“I didn’t have enough time to be anxious”: U of T goalie Jett Alexander on his surprise NHL debut

“I didn’t have enough time to be anxious”: U of T goalie Jett Alexander on his surprise NHL debut

The varsity goaltender chats about his last-minute Leafs game, growing up a Canadiens fan and Toronto’s playoff prospects

Photo by Seyran Mammadov

On Saturday morning, University of Toronto goaltender Jett Alexander was enjoying a relaxing weekend—but the Toronto Maple Leafs had other plans. With regular goalie Matt Murray out of commission due to a head injury and Ilya Samsonov filling in, the team needed an emergency backup for their game against the Montreal Canadiens. They offered to sign the 23-year-old Toronto Varsity Blues player to a one-day contract, presumably to be spent on the bench. Alexander, who lives just around the corner from Scotiabank Arena, grabbed his gear and rushed to the rink, ready for a few hours of bench warming. Then, the unthinkable happened: with just 70 seconds of game play left, he was sent onto the ice to tend goal. We spoke with the student athlete about his unlikely call-up to the big leagues.

If someone told you last week that you’d be playing in an NHL game on Saturday, would you have believed them?
Definitely not. It’s a dream I’ve had for a long time. I grew up playing hockey in Prince Edward County, then moved to Toronto and later BC to play in the junior leagues, and now I’m in my third year of university hockey. I’ve always thought about how cool it would be to play in net for the Leafs, but I never could have predicted that it would happen like this.

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Toronto has tons of high-level goalies. How did you score the gig?
It’s mandatory that each NHL team have an emergency backup goaltender in the stands for every home game, to fill in for either team if a goalie gets injured. There are about ten of us who rotate for the Leafs’ 41 home games: me, my two goaltender teammates at U of T, and some other varsity athletes in the city. Usually we just sit in the crowd. But, this time, Leafs management called me in the afternoon and told me to get dressed.

That must have been surreal. How did you react?
I was at home, expecting a low-key day of studying because our varsity hockey season ended weeks ago. After they called, I jumped from the couch, packed my gear and walked from my condo straight to Scotiabank Arena. I called my parents—they still live on the farm where I grew up, two hours from the city. We didn’t think I would actually play, but they’re such big hockey fans that they dropped what they were doing and drove to Toronto anyway.

Did you come face to face with any of your heroes?
It’s funny—I grew up idolizing NHL players, but I’m 23 now, and most of the team is around my age. The guys joke around with one another just like my teammates at U of T. I realized that they’re no different from anybody else. Well, except for the fact that they are incredibly good at hockey.

Photo by Tiffany Luke

You were on the bench as starting goaltender Ilya Samsonov stood in goal. It was an easy 7–1 lead against the Canadiens. But then, at the last minute, you got the nod to replace him and finish the game. What happened next?
At that point, I was just happy to be there, wearing the jersey and cheering on the guys. But head coach Sheldon Keefe walked over to me, patted me on the back and said, “Jetter, you’re going in.” I didn’t have enough time to be anxious. I grabbed my helmet and stick, hopped the boards, and found my way to the net. Seventy seconds goes by fast, and I didn’t face any shots on the net. I was fine with that—I really did not want to let a goal in.

Beating Montreal, the Leafs’ bitter rivals, must have been a bonus.
I actually grew up a Canadiens fan. My dad likes them, and my favourite player was their goaltender, Carey Price. As I got older and started playing at higher levels, everybody I knew was a Leafs fan, so I eventually gave in. I think, after Saturday night, even my dad might have to convert—the Leafs got my parents tickets at the last minute, which was classy of them.

Did you feel any regret about crushing your old favourite team?
Ha! No. I think the score is the reason I was given a chance in net—otherwise I probably would have stayed on the bench.

The Leafs haven’t made it to the second round of the playoffs since 2004. Will they finally break the curse this year?
I hope so. They’re in a tough spot—the Atlantic conference is the best one in hockey right now. Boston is having a record-breaking season, and Tampa Bay has a few recent cups under their belt. It’s such a good division, but the Leafs are on a mission.

Photo by Tiffany Luke

Any highlights from your night in the NHL?
Honestly, the most special part might have been after the game was over. My girlfriend, parents and friends all came home with me to have some drinks and celebrate. My parents have been to thousands of my hockey games over the years, so it felt like a full-circle moment.

Now that you’ve lived out your dream, what’s next?
I’m going into my final year at U of T, studying English and environmental sciences. After that, I’m hoping to play professional hockey, maybe overseas. People underestimate Canada’s university sports circuit, but several of my teammates have gone on to play in professional leagues internationally. Regardless, I’ll always cherish my hectic, overwhelming and incredibly fun night with the Leafs. I’ll be telling people about it for the rest of my life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.