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Florida Panthers goalie James Reimer (34) makes a save against the Toronto Maple Leafs during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday, November 17, 2016. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Florida Panthers goalie James Reimer (34) makes a save against the Toronto Maple Leafs during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday, November 17, 2016. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

James Reimer enjoys renewed purpose with Florida Panthers Add to ...

It was late June, during the NHL’s free-agency interview period, and James Reimer was sitting in an upscale steakhouse in Brooklyn.

Across the table sat Vinnie Viola, the Wall Street billionaire and owner of the Florida Panthers, who somehow found an instant connection with the goalie from rural Manitoba. They talked a little about hockey, but more so about life, including Reimer’s passion for charity work – especially for an orphanage in Africa that he has quietly sunk a small fortune into the past few years.

The Panthers already had a goalie – Roberto Luongo – but they loved Reimer. And while he had interest – including three serious offers – he loved the idea of committing to what Viola wanted to build in Florida. So they made the unorthodox decision to sign long-term, agreeing to a five-year, $17-million deal for a netminder who had battled year after year for acceptance in Toronto.

Several months in, it has been a good fit.

“He’s an easy guy to get along with,” said Luongo, who will turn 38 later this season and isn’t averse to sharing the crease to stay fresh. “So far, it’s been great. We’re a partnership. It doesn’t matter who plays, we want to do well for our team and we’re going to be supportive of each other.”

“You want to be recognized for what your potential is,” Reimer said of his decision. “I felt Florida had an idea of what I was able to bring to the table. That’s the main thing. You want to go somewhere that they want you.”

Reimer made his first career start against the Maple Leafs on Thursday night, finally facing the franchise that drafted him a decade ago and where he played 207 games over the previous six seasons.

It was an up-and-down ride, from an out-of-nowhere rise as a rookie to several injuries and then time as a backup, as the Leafs front office shifted multiple times. Then, late last season, Reimer was dealt to San Jose at the trade deadline, despite having one of his best years and fulfilling Toronto’s need for an answer in goal.

Even so, Reimer has fond memories of playing in Toronto, explaining how he went back to his old neighbourhood in the west end this week and went for a walk to reminisce with his wife April.

“I think there were times where I was given a shot and was able to play to my full abilities,” Reimer said of his time as a Leaf. “But at the same time, there were lots of changes, and when there’s changes in head coaches or GMs, they like different people and you don’t get the chance. I think that’s just the ebbs and flows of a career.”

As for what he remembers most about playing for the Leafs, he said, simply “just the excitement.”

“It’s a great hockey city,” Reimer added.

So far this season, Reimer has played sparingly as the Panthers backup. Thursday’s start in Toronto was only his sixth (of Florida’s first 17 games), and Luongo’s numbers have been superior.

But Luongo won’t play forever – and certainly not at the high level he’s maintained into his late 30s. His back-diving contract dips to a salary of $1.6-million or less beginning in 2019 so it’s possible he may only play two more seasons before calling it a career. If so, the crease could then be passed to Reimer, assuming he is able to regain the form that he displayed last year in posting a .922 save percentage split between the Leafs and Sharks.

“He’s smiling every day,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said of his early impressions. “He’s a good person, and I know our guys really like him. He’s been a really good leader for our club for sure.”

“We’re finally getting settled there now,” Reimer said of the shift to Florida.

Settling in has been a priority given what’s next. The Reimers are expecting their first child on Feb. 2, something Reimer called “a new chapter” for him off the ice.

His other focus away from hockey in the off-season is the orphanage, which has changed the lives of hundreds of kids in Uganda. The aid team Reimer has been working with has drilled a well, built an orphanage and has plans to give the community a school, medical clinic and church.

The Panthers have been equally impressed by his commitment to charity work in South Florida, something that Viola and company consider a priority as they attempt to become a bigger part of the community.

And while being back at the Air Canada Centre again brought mixed feelings, Reimer has made peace with moving on.

“This time of my life, it’s come to an end,” Reimer said. “I’m starting a new one, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

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