By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
Over the course of an impressive professional career that’s now in its 14th season, New York Rangers goaltender Martin Biron has found himself between the pipes in 635 games, including the postseason.
But that total might have ended up a lot smaller if not for two games that the personable Quebec native has described as the biggest turning point in his career. And those games happen to be the two he played in the ECHL during the 1997-98 season with the South Carolina Stingrays.
A first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 1995, Biron had already been called up to the NHL, albeit on an emergency basis, as an 18 year old during the 1995-96 season. That stint, more memorable for Biron becoming the last player in NHL history to wear the #00 than the numbers he put up in three games, gave him a taste of the big time before heading back to juniors, where he would stay until his first full professional season two years later.
The highly-touted netminder started the season in the American Hockey League with Buffalo’s top affiliate, the Rochester Americans, but as Biron recently told ECHL.com, things weren’t going quite the way he’d hoped.
"I remember things weren’t really going good in the American League with Rochester. We’d been having a tough time, and personally, I wasn’t playing all that great," Biron said.
"I got called into the office by (then-Rochester head coach) Brian McCutcheon, and he said I was going to go and play some games in South Carolina. Rick Vaive was the coach there at the time, and I had known him from camp in Buffalo. He took me in, and we had a nice little talk when I came in."
As a whole, this was the first time Biron had struggled in his career. He’d been successful nearly everywhere he’d been in juniors, but his first stint in the AHL was not a successful one. Buffalo had sent Biron down to turn around his season.
As it turns out, the two games he got into for the Stingrays turned around his whole career.
"I would say that stint with South Carolina was probably the biggest turning point in my career, I went down there, and I played pressure-free," Biron said.
"I enjoyed playing, I had so much fun practicing. It was just getting to enjoy the game again. My first year pro, you’re not sure where you’re standing. Things weren’t going well, and if you’ve always had success in juniors and all of a sudden, you’re not…you’re battling adversity. And it just brought the fun back into the game."
In remarkable detail, Biron recalled his brief stay in Charleston and the positive effect it had on his career in the short-term.
"I was there for about a week, and I played two games," said Biron before a recent Rangers game.
"I was getting ready to get on the bus to go to Pee Dee, and play the Pee Dee Pride after a game when they got the call. (Rochester goalie) Mike Bales had suffered a knee injury, and I was going to get called back up. The next morning, Sunday morning, I took two different planes and I got to Rochester, where there was a 4 o’clock game. I got on the ice and played one of my best games that year, we beat the Kentucky Thoroughblades, 2-1. I still have the cutting from the newspaper in the bedroom at my parents house. It was just a big turnaround, and I finished the season really, really strong. Then, the next year, I started in Rochester and it was one of my best year’s (as a) pro ever. That (time) in South Carolina, I’ve always said I think that was the single major turning point in my whole career."
Even today, a handful of players with National Hockey League experience are sprinkled throughout the ECHL. But few were there under the circumstances Biron was at the time, and that made accepting an assignment to the ECHL much easier to take at the time. A little ribbing from his veteran teammates didn’t hurt, either.
"I remember Dave Seitz, he played with South Carolina, and he was reading the lineup before my first game,’ Biron recalled. "And he’s like, ‘One of the very few that have had the chance to play their first NHL game and their first American League game, are now playing their first East Coast Hockey League game.’ I made the progression backwards a little bit, and I was laughing about it."
Since that brief stay in South Carolina, Biron has gone on to have a remarkable NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders and New York Rangers. Entrusted to replace the very legend he shared the 2001 Jennings Trophy with in Buffalo, Dominik Hasek, Biron established NHL career-bests in games played (72), minutes played (4,085), goals against average (2.15) and wins (31) the following season to cement himself as the Sabres clear number one goalie.
Biron played in exactly 300 games for the Sabres through the 2006-07 season before being dealt to the Flyers at the trade deadline. In 2007-08, his first full year with the team, Biron made his long-awaited debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and carried the Flyers all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before they fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Biron would play one more season in Philadelphia before signing a free agent contract with the New York Islanders, where he entered into an odd, three-goalie tandem with Rick DiPietro and Dwayne Roloson.
Though Biron played more than most anticipated due to injuries to DiPietro, the numbers weren’t great, in large part to an inexperienced group playing in front of him. But prior to this season, Biron was a highly coveted free agent, and has turned out to be one of the steals of the off-season, signing a two-year, $1.75 million contract with the New York Rangers to serve as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup.
"We can learn from each other, so it’s been good," Lundqvist told ECHL.com. "He’s been around for a while, so it’s good to see him practice and get a few tips here and there. Together, we’re like a little team here within the team. I think it’s more about pushing each other to work harder all the time."
One of the big downfalls in the Rangers disappointing 2009-10 campaign was the lack of an experienced backup for Lundqvist. Lundqvist, a Vezina Trophy finalist, had played in over 70 games in each of the past four seasons, but admitted the addition of Biron would be a much-welcomed weight off of his shoulders.
"I like to play, but our goal now is to try to play in May or even in June. 70 games, it’s a lot," Lundqvist said.
"Just for the regular season, 70 games is not too much, but if you want to keep playing another two months, it’s a lot. It’s good now that we have a guy that can step in there and play."
And Biron has done more than just play, he’s played very, very well. In his new role as a backup, Biron has shined and arguably been the best number two netminder in the league. In 17 games, the 33-year-old has posted a near-spotless 2.13 goals against average and .920 save percentage, and has provided some much needed stability to New York’s top goaltending tandem.
Hockey is fun again for Biron. Just like it was during his one-week stay in the ECHL.
"I was there to try that thing that fuels you again," Biron said. "It was about finding that inner fun again of playing hockey. And I did."