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Toronto goaltender James Reimer #34 has given Maple Leafs fans renewed hope. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) (Christian Petersen/2011 Getty Images)
Toronto goaltender James Reimer #34 has given Maple Leafs fans renewed hope. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) (Christian Petersen/2011 Getty Images)

Leafs Beat

The 'miracle' from 'the middle of nowhere' Add to ...

James Reimer calls his road to the NHL "a miracle."

And as the 22-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs rookie begins to lay out just how he got from a tiny Mennonite town of 150 people in rural Manitoba to a starring role hockey's biggest market, it's hard not to agree.

The road from there to here began with a church team playing in a small tournament in Steinbach, Man. It was there that Ray Petkau happened to be put on a team with Reimer, and the fledgling agent couldn't believe just how good this youngster was.

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He decided to find out more.

"I've never recruited a player at that age," Petkau said. "I was more curious than anything. People were saying he's only 13 and I didn't really believe it.

"I thought, well, if nothing else, I know a lot of scouts in the WHL and I was just going to tip them off that this kid playing in the middle of nowhere, you've got to keep an eye on him."

The middle of nowhere, in this case, is Morweena, Man., two hours north of Winnipeg and about as off the beaten path as you can get when it comes to the NHL.

Reimer's parents were floored when an agent came knocking on their door, as their son hadn't even played organized hockey until age 12, after years of family friends persuading them that it wasn't such a bad idea.

"My parents just weren't keen on putting me into a situation where I might go astray or whatever," Reimer said.

When scouts finally saw him, two years later in a tournament, he had had no coaching, little experience and was a long shot to ever play even at the junior level.

"I got scouted playing one game," Reimer said. "We lost 6-0, but they must have had 700 shots. The scouts had no idea who I was, they'd never heard of me before, but one guy saw me play that game and drafted me. Just based on the one game."

That lone scout was Carter Sears, then the director of player personnel for the powerhouse Red Deer Rebels, and he liked what he saw - even if others thought he was nuts.

"I called some of my scouts over and said 'We're taking this kid,' " Sears said. Reimer was a flop at his first Rebels training camp, and general manager and coach Brent Sutter - now the coach of the Calgary Flames - wanted no part of the "unique" prospect his man had dug up 1,300 kilometres away.

Sutter wanted Reimer cut, but Sears persisted, fighting an ongoing battle that ultimately ended with him leaving the team altogether.

The scout stayed in the picture, however, keeping an eye on Reimer when he finally made the team and encouraging him even as Red Deer sat mired at the bottom of the standings.

"He's a big reason why I'm here," Reimer said.

Despite his poor record with the Rebels, he caught the eye of the Leafs scouts, and then GM John Ferguson made the goalie he remembers as "somewhat raw" their fourth-round pick, 99th overall in 2006. Sears said he always believed Reimer could blossom into more than what he at first appeared to be.

"He had no coaching, no mentorship, no training like young goalies get today," Sears said. "Just because of where he was from. But James Reimer is a special kid."

After two more years with the Rebels, Reimer won a championship in the ECHL in his first pro season and then joined the Leafs farm team full-time beginning in 2009-10.

His rise since that point has been meteoric, and he will start for the Leafs on Saturday against last season's Vezina Trophy winner in Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller.

Those who have gotten to know Reimer along the way say they could see this coming.

"I'm not surprised in the least to tell you the truth," said Jared Bednar, who coached Reimer with the South Carolina Stingrays when he was the ECHL's postseason most valuable player. "When you bring that type of work ethic with the talent that he has, it doesn't surprise me at all that he's doing so well."

Petkau still just remembers the 13-year-old kid that wouldn't let a puck past him in that church tournament only nine years ago.

"I just saw the fire in his eyes," Petkau said. "He did everything to stop the puck."

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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