backup for the Blackhawks in 2018, stopped every shot he faced], and then a real NHL goalie could give up eight goals in a game. It totally depends on the situation, and on the support in front of you.
“You can never predict how a game is going to play out. In my wildest dreams, I would play an entire game and get a shutout. In reality, I hope I would hold my own."