While the notion of the job is common to many occupations, be it understudy in theatre, vice-president in politics or straight man in comedy, the actual role of a backup goaltender is unique to hockey.
The only other position that comes close is backup quarterback in professional football, although the majority of those positions are filled by young players hoping to take the starter's job. In the NHL, there are some situations like that, but the true backup goalie is usually a veteran who has been around the block, understands he is never going to be the No. 1, will only play a few times a month and still enthusiastically does all he can to support the starter. At the same time he has to play well enough in those few appearances that his coach and teammates feel they have a chance to win.
"Nobody dreams when they're a kid of being a backup goalie in the NHL, of almost getting that starting job but not quite," said New Jersey Devils goaltending development coach Scott Clemmensen, who had the most thankless backup job of them all. He spent parts of four seasons as the fill-in for Devils hall-of-famer Martin Brodeur, who routinely played more than 70 games a season.
However, no one should make the mistake of thinking the job has little value to a team. Coaches and those who have played the position will tell you a good backup – who may play 20 games or more in a season in today's NHL – can help provide 20 points or more. In the NHL, that is a tremendous difference.
"The games you did play, that was the difference between your team making the playoffs or having your team not make the playoffs or having your team make the playoffs and having home-ice advantage," said broadcaster Glenn Healy, who began his playing career as a starter in the 1980s and then moved to a backup role with the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs through the 1990s.
Healy points to Montreal Canadiens backup Al Montoya as an example. Last season, the Canadiens sank like a stone in the standing when No. 1 goaltender Carey Price suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 25, 2015. The Habs did not have a reliable backup and finished sixth in the Atlantic Division, well out of the playoffs. This season, after signing Montoya, 31, as a free agent, the Canadiens have 14 of a possible 24 points from the backup's 12 starts and Price is getting the rest he needs.
"You can't tell me [Canadiens head coach] Michel Therrien is not going, 'Montoya, man, he's got almost 20 points and we're just past New Year's,'" Healy said. "That's pretty good and there's other teams with three points from their backup. Well, there you go, that's the difference at the end of the year."
The need to maximize the points from the position is also why the job is so thankless. Backups are expected to perform as well as the No. 1 goaltender, despite not playing for weeks at a stretch or always getting the worst starts, such as the third game in four nights or second of back-to-backs when the team isn't fresh. There is no forgiveness for failure.
"The biggest thing is it can be hard," Healy said. "You may go a month without a start. It's almost like you're looking at a telescope backwards. That's how the game looks to you because you have no feel.
"It takes a period to just settle down, make the first save, get your five minutes, less is more, don't handle the puck like Marty Brodeur, just keep it simple and get through it. There's no pity party. You can't go, 'we landed in Tampa at 3 a.m. and I've got to play, woe is me.' The coach doesn't care. We all landed at 3."
In the past two weeks, three NHL goaltenders were put on waivers and another, Jhonas Enroth of the Maple Leafs, was traded for the token price of a seventh-round draft pick. All were backups who were essentially fired for poor performances.
The Leafs claimed their latest backup, veteran Curtis McElhinney, when he was waived by the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 10, to replace Enroth. Up to that point, the Leafs had earned three points from their backups, as Enroth had a 0-3-1 record and 22-year-old Antoine Bibeau was 1-1.
"You don't want to get no points, that would be awful," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of the position. "If a guy plays 20 games and you get no points, that would be a tough way to make the playoffs."
McElhinney, 33, who was waived by Columbus because of a couple of bad starts, paid immediate dividends for the Leafs. He won his first start and posted a .946 save percentage, giving him a .928 mark for the season in eight games with the Leafs and Columbus. It now seems the Leafs have the person they need to spell No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen, who is in his first season as a No. 1 but has appeared in 35 of Toronto's 43 games.
"The biggest thing is [teammates and coaches] have to be confident when you go in there," McElhinney said. "They have to be confident you can do the same job the starter can, whether it's a couple of games or 10 games."
Coaches and goaltenders agree the optimum situation is to have a veteran who understands he is the backup. Prospects such as Bibeau should be playing in the minor leagues, not sitting on the bench with the big team thinking they should have more playing time. And having two veterans competing for the No. 1 job rarely works out because each is hoping the other fails.
Clemmensen said there are six factors that form a good backup goaltender – three on the ice and three off. On the ice, the backup has to be able to sit for a long time and still be able to play well when an infrequent start comes up. He also has to be able to jump into a game at a moment's notice when the starter is hurt or shelled and stop the other team's momentum. And he has to be good enough to be the full-time No. 1 for a while if the starter's injury is serious.
Off the ice, Clemmensen says, "No. 1, you have to come to the rink with a smile on your face and be genuine about it. If you're fake, people will see through you, especially your teammates. No. 2, you have to be a good teammate. You have to stay out late on the ice to help guys do extra drills. You've got to be there for every optional practice. The term optional does not apply to you. No. 3, you can't be in the coach's office asking what can I do [to start more games] and being a headache for the coach. The last person the coach needs to hear from is the backup goalie."
As for the big question of how you stay sharp despite not playing much, all agree that backups have to treat practices as games. "Practice for the starter is to stay loose," Clemmensen said. "For the backup, practice is to stay sharp. Practice is your game. You're focused on every shot, every rebound."
TSN broadcaster Jamie McLennan, who served as a backup for most of his 12 NHL seasons, says the support side of the job is just as important as the points earned by the backup.
"People need to understand that role. A guy who is a bona-fide backup understands that role," he said. "The thing lost in all this is the relationship you have with the starter.
"You need to be the eyes and ears of your partner. You need to help with the scouting, you need to have that relationship where there is trust. He skates over to the bench, you say 'they're working the puck low' or 'watch this guy.'
"You're expected to deliver points, but also deliver a night off for the starter mentally and physically."
That is why Montoya was left in goal for the entire game in early November, even though he was bombed for 10 goals in a loss to the Blue Jackets.
"I have no problem with him staying the whole game and absorbing the 10 goals because his job that night was to give Carey Price the night off," McLennan said. "It didn't go well and it happens. That's the type of stuff a seasoned backup understands.
"When I played in Calgary, [former Flames coach] Darryl Sutter used to say to me the role of a good backup is you have to be .500. If you have five starts you had to get at least five points."
Healy said a backup can make himself valuable to a team in every game just by watching what goes on all over the ice and passing along information to players other than the starting goaltender.
"You shouldn't just be sitting at the end of the bench in a baseball hat," Healy said. "You can make a difference, whether it's a heads-up to a defenceman or to guys who come back to the bench and say, 'What the hell happened on that shift?'"
There are rewards, too. The minimum salary in the NHL is $575,000 (U.S.) a year and a veteran such as Montoya makes nearly $1-million. Plus you can call yourself a big-leaguer.
"It wasn't my dream to be a backup, but at the end of the day you're one of 60 [goaltenders] playing in the NHL," McElhinney said.
Or, if you're lucky, you get your name engraved on the Stanley Cup as Healy did in 1994 when he backed up Mike Richter with the New York Rangers.
"They don't put any stats on the Cup. They don't put starter or most points on it," Healy said. "They put your name on it."