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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer is pictured during the final practice session Toronto on Wednesday October 5, 2011, ahead of tomorrow's season opener against Montreal Canadiens. (Chris Young/Chris Young for The Globe and Ma)
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer is pictured during the final practice session Toronto on Wednesday October 5, 2011, ahead of tomorrow's season opener against Montreal Canadiens. (Chris Young/Chris Young for The Globe and Ma)

The Reimer Rules Add to ...

At the time he said it, Brian Burke’s comment sounded like a joke.

It was early July, and in his first major news conference after free agency, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager was asked why he hadn’t acquired a veteran goaltender.

Why was he so confident goaltender James Reimer could repeat his surprising turn in net?

“There are a lot of goalies who have come in and had a brief, spectacular burst in the NHL that don’t sustain it,” Burke said. “Jim Carey is one. Steve Penney is one. What I said to James Reimer is ‘Google both of those guys and make sure you’re not one of them.’ ”

It certainly got a few laughs. But Burke was dead serious.

And, so, Reimer dutifully went about his task in the off-season, looking online through history’s goaltender dustbin at two of the NHL’s biggest flameouts at the position.

“I knew the point he was trying to get across,” Reimer said, smiling.

Some young players might have taken it as an insult to be referred to Carey, who won the Vézina Trophy at 21 and was out of hockey three years later, leaving the game amid tales of cockiness and a poor work ethic.

Some might have resented having to read about Penney, who led the Montreal Canadiens, at age 23, on one unexpected playoff run in 1984 and only played one full NHL season after that.

Reimer, however, insists he didn’t.

And on the eve of his first ever opening night start on Thursday against Montreal, he said he has every intention of making a lasting impression in a league few thought he’d ever make.

“That’s why you work so hard to get here,” Reimer said. “There have been plenty of tough times in my career and you battle through and you gain so much experience. You gain life lessons. You know how to handle it.

“Hopefully at this level, there are fewer of those growing pains, because you have that experience. But I’m sure there will be [more] It’s a tough league.”

No team needs its goaltender to be on top of his game more than the Leafs this season.

After all, Toronto was in the bottom five in the NHL in team save percentage for four consecutive years before Reimer received that first start on New Year’s Day.

The former fourth-round pick – drafted by former GM John Ferguson in 2006, five years after Reimer started playing organized hockey – then went on a remarkable run, posting a 20-10-5 record and .921 save percentage to close the year.

It was the best goaltending performance the Leafs had had in seven years, dating to Ed Belfour and a sixth consecutive playoff appearance in 2004.

Now the organization believes Reimer can finally offer a solution to their problem in goal.

“I think what makes us feel really good this year is we believe in our goaltending more than we ever have,” coach Ron Wilson said. “We believe he’s a No. 1 goalie. And he’s going to have a great year.”

Even with the vote of confidence – and a new three-year deal – Reimer remains the biggest “what if” of the Leafs’ season.

What if he’s not a No. 1 goalie? What if it’s not a great year?

What happens if James Reimer turns into a pumpkin and the backup plan isn’t nearly enough to save the season?

No one on the team has that answer, nor should they be expected to. But, in his off-season research, one imagines Reimer saw exactly what he and the Leafs want to avoid.

Thirteen years after he retired, Carey is the president of a medical billing firm in Sarasota, Fla., goes by the name James and refuses to do interviews about his time in the NHL.

Now 50, Penney’s last known whereabouts was selling eyeglasses in a small town outside Quebec City. He sold many of his collectibles, and his Stanley Cup ring – won with Patrick Roy in the starring role – was stolen.

They both have their what ifs.

No one in professional sports want to be a one-year wonder, to get to the very top – taste that rarefied air – and crash disappointingly down, almost as quickly as they rose up.

Reimer seems to know. He dropped 20 pounds in the summer as part of a new workout regiment and believes he’s ready for the 50-plus games ahead.

“I just understood what [Burke]was trying to say to me,” Reimer said. “That these things happen. You can play great, but if you don’t stay on it, it can go. You never really lose your talent, but if you don’t have hard work, your talent is useless.

“It’s a good [message] It’s kept me from getting complacent. I feel that I’ve worked as hard as I could. I’ve surrounded myself with people that know me. Even if I subconsciously slack off, they’re there to keep pushing me. They keep me honest.”

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