In the spring of his senior year, Mike Condon was like many of his Princeton classmates. His thesis on post-Cold War arms transfers required completion.
In another way, the Holliston native was not like his college peers at all. Condon was a continent away from the Ivy League school in Ontario, Calif., playing four regular-season games for the Reign, Los Angeles’s former ECHL affiliate.
The Kings assigned goalie Jean-Francois Berube to Ontario to start the ECHL playoffs. Condon faced a decision. He could go back East to finish his thesis, graduate with his class, and launch his first full pro season in the fall. Or stay as Berube’s backup.
He chose the latter. Had he not, it’s a good bet that Montreal would have tabbed Dustin Tokarski to start 2015-16 as Carey Price’s backup. It’s just as likely that Condon wouldn’t be in the NHL at all.
“For some goalies, it’s being in the right place at the right time,” said Michael Wulkan, Condon’s agent. “That’s all it is.”
When he was in Boston on Oct. 10 for the Canadiens’ 4-2 win over the Bruins, the 25-year-old Condon called the moment surreal. His previous on-ice moment at TD Garden was as a Mite C for the Natick Comets. Nobody could predict his next Garden visit would be as understudy to the world’s best goalie.
But where Price was the No. 5 overall pick in 2005, no NHL team called Condon’s name after he completed his junior season, his draft year in 2008, at Belmont Hill. Trajectories for unknown and undrafted goalies are not as clear as they are for can’t-misses such as Price.
Condon is no exception.
He didn’t wow the state when he played for the Boston Junior Eagles. At Belmont Hill, Condon played behind Matt Gedman, son of former Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman. According to Ted Condon, Mike’s father, Jack Parker wanted him to leave Belmont Hill and play junior hockey to gain consideration from Boston University. Jerry York was considering other goalies at Boston College.
So Condon went to Princeton. He played only four games as a freshman in 2009-10.
The next two years, Condon split the net with Sean Bonar. He didn’t grab the starting job until his senior season, when he went 8-11-4 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
No NHL team was interested.
“He’s never been this guy who’s been unbelievable, a superstar,” said Stop It Goaltending founder Brian Daccord, Condon’s longtime coach. “He’s never been a Hobey Baker candidate or Jonathan Quick. He was never that really flashy, dynamic guy. He’s always just been very good.”
Condon played his last college game on March 9, 2013. He monitored the transactions log on the ECHL’s website to see if any goalies got hurt. He considered the CHL. He even wondered whether hockey was in his long-term future.
“Senior spring, I didn’t really have any plans,” Condon said. “I just tried to play whatever hockey I could for a year. Then after that, weigh my options.”
After Wulkan placed him with the Reign, Condon made his pro debut for Ontario, a team he originally thought was in Canada. Condon went 3-1-0 with a 1.48 GAA and .943 save percentage. Condon worked on his thesis during bus trips and in his hotel rooms.
Teams noticed. One acted.
Houston, then Minnesota’s AHL affiliate, had a problem. Backup Cody Reichard got hurt. The Aeros needed a No. 2. Wulkan convinced Houston coach John Torchetti that Condon would be a good choice. On April 7, Condon backed up Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers in Houston’s 2-0 win over Hamilton — ironically, with Tokarski on the opposing bench.
Condon went 3-0-0 with a 2.39 GAA and .919 save percentage to finish the regular season. Then he got another break.
On April 30, Niklas Backstrom was injured during warm-ups prior to Game 1 of the opening round against Chicago. Darcy Kuemper, who would have started the playoffs for Houston, was recalled to Minnesota. Condon became Houston’s starter for the AHL playoffs. For the second time in less than a month, injuries to other goalies opened the door for Condon.
In three playoff games against Grand Rapids, Detroit’s AHL affiliate, Condon went 1-2 with a 3.69 GAA and .909 save percentage. The Aeros lost to the Griffins in five games. But Condon had made a good impression.
Ex-Bruins goalie Vincent Riendeau was a goaltending consultant for Hamilton, Montreal’s farm team. Riendeau scouted Condon in person. He liked what he saw. Upon Riendeau’s recommendation, the Canadiens signed Condon to a two-year, entry-level contract four days after Houston’s season ended.
“Who knows what happens to Mikey Condon if he gets to Houston and someone’s there?” Daccord asked. “If he got there four games later, would the Canadiens be offering him a contract? If someone’s healthy, maybe he’s sitting on the bench for four games. Now he’s an undrafted guy trying to find an East Coast job. That’s hard to do.”
Condon played most of his first full year of pro hockey in Wheeling of the ECHL for coach Clark Donatelli. He did well, going 23-12-4 with a 2.18 GAA and .931 save percentage. Last season, Condon moved up to Hamilton, where he won the starting job from former Bruins goalie Joey MacDonald. Condon was 23-19-6 with a 2.44 GAA and .921 save percentage.
On Feb. 5, the Canadiens signed Condon to a two-year extension. It was a two-way contract for 2015-16, in which he’d make $110,000 in the AHL. It would become a one-way deal in 2016-17, worth $575,000 at either level.
Condon beat his employer’s expectations by a year.
Montreal’s easy move would have been to start 2015-16 with Condon in the AHL. He didn’t have any NHL experience. Condon could be assigned without waivers.
Tokarski had 27 games of NHL play. In 2013-14, when Price was injured in the playoffs, Tokarski took over the net for five games. Tokarski needed waivers to be assigned.
But Condon’s résumé and camp performance were good enough for the Canadiens to tab him Price’s No. 2.
“I applaud the Canadiens for a situation where a guy works his way right up, then he performs at the right times in his tryouts, then they give him an opportunity,” Daccord said. “Mike’s on a two-way contract. The easy call would be going back to the AHL. I applaud the Canadiens for thinking outside the box and not pigeonholing guys based on their contracts. That’s really refreshing.”
Condon rewarded the Canadiens in his NHL debut. Last Sunday, Condon squared off against Ottawa’s Matt O’Connor, also an undrafted goalie. Condon got the better of the former BU goalie, stopping 20 of 21 shots in a 3-1 win.
It is written in every NHL player’s contract that his parents will be flown to attend his first game. Condon, however, told his parents not to travel to Ottawa. His focus was on the result and nothing else.
Condon’s path hasn’t been easy. After his parents divorced, Mike and older brother Zach visited their father on weekends when he lived in a friend’s house in Natick. When Ted settled in Needham, the pipes burst once because he couldn’t keep up with his heating oil bill. Ted, a Massachusetts State Police sergeant who works in the violent fugitive unit, was often out of the house at dawn. At Belmont Hill, classmates spoke of European vacations and drove new cars. Mike’s ride was a Chevrolet S-10 from his father.
“We had pretty tough times for a while,” Ted Condon said. “It made him tougher.”
On Wednesday, three days after his first win, the Canadiens told Condon to move out of his Montreal hotel and find permanent living quarters. To this point, Condon has followed his father’s motto: head down, mouth shut, keep moving forward.
“Now he’s playing for the Montreal Canadiens,” said Daccord. “Holy crap.”
Goalie building for the future
Stop It Goaltending’s Brian Daccord liked what he saw from Habs backup Mike Condon in his first NHL game: a 6-foot-2-inch, 197-pounder who was quiet, efficient, and calm.
“When you’re not comfortable or nervous, pucks don’t stick to you,” Daccord said. “When you’re totally focused and in the moment, you’re sucking pucks up like a vacuum cleaner. I thought he did a nice job of sucking up pucks.”
Regardless of how well Condon plays, the reality is that he will never be Montreal’s ace. But it will benefit both Condon and the Canadiens if he continues to develop.
This past summer, Cam Talbot, Martin Jones, Eddie Lack, and Robin Lehner were traded. Respectively, they were stuck behind Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick and Tuukka Rask, Ryan Miller, and Craig Anderson. But in limited performance windows, they proved to their current employers they had No. 1 potential.
In turn, the original teams improved by acquiring assets for players they practically landed for free. Like Condon, Talbot, Jones, and Lack were undrafted.
“He can put together a résumé in Montreal,” Daccord said. “His real future is outside Montreal. He’s got to be an apprentice and keep his head down, which opens up the door for another team that needs a starter.”
The Kings have made flipping backups standard operating procedure. With Quick in place, they’ve traded Jones, Ben Scrivens, and Jonathan Bernier.
Leaguewide, the next wave of future aces includes Petr Mrazek, Malcolm Subban, Ilya Samsonov, and Calvin Pickard. They are currently behind Jimmy Howard, Rask, Braden Holtby, and Semyon Varlamov, all under long-term and pricey contracts.
It will be up to Condon to put himself in that category.
Ross wrote book on team-building
On Monday, during a visit to TD Garden, Eric Zweig looked around at the rink and credited everything within it to one man: Art Ross.
“If you can pick one guy who built this team and made all this happen 90-something years later, he’s the guy,” said Zweig, author of “Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins,” published last month. “And so much of the NHL’s history too — rule changes, tactics, the pucks, the nets. This is a guy who made the game a modern game. Nobody knows the story. If you know his name — and Boston hockey fans know the name — you don’t even think of it as a human being anymore. It’s the name of a trophy. It’s like a thing as opposed to a person.”
Zweig is a managing editor at Dan Diamond & Associates, which publishes the NHL’s annual Official Guide & Record Book. In casual terms, it is known as the Big Book, the one stuffed with every bit of information a writer on deadline would need.
So it is no coincidence that Zweig considers himself a hockey nerd. He likes the sport’s early history, from the Kenora Thistles to the Montreal Wanderers to the National Hockey Association — all of which Ross touched in his days as a player.
But it was Ross’s years as a coach and general manager that helped to shape the Bruins into their current status. In 1924, after Charles Adams became the team’s first owner, Ross was the Bruins’ first coach, GM, and vice president. Under Ross’s guidance, some of the Bruins’ notable achievements include acquiring Eddie Shore in the NHL’s purchase of the Western Hockey League; opening the Garden; signing Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer to form the Kraut Line; and signing Frank Brimsek and trading Tiny Thompson.
For all that, hockey fans know Ross best from the trophy he donated to the league in 1947. The Art Ross Trophy is awarded annually to the league’s top scorer. Zweig’s book chronicles that there’s a whole lot more to the trophy’s namesake.
Red Wings have options
Detroit started the season with three straight wins. Rookie coach Jeff Blashill is continuing Mike Babcock’s emphasis on skating and skill. Top-line center Henrik Zetterberg is playing like he’s eight years younger. Justin Abdelkader is developing into a go-to power forward. And 19-year-old Dylan Larkin, who dominated college hockey as a freshman last year, is performing with poise beyond his age. This is taking place despite the absences of Pavel Datsyuk (ankle), Danny DeKeyser (foot), and Darren Helm (head/shoulder). When they return, the Red Wings might have to make some hard decisions. Bubble players who must pass through waivers to be assigned to the AHL include Landon Ferraro and Teemu Pulkkinen. Detroit’s philosophy is to develop players in Grand Rapids, at times past their due dates. This makes them ready to contribute at the NHL. But the risk is they lose their waivers-exempt status because they stay so long in the AHL.
Simmonds bounces back
GMs went on the alert after Wayne Simmonds played only 8:41 in Philadelphia’s 1-0 win over Florida on Monday. Simmonds played on the third line with Scott Laughton and Matt Read. One game later, while riding with Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, Simmonds recorded one assist and three shots on net in 15:09 of ice time. Simmonds is one of the Flyers’ go-to players. He is under contract through 2019 at a little less than $4 million annually. It’s a very team-friendly contract for a power forward coming off 28- and 29-goal seasons. The Flyers need to clear cap space. Simmonds’s contract is not one that GM Ron Hextall will be quick to move.
Benn makes most out of low profile
Jamie Benn is the Stars’ best all-around player and one of the top left wings in the league. Older brother Jordie Benn, meanwhile, is a bottom-pairing, defense-first defenseman. But when Jordie Benn’s contract expires after this season, teams looking for an undervalued defenseman should be studying his shifts. But Benn’s Corsi For percentage was 56.4 percent, indicating the Stars did not allow many shots against when he was on the ice. This is consistent with his performance over the last three seasons. Benn was a positive possession player every year. Benn is making $700,000, according to war-on-ice.com. The Stars would be wise not to let him advance to July 1.
The Red Wings placed Johan Franzen on injured reserve on Thursday because of post-concussion syndrome symptoms. Franzen had one assist in two games before the Wings shut him down. The 35-year-old may be reaching a career decision . . . Good move by Florida to hire ex-Bruin Hal Gill as manager of player development. Gill will be reunited with former Toronto teammate Bryan McCabe, who was promoted to director of player development. Gill was a good mentor in Philadelphia, Nashville, and Montreal, his last three spots . . . Alex Ovechkin was benched for Tuesday’s game against San Jose after oversleeping for the morning skate. Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin, and Josh Ho-Sang would make an excellent first line on the All-Snoozers Team.
The American Hockey League just kicked off its 80th season, and it has more of a West Coast-feel now. Two New England-based teams were relocated closer to their parent clubs in California and are part of the new Pacific Division. Overall, seven NHL teams moved their AHL affiliates this season, including a somewhat complicated switch — the Canadiens taking over the team name St. John’s IceCaps from the Jets, who moved their “IceCaps” to Manitoba and rebranded the team as a previous local favorite.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.