By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – Craig Kowalski was eating lunch at a Fort Myers restaurant when his cell phone rang. It was the phone call he had been waiting for his entire life, a call he had dreamed about receiving throughout his three-year, 103-game minor-league career.
Kowalski almost dropped his sandwich.
The Florida Everblades’ third-year goalie earned his first NHL promotion Monday. The Carolina Hurricanes called him up because starting goalie Cam Ward injured his left knee in a freak collision in Sunday’s game against the New York Rangers.
Kowalski, 26, will become the first goalie in the Blades’ nine-year history to suit up in an NHL game when he backs up John Grahame for tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers at Carolina.
Rookie goalie Justin Peters, who was reassigned from the American Hockey League’s Albany River Rats to the Everblades on Monday, will make his first start for his new ECHL team tonight against the South Carolina Stingrays.
“Very surprised,” Kowalski said of his reaction to the promotion. “I’m glad to be finally getting the opportunity. I think it’s going to be a great experience. Hopefully, I won’t just be sitting on the bench. Hopefully, I’ll get to play.”
Ward, who suffered a deep laceration above his left knee when Rangers forward Brad Isbister slid into the crease feet-first, is expected to be out for at least a week.
Kowalski is in the midst of his best professional season. He was 24-11-3, with a 2.69 goals-against average. He had started Florida’s last 15 games, going 9-4-2.
Kowalski was the third goalie for the Hurricanes during their run to the 2006 Stanley Cup championship, but never suited up for a game.
“He’s going to go up there to back up. He’s not likely to play a game, but you never know what can happen,” said Florida general manager Craig Brush. “He’s been playing really well.”
Kowalski’s promotion comes with a sizable financial award. Carolina will pay Kowalski a portion of his NHL salary of $450,000.
Kowalski’s departure means the Blades will be without their No. 1 goalie for a key stretch as they chase an ECHL playoff berth. Florida will play five games in the next six days.
Peters, 20, will start for Florida tonight as new goalie Jamie Holden is still waiting to be cleared to immigrate. Peters was 10-17-0, with a 3.15 GAA and a .889 save percentage, in the AHL. He has played in just two games since Feb. 9.
Peters is ranked as Carolina’s second-best prospect behind ex-Blade goalie Kevin Nastiuk, according to hockeysfuture.com. Brush said the Hurricanes called up Kowalski because of his superior experience to that of Peters.
“He was there (during the 2005-06 NHL postseason),” Brush said. “He’s known to the guys on the team. He’s somebody familiar. I think he made a contribution to their Stanley Cup being their third goalie.”
Kowalski is the third Blade to be promoted to the NHL this season, joining defenseman Martin Lojek and forward Drew Larman. Thirteen ex-Blades overall have played in the NHL.