For nearly two years, all J-F Berube wanted was to be sent down to the minors. That’s how ludicrous his situation had become with the Islanders, who carried three goaltenders on their roster for the better part of two years.
Over the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, Berube played a grand total of 26 games, 21 in the NHL and five in the American Hockey League. Not because he was hurt. Not because he wasn’t any good. Really, it was just because the Islanders didn’t want to lose him on waivers.
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“I wanted to play, it didn’t matter where,” Berube said. “At the end of the day, I’m a hockey player, and I play. I’m not there to observe from the stands. It’s hard to improve your game from that position.”
Instead of playing, Berube spent two of his prime years sitting and watching. He watched Jaroslav Halak or Thomas Greiss during games. He watched during practices, splitting time in one net while the next game’s starter had his own net. He watched as his agent, Allan Walsh, publicly called out the Islanders on Twitter for severely hindering all three of their goaltenders’ preparation and development.
Berube sometimes went several weeks without playing, but did what he could to stay sharp, often staying on the ice after practice.
“The only thing I control is my work ethic and my attitude,” he said. “I had great teammates over there that kept me positive and encouraged me to stick with it, [telling me] I would get results.”
But he had to be patient. Berube signed with the goalie-starved Blackhawks on the first day of free agency last summer, and his big break should have come after Christmas, when Corey Crawford was placed on injured reserve. But Berube had just been hurt himself. So once again, he could only watch as Jeff Glass became one of the best stories of the season, getting 14 games in a timeshare with Anton Forsberg.
Glass didn’t last, however, and now Berube finally has his chance. While many of his teammates are desperately trying to find something meaningful to play for down the stretch, Berube has all the motivation in the world. Forsberg hasn’t done enough to nail down the backup job for the long term. And the Hawks are going to give Berube a long look over the final month of the season.
Tuesday night’s outstanding 33-save performance in a 2-1 overtime win over the Avalanche certainly helped his case, as did a 42-save effort in a 3-1 win over the Sharks on Feb. 23.
“He did a good job,” coach Joel Quenneville said Tuesday night. “He had a great save in the dying seconds of the game and made some big saves on the penalty kill, as well, late in the game.”
There’s something to be said for taking the long road to the NHL. It reveals a player’s character, and allows him to appreciate it that much more when he finally gets there.
“We saw it with [Glass] this year,” Jonathan Toews said. “He’s one of those guys, [whether things are] good or bad, he’s always going to bring a smile and a great work ethic every day, because he has such great perspective.”
So as frustrated as he was during his time with the Islanders, Berube said he wouldn’t go back and change anything.
“It was grinding mentally, but in the end it was worth it,” Berube said. “This is where I want to be. The two years I was with the Islanders, I would not take anything back, because at the end of the day, I was an NHL player. I’m really grateful for the opportunity that they gave me.”
And even more appreciative of the one he has now.
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