By Rich Scarcella
READING, Pa. – Steve Belanger was baby-sitting his 10-year-old sister and doing dishes on a mundane afternoon when the telephone rang last month at his family’s home in Anchorage, Alaska.
It was a few days after Belanger had driven in a snowmobile race and Ray Delia, the Reading Royals general manager, was on the other end of the line, hoping to convince the young man to become the team’s backup goalie.
“I had heard of the Reading Royals,” he said, “but I didn’t know Reading was in Pennsylvania.”
He made his way to Reading in time for the Northern Division semifinals against Wheeling. He spent most of April serving as Cody Rudkowsky’s caddie, getting peppered in practice and handling the bench gate in games.
Sunday, Belanger handled his professional debut with the poise of a grizzled veteran, turning away 26 shots and shutting out the high-powered Florida Everblades 6-0 at the Sovereign Center.
The performance of the baby-faced 20-year-old was extraordinary considering the circumstances. After not playing in any game for two months, he played his first pro game with Reading facing elimination in the ECHL Eastern Conference Finals.
“In eight years of pro hockey, that’s the toughest position I’ve ever seen someone in,” Royals captain Brad Church said. “He answered the bell for us. He’s a big reason why we’re still alive.”
Belanger helped Reading cut Florida’s lead to 2-1 in the best-of-five series and set up another elimination game Wednesday night at the Sovereign Center. He played adroitly, making several eye-popping saves.
“I know a goalie who’s in the NHL now who stunk for his first six months in the minors,” Royals coach Derek Clancey said. “For him to come into this situation and play like he did, it’s really unbelievable.”
Rudkowsky, Reading’s regular goalie, was called up to Worcester in the AHL and was unavailable Sunday. He told Belanger the news late Friday night as the Royals’ bus rolled along Alligator Alley from Fort Myers, Fla., to Fort Lauderdale before their flight home.
“I thought he was joking,” Belanger said. “My jaw kind of dropped. I called my mom and dad and woke up my mom. They were both ecstatic.”
He was calm on the outside over the weekend, but tense on the inside. As he waited to be introduced Sunday, his head became light and his stomach became knotted.
“I felt different the last 36 hours than I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said. “I’ve been in elimination games before, but not as a professional. I’m playing with guys who have wives and kids. It takes it (pressure) to a whole new level.”
Belanger responded coolly. Florida’s Rob Zepp, who has been brilliant in the playoffs, surprisingly was the goalie who was benched in the middle of the game and not the rookie.
When the horn sounded, Belanger pumped his arms in the air as the crowd of 5,217 cheered loudly. It was a far cry from Vernon, Kamloops and Moose Jaw, stops in his junior career.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more from him,” Clancey said. “He’s never up or down. Even when the coach beats him in practice, he’s like, ‘Eh,’ and away he goes.”
Belanger will be a backup again when Rudkowsky returns for Game 4 Wednesday night, and that’s fine with him.
“If Cody comes back, I won’t be bitter,” he said. “I’ve learned more from him in the last month than I’ve learned from anybody. I was called upon and I did my job. It’s the most a 20-year-old kid could ask for.”