Carsen Chubak has been with this team for almost a month now. He wakes up every morning and goes to the arena for practice and workouts and then returns to the hotel where he lives.
He has not played in a game yet. He got to dress last weekend when one of the goalies ahead of him got sick, but watching the rest of the team play from the bench is only marginally better than watching from the press box.
Any change in the routine is welcomed, though. He feels as if he has been living the same day over and over, and tomorrow’s looking a lot like yesterday.
“Every day is kind of like ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” he says, referencing the 1993 film. “Every day kind of repeats the same thing, you know? The guy repeats his day over and over for some reason and can’t get out of the day. Every day he wakes up, it’s the same day.”
Chubak wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he returned to college for his senior year and the chance to play professionally never came again.
But more than halfway through his first season in the pros, the former Niagara University standout and Hobey Baker finalist as the top collegiate player has started only four games as he bounced among five teams in five states.
His days – his life – revolve around chasing this dream, trying to earn a roster spot, a few minutes on the ice and a chance to show what he can do.
More often than not, it’s out of his control.
Chubak hails from the cold, northern town of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and was one of the best goalies in the National Collegiate Athletic Association last season. He placed fourth nationally in save percentage (.939), seventh in goals-against average (1.91) and tied for first in shutouts with six. He was named Atlantic Hockey Association Player of the Year and led the Purple Eagles to an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. After the season, multiple teams showed interest in him.
Chubak, 24, currently plays with the Adirondack Phantoms in Glens Falls, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. He is paid to play hockey, at least in theory, but as the backup to the backup, it’s more like being paid to stay ready just in case.
It’s tough to stay sharp, going that long between games, but if it’s a matter of mental toughness, those who know Chubak say he’ll be just fine.
“He’s all business; he really is,” said Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder, a former goaltender himself. “I like how he treated practice. People said that about Dominik Hasek – when you scored on him in practice, he got mad. Carsen was that way. Carsen was a perfectionist, was very competitive, and when your goalie is that guy, I think it rubs off on your team.
“He’s a little guy compared to the prototypical pro goalie,” Burkholder added, “but he’s so fast. He’s unorthodox, he’ll be diving around and sprawling around, but he’s so quick that he can get away with it.”
Burkholder and the Niagara coaching staff keep a Monday morning ritual of checking up on their dozen or so former players who are now professionals. Thank goodness for the Internet, because keeping up with Chubak hasn’t been easy.
Instead of being the last line of defense, more often than not this season, he has been the last domino in a chain reaction well beyond his control – reactions that sometimes begin at the National Hockey League level and shake up everything below. This season has been quite the journey.
Chubak began the year with the Greenville (S.C.) Road Warriors of the East Coast Hockey League, or ECHL, the equivalent of a Double-A baseball team, and started in goal for the season opener. They beat the Gwinnett (Ga.) Gladiators, 5-3, and Chubak made 20 saves for his first professional victory.
Sabres prospect Connor Knapp got the next two games in net, and Chubak returned in goal for the fourth game of the season, a 4-1 loss to the South Carolina Stingrays on Oct. 26.
The Flyers cut off their affiliation with Greenville shortly afterward, and things got difficult. They moved all their players to other teams in the league, but without an affiliate, they don’t have much say in roster movement, and injuries and demotions in other teams’ systems have caused more dominos to fall.
Chubak was first sent to Gwinnett at the beginning of November but never got in a game. Midway through the month, he was sent to the Orlando Solar Bears but didn’t play there, either.
“When I was down in Florida, I just called it a vacation,” Chubak said, trying to make the best of his situation.
On Nov. 30, Adirondack pulled him up to the AHL when goalie Yann Danis suffered a knee sprain, and on Dec. 14, Chubak relieved starting goaltender Cal Heeter in the second period for his first AHL action, a month and a half since he had last appeared in a game.
Chubak made his first AHL start against the Providence Bruins on Dec. 28 and was superb, stopping 38 shots in a 3-1 victory. But that didn’t earn him any more game time, and on Jan. 13, he was sent back to the ECHL, this time to the Reading (Pa.) Royals.
He earned a victory against Toledo on Jan. 18 but was moved again three days later. The NHL’s Washington Capitals had sent their third goalie, Philipp Grubauer, down to the AHL, prompting the Hershey Bears to send one of their goalies, Riley Gill, down to the ECHL, which left the newcomer Chubak as the odd man out.
“It’s been really frustrating because (friends) keep asking what’s going on, and I don’t even know what to tell them,” Chubak said. “I’ve been trying to get my dad to come down for a couple games, but, I mean, he doesn’t really know where to come.”
Chubak has been with Adirondack since leaving Reading because there was nowhere else for him to go. He comes off as mature and collected despite having every reason to be frustrated. He has performed well when he has played this year, owning a 3-1 record in five games between the ECHL and AHL with a .914 save percentage and a 2.88 goals-against average. There are just more goalies in the organization than nets to defend. Chubak hopes to earn his college degree by next Christmas and a starting job before that.
Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” is finally able to move on to the next day of his life once he has been through every situation so many times he knows how to handle them all and he gets his day exactly right, winning the girl.
Chubak’s plight is more difficult in that everyone around keeps improving, too, but his striving as a perfectionist is the same. He spends every moment he has chasing the dream, and with enough practice, maybe one of these days he’ll wake up living it.