On a regular night, while out to dinner with his teammates, Brett Willows sat at the Noodle Bowl on Spadina, ordered his meal, and waited patiently for the food to arrive. A few minutes later, his food came to the table, he took two or three bites of his chicken chow mein, and received a phone call. For Willows, a second-year kinesiology and physical education major, October 17 is a day that won’t be soon forgotten. Willows got a last-minute call from Darren Lowe, the head coach of U of T’s Varsity Blues hockey, informing him that the Toronto Maple Leafs were down a man and needed someone on the bench as soon as possible.
A Blues goaltender, Willows rushed to the Air Canada Centre after Leafs goalie James Reimer sustained a head injury from an accidental collision with teammate Josh Levio. Willows was called to play backup to Jonathan Bernier as the Maple Leafs battled the Carolina Hurricanes. Willows raced to pick up his equipment from the Varsity Centre before rushing to the Air Canada Centre to jump at this once-in-a-lifetime chance. “Going down to the ACC was exciting and nerve-wracking. I didn’t really know what to expect or how it was all going to work,” said Willows, who is currently in his third year on the Varsity Blues hockey team.
Signing an emergency amateur tryout contract, Willows entered the U of T dressing room during the beginning of the second period, while Leafs staff were assessing the status of goaltender James Reimer. When it was decided Reimer couldn’t play the rest of the game, Willows began putting on his equipment and quickly received a Leafs jersey with the number 82 stitched onto the back, below WILLOWS in large white letters.
Due to a contract stipulation, Willows wasn’t allowed to sit on the bench during the game, but watched from a TV in the equipment training room. “I didn’t have too much interaction with the players and coaches since they were in the middle of a conference game they were trying to win. I mostly just tried to stay out of the way and not be a distraction as much as possible,” said Willows, recalling the whirlwind experience. However, one Maple Leafs player reached out to the young goalie: newly signed Leafs right-winger David Clarkson, who was serving a 10-game suspension that left him sidelined during the Leafs-Hurricanes game. “David Clarkson was nice enough to sit and watch the game with me in the third period. It would have been easy for him to just brush me off and say hi and leave, but he took the time to make me feel welcome, so I’m pretty grateful for that,” said Willows.
The 23-year-old Rivers, Manitoba native didn’t see any ice time during the night but cherished the experience nonetheless, tweeting after the game, “What I dreamed about [while] playing mini-sticks in the basement just came true.” According to Willows, he began playing hockey simply because all of his friends played. He realized there weren’t many goaltenders with a height of 5’9”, but that didn’t stop him from playing between the pipes. “I kind of picked certain things I liked about a whole bunch of goalies and tried to implement them in my game,” said Willows. “Growing up, my favourite goalie was Jose Theodore; I guess you could say he influenced me a little bit.” As Willows improved his game, he played in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League for the Dauphin Kings, helping them earn a championship in 2010. It was then that the Varsity Blues attempted to recruit the 20-year-old. “They originally called at Christmas during my 20-year-old season, but at that time I had committed to play in the States. Eventually, the States scholarship fell through, and luckily for me Coach Lowe still had a spot available.”
After three years with the Blues, Willows looks ahead to the future of his hockey and professional career and eyes a possible change of environment. “After I’m done my undergrad, if the opportunity presented itself to play pro in Europe, or even for a year in the East Coast League, I would jump at the chance,” he said. “But if not, the goal is to keep my marks high enough to be eligible for physiotherapy grad school.”
For the time being, Willows is still taking time to process a dream come true. To make sure he doesn’t forget the night of October 17, the Leafs organization has agreed to send him an official team jersey with his name and number on the back, said Willows. “It was definitely a thrill. I didn’t really know what to expect going into the whole situation, but I know I came out with the experience of a lifetime,” he added.
U of T students can watch Willows in action at the Varsity Centre as the Blues take on teams in the CIS every week. Their next home game will be on November 2 against the University of Waterloo Warriors.