Steamboat rallies behind NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes |

Steamboat rallies behind NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes

New York Islanders' Brock Nelson (29) crashes into Carolina Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney (35) during the second period of Game 3 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference final this year will light the televisions of an unlikely fanbase rooted in the West.

Steamboat Springs hockey fans watched intently as their very own Curtis McElhinney skated onto the ice for the Carolina Hurricanes during Game 2 against the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The heroic performance by the backup goaltender splattered across national sports headlines as the Hurricanes completed the four-game sweep.

“I was glued to the television,” Cam Boyd, co-owner of the Steamboat Wranglers hockey team and friend of McElhinney, said. “Like, ‘Oh no, Curtis is coming in net!’ I texted my buddies … and they said, ‘Oh no it’s not him.’ They thought I was jumping the gun, and I was like, ‘No he’s in net!’”

Brent Pearson, also co-owner of the Wranglers and friend of McElhinney’s, was watching with his family at home when McElhinney entered the game.

“My kids were hoping the other goalie would get scored on quickly, and he would have the opportunity to play,” Pearson said. “That’s not a proper way to cheer, and I was explaining that, but we were all really excited and nervous for him when he came in.”

McElhinney finished the series in goal saving 45 of 47 shots. He became the oldest goaltender to make his first career playoff start at 35 years old.

“I found out after the game, and that’s the only way I would’ve gotten into the record books,” McElhinney said. “I’ve got one NHL record to my name now.”

As a Colorado College alum, McElhinney knew he wanted to plant his roots back in Colorado. He didn’t like the weekend warrior scene in Denver, trying to drive up to the mountains for his favorite fly fishing or mountain biking spots. But he felt that places like Vail were too tightly clustered in the mountains.

Steamboat became a happy medium with its panoramic open valley views and hometown feel, so he moved here in summer 2017 with his wife, Ashleigh; daughter, Jaxen, 8; and son, Trent, 10. As one of the older players on the team, McElhinney sees Steamboat as a permanent home after he retires.

“Everybody on the team seems to be in their early 20s, so retirement is definitely in the back of my mind,” McElhinney said. “At this point, I have two more years at most, and I’ll be prepared to shut it down and look forward to life in Steamboat afterwards.”

Part of Steamboat’s appeal was its hockey community, complete with a youth hockey association where his kids play. He coaches summer camps for goaltenders in the area and, on occasion, the best adult league and Wranglers hockey players team up on him for shooting practice.

“We got out with some of the better hockey players in town, and we didn’t score on him until he let us,” Pearson said.

McElhinney’s former collegiate hockey foe, Ryan Dingle, returned from a career in professional hockey overseas to help coach summer camps with the Steamboat Youth Hockey Association when McElhinney moved to Steamboat.

Dingle played for the University of Denver when McElhinney was at Colorado College. The two met several times on the ice, but the 2005 NCAA semifinal game is one neither forgot.

“We had a past,” Dingle said. “My team beat his team in the Frozen Four. So, he said we could be friends as long as I never mentioned that year we won the national championship.”

Boyd, Pearson, Dingle and McElhinney met in Denver when the Hurricanes played the Colorado Avalanche earlier this season.

“Unfortunately, he didn’t play, but we were able to watch him warm up and then got a small chance to chat with him after the game,” Dingle said. “It’s been really, really fun to see that progression and get the opportunity to start a few games.”

Pearson, although an Avalanche fan, said he is bandwagoning the Hurricanes and bought “Bunch of Jerks” T-shirts for his family to wear during the Eastern Conference final.

Boyd was admittedly starstruck to meet McElhinney when he first came to Steamboat. Now it feels closer to home knowing someone playing on the ice in the NHL.

“He acts like it’s another game at the office,” Boyd said. “I’m like, ‘Holy smokes Sidney Crosby is trying to score a goal on you!’”

The Hurricanes’ starting goaltender, Petr Mrazek, returned to practice for the Hurricanes on Monday. Entering the series, McElhinney believed he would assume his backup role.

That said, Thursday at 6 p.m., Boyd, Pearson and Dingle had plans to gather at a local bar, rallying to bandwagon a team that feels like their own.

If McElhinney doesn’t start at any point during the series, he’s confident in his role even if it means getting the call when he least expects it.

“The hard part was going for an injury replacement,” McElhinney said. “You don’t have time to think about it. Your heart rate goes through the roof. Before you’re in there, you’re trying to stop the first shot. It’s easier than expecting it all day long.”

But he can think of things more frightening to him than a surprise appearance on the ice in the NHL playoffs, like hiking in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area during a Steamboat summer.

“I just need to make it across the (Devil’s) Causeway,” McElhinney said. “I can try and blame our dog. The dog was scared out of his wits, but I was probably just as scared as the dog.”

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