By Lindsey Willhite | Photos by Ross Dettman
Matt Climie never operates without a backup plan.
That’s because he’s all too familiar with being the backup.
“It’s been funny,” Climie said. “Honestly, every team I’ve been on since I was IN Pee-Wee, I’ve always gone in as the underdog role. Nothing’s been easy for me. Nothing’s really been given to me. Ever.”
When he played junior hockey for the Kimberley Dynamiters in British Columbia, he wasn’t even the best Climie on the team. His older brother, Chris, was the team’s primary goaltender. Oh, by the way, their team went bankrupt and folded – during the playoffs.
Matt found work the following season with the Bonnyville Pontiacs, but the job stability didn’t get much better. He was traded for $500 shortly before his second season started, so he had to steer his aging Pontiac Sunfire 2,950 miles across Canada (from Alberta to Nova Scotia) in order to report to his new team.
After enjoying two seasons in Nova Scotia and exhausting his junior-league eligibility, Climie signed with Bemidji State University at the age of 20. He wasn’t exactly a hot recruit. “I was pretty much a walk-on,” he said. “I was slated as a third goalie going in. Not much scholarship money at all. Probably the smallest scholarship on the team.”
Sensing a pattern here? Climie certainly did.
That’s why, fearing he’d never earn a professional contract after playing for Bemidji State, Climie wrapped up his college degree in three-and-a-half years and earned his teacher’s license in 2008.
“I student-taught Grade 6,” Climie said. “I was teaching everything. Math, Science, Social Studies. That was my career path. I wanted to get into the whole administration thing. Teach for a couple years, then get my master’s. Principal, vice-principal, one of those. Maybe even athletic director.”
Though Climie has long since outgrown the need to teach in order to make a living – he ranks among the American Hockey League’s top goaltenders this year and rests just one step away from a spot in the National Hockey League – the 29-year-old carries two backup options into this upcoming offseason.
“I’m actually starting my own goalie school in my hometown (Leduc, Alberta),” Climie said. “I want to get into coaching and running hockey schools in the summertime. At the same time, I’m probably going to go back and get my firefighting license. I’d have that to fall back on if I want to go in that direction.”
Climie has buddies who are firefighters, but that’s not what inspires his desire to join their ranks.
“Being a firefighter, it’s kind of like a hockey team,” Climie said. “You’re working together as a team. You’re hanging out a lot. The job in general just kind of fits me. It’s competitive and you’ve got to be in shape.”
The word “competitive” or its variations invariably are used to describe the 6-foot-3, 197-pound Climie – whose perpetual smile contradicts his persistent nature.
“I see a high degree of competitiveness,” said Wolves head coach Craig MacTavish. “He’s a real competitor in the games. He’s a patient, experienced, competitive goalie. He gives us a chance virtually every night. He won us some games early, as did Eddie (Lack), that our team would not or should not have won without their goaltending being at that level.”
Some goalies would have noticed the 23-year-old Lack’s name on the depth chart (he’s the Vancouver Canucks’ top goalie prospect) and opted to sign with another National Hockey League team. Climie noted Lack’s presence on the roster – as well as the Chicago Wolves commitment to winning – and thought it was the ideal opportunity.
“Really, I feel that competition is good,” Climie said. “It’s good to have and obviously Eddie’s a great goalie. I just feel that competition makes you a better individual. It just develops you. I feel I play that much better when I have to earn my ice time. I don’t want to be given anything.”
Lack handled seven of the Wolves first 10 games this season. But after Climie held strong for a 2-1 victory on Nov. 4 at Peoria, he was rewarded with four consecutive starts and he repaid the Wolves with four consecutive wins.
His spree ended because the Canucks called him up for one game due to an injury to Vancouver starter Roberto Luongo. Climie didn’t appear in that game (backup Cory Schneider handled the net), but it wasn’t like he missed out on his first opportunity to appear in a NHL game. Contrary to his traditional career trajectory, Climie reached the NHL with unexpected swiftness after graduating from Bemidji State.
Less than 13 months after playing his final game for Bemidji State, Climie won his NHL debut for the Dallas Stars on April 4, 2009. He leaped straight from Dallas’ East Coast Hockey League affiliate because the Stars didn’t have an AHL team at the time. He stayed for three games and posted two wins.
“It doesn’t happen too often where a guy goes from the East Coast to the NHL,” Climie said. “Such a good experience. I got my puck and obviously the gear that I used in those games. I’ve still got all my equipment.”
But then it was back to fighting for anything he could get in the minors. After his ECHL team was swept in the first round of the playoffs, the AHL’s Houston Aeros picked him up and Climie became part of a four-goalie rotation for a team that reached the 2009 Western Conference Finals.
“It was kind of a crazy deal, but I just took it for what it was and enjoyed the process,” Climie said.
Climie moved to the Texas Stars in 2010 and sparked them to the Calder Cup Finals (he helped knock out the Wolves in the West Division Finals) before posting 26 wins and a 2.64 goals against average last season with the San Antonio Rampage.
In each of those seasons, Climie appeared in one NHL game. Like everyone else wearing a Wolves uniform, he’d like to move to the NHL to stay – and he has done nothing but improve his chances while with the Wolves.
“I knew Matt was a really good goalie, especially because he single-handedly defeated us in that series a couple years ago,” said Wolves general manager Wendell Young. “But even with all that said and how confident I was in him when he signed this year, he has exceeded expectations even above that.
“He is a student of the game. He is a competitor. Since I started watching him in the American League, his positioning is way better. He’s a lot more under control.”
Through the games of Feb. 15, Climie owned a 15-7-0 record with a 2.39 GAA and a .927 save percentage. The latter number ranks third in the AHL. His success presents a bit of a dilemma for the Wolves. Climie has a two-way contract with Vancouver this season, but a one-way deal with the Wolves next year. That means he’ll return to Chicago in 2012-13 unless he gets a one-way deal with an NHL team.
Young jokes that he wants Climie to be really good, but not THAT good, before turning serious.
“No, we want our guys to succeed,” Young said. “That’s what we want. We’re excited as an organization that they go up. It speaks well of our organization. If players keep going up to the NHL, it speaks to what we’ve done. If he can succeed somewhere else next year, then we did our job.”