He beams when you ask him and is only too happy to let you know: No, Dustin Tokarski is not from Humboldt, Sask., as you might find online or his hockey cards.
He’s from Watson – a farm town of all of 800 people, two hours from both Saskatoon and Regina (tagline: The Industrial Crossroads of Saskatchewan), kind of in the heart of nowhere.
He left at 14 for Prince Albert to play AAA midget, and it’s been a decade-long journey in hopping from Spokane in junior to Tampa, Norfolk, Syracuse, Hamilton and now, finally, Montreal. On Thursday, the carousel stopped at Madison Square Garden for another highlight.
Tokarski picked up his first career playoff win against the New York Rangers in what was essentially a must-win Game 3 for the Canadiens, keeping his new team in the game, making 35 saves to get to overtime, and ultimately outduelling megastar Henrik Lundqvist for the title of best goalie in the game.
Afterward, in the bowels of one of the most famous arenas in hockey, he talked about his roots in the small-town Prairies and the wild ride the last week has been. He never expected to be here – but he had hoped.
“Fun. Awesome,” Tokarski said in describing his past few days. “I’ve got a few [thousand more] Twitter followers so that was kind of cool. It’s been great – just trying to build off the good things the guys did.”
At one point, he was asked how he would have responded if someone had suggested even a week ago that he would start and win a game for the Habs in the playoffs, something unthinkable given he sat third on the team’s depth chart.
Carey Price was the obvious starter and heart of the team. Peter Budaj, an experienced pro with a multiyear deal, was his backup. Tokarski was along for the ride as a Black Ace, practising just in case.
“I’d think they had a little too much to drink or something,” Tokarski said quietly. “That’s what the sport is all about – you never know what can happen. I’m just taking it all in right now.”
Truth be told, Tokarski was likely deserving of a chance before now. Thursday was only his 12th NHL game – including 10 in the regular season – and ninth start despite the fact he was a star at the junior level and won an American Hockey League championship at just 22.
Working against him has been both his size (he’s listed at 5-foot-11, making him one of only two goaltenders under six feet to start a game in the NHL playoffs so far) and his unusual path from a tiny Prairie town, which prevented him from being scouted and drafted into the Western Hockey League.
Since a trade to the Canadiens organization last year, however, Tokarski has only impressed, with a .921 save percentage for the affiliate Bulldogs in nearly 60 games, which earned him a new two-year contract that kicks in next season.
With only 60 jobs open in the National Hockey League and 60 more in the AHL, the road to getting starts can be a tough one for young goalies, especially those with a smaller body in a league that’s put a huge premium on height in recent years.
But Tokarski’s limited action with the Habs this season – posting a .946 save percentage in three appearances and earning the trust of the coaching staff – had a big impact on eventually getting the call in the postseason over Budaj when Price went down with a knee injury in the first game of the series.
That his track record in junior and the minors was so impressive only helped.
“We all saw the same thing, the same way, with the kid's background,” head coach Michel Therrien said after Thursday’s 3-2 win. “The way that he played for us this year, only a few times, we knew the kid was a winner. To be a winner, you need to be a battler, and this is exactly what again he showed tonight.”
“He’s got great composure for a young guy,” Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said, noting Tokarski’s game-day preparation and professionalism had impressed him already. “It’s a tough situation to step into – he’s handled it extremely well.”
“The last thing I need to worry about is how he’s stopping the puck,” added defenceman P.K. Subban. “He’s doing a pretty good job of that.”
It’s all a long way from Watson, where he starred from a young age for the local minor hockey Rockets. But Tokarski has adjusted well to his newfound fame, not batting an eye when asked to stand on a platform and speak to 50-plus media and cameras after his first postseason win.
Part of what he talked about was where he came from, including his duties on the farm and the heated games of “sock ball” – which is what it sounds like – with his parents and friends in the basement that in some sense helped him get where he is now. Apparently if you can stop a sock, you can stop a puck.
The family farm has since been sold and his parents have taken on “regular jobs,” but Tokarski remains very much the same: a humble kid from the heart of nowhere, who dreamed big enough that winning games at MSG was never out of the question.
“Without Tokarski’s performance, probably the result would have been different,” his coach gushed after Game 3’s heroics.
“Any time you get an opportunity, you want to seize it and do your best,” Tokarski said. “The one thing on my mind is this series and trying to win the best of seven right now."