By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
Without first getting an opportunity to compete for the Riley Cup, Corey Schwab might not have gone on to hoist the Stanley Cup.
The year was 1992, and a then 21-year-old Schwab was finishing his first professional season. He’d spent the entire 1991-92 season with the AHL’s Utica Devils, splitting time with another rookie goalie the New Jersey organization was high on at the time, Chad Erickson. But with about a month left in the season, the Devils decided to send Schwab down to the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones to get some more playing time.
"It was a great experience overall," Schwab said.
"I didn’t really know what to expect, but I went out there and I was impressed with the level of play. We had a good team in Cincinnati and had a good run at the end of the season."
Schwab posted an impressive 6-0-1 mark in his eight regular season games with the Cyclones and took the team deep into the-then Riley Cup Playoffs before losing in the division semifinals to Greensboro.
Finishing the season strong gave Schwab’s game a much-needed boost.
"I got to play every game and got to win some games," he said. "I didn’t lose a game until that semi-final series where we lost out. So it was a good confidence booster and I thought it was a good stepping stone in my career."
Kevin Dean, the first ECHL player to have his name engraved onto the Stanley Cup and now the head coach of the Trenton Devils, came up through the New Jersey system with Schwab every step of the way.
"He was a wicked hard working kid," Dean recalled.
"Great guy, really hard working. Absolutely maximized his abilities, that’s all you can do. I still talk to him once in a while. But what a quality guy, the kind of guy you just pull for."
But, like most goalies, Schwab had his quirks.
"It was just so weird on the day of a game that you couldn’t talk to him," Dean joked. "He was one of those guys, the worst I’ve ever seen."
After moving on from the ECHL, Schwab let his play do the talking, and after helping the River Rats to the Calder Cup Championship in 1995, he made the next step to the NHL a month into the 1995-96 season. He made his NHL debut on November 18, 1995, replacing Brodeur in a 5-4 loss against the Buffalo Sabres.
"My dream was to play in the NHL, my whole life. I just thought of myself as a hockey player. It was my whole life, and I was going to do whatever I could to get there," Schwab said.
"I was fortunate enough to get drafted by New Jersey, and just getting drafted gives you a chance to move on, and I was able to get a contract. I loved to play the game and to be around the game, and I didn’t really have a timeframe on when I thought I should be in the NHL. I was going to do what I could, and hopefully when I got an opportunity, I was ready for it. That year, we had three goalies in New Jersey with Brodeur, Terreri and myself. The opportunity came after they traded Terreri out here to San Jose. I was just waiting.
It wasn’t a great year for us as a team, the Devils had won the Cup the year before and then we didn’t make the playoffs. Every game seemed like it was a difference maker. I didn’t get to play a lot, but it was exciting getting into that first game."
Schwab would play eight NHL seasons, including stints with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs between the 1996-97 and 2001-02 seasons before eventually returning to the Devils as a free agent in 2002-03. The move paid dividends for both sides, as Schwab posted a 1.47 goals against average and .933 save percentage in 11 appearances as a backup to Martin Brodeur, who had the bulk of the workload in taking the Devils to their third Stanley Cup championship in nine seasons.
Eight years earlier, Schwab was able to practice with the Devils during their first title run thanks to the NHL lockout extending their season past the AHL’s. But this was the first time that the North Battleford, Saskatchewan native had actually gotten his hands on Lord Stanley.
"It was almost like it was a relief," Schwab said.
"You’ve played long enough, but you don’t know if you’re ever going to get a chance. And when you do, it’s like, ‘Wow, there it is.’ Finally, you got the opportunity to be able to win. Some guys play their whole careers and don’t get that opportunity. Being able to experience that (in 1995) meant a lot to me and helped me throughout my career, so it was a nice experience, and then obviously it was a thrill of a lifetime to be able to win it all in 2003."
Schwab would play one more season in the NHL, getting into just three games in 2003-04 before an abdominal injury would ultimately end his career. Thoughts of staying in the game and entering the coaching ranks slowly entered his mind.
"During the lockout, I was training and it wasn’t really seeming to be getting better," Schwab said.
"I knew a couple of people in the Tampa organization from when I played there, and they talked with me through the winter and then through the summer — if you don’t recover — they were looking to have a goalie development coach there. They approached me about the idea, but obviously I wanted to keep playing, and I held my hopes up that something would come around. But when it didn’t, the next best thing was to be able to stay in the game, and I was grateful for that opportunity as well."
After a three-season stint with the Lightning, Schwab joined the Sharks as their goaltending development coach prior to the 2008-09 season and has been with them ever since. Schwab credited goalie coaches Warren Strelow, Andy Moog and Jacques Caron as having an impact on his coaching style, but seemed particularly influenced by his time under Robbie Ftorek in Utica and Albany.
"He paid a lot of attention to the goalies," Schwab recalled.
"Some coaches don’t really know the position or understand the position, so they just leave you alone. But Robbie really took an interest in it and he knew how to score goals, so he’d translate that to you and try to help you prevent goals. He put in a lot of time with us before practice, letting us take shots and do anything to help our skills and to let us be the best we could be. On a personal level, I got along well with him. He’s probably the guy I’d remember the most."
Schwab got a ringing endorsement from none other than Antti Niemi, who signed with the Sharks this off-season after winning the Stanley Cup himself as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks last year.
"I think he’s been great," Niemi said.
"He’s been here (recently) and was also at the training camp, and he’s been a great help to the goalies here. I learned things that were different from what I used back in Chicago last year. So I think it’s very good for us. It’s easier for him to move to being a coach when he has lots of seasons as a pro player. It’s been good having him around."