By Nat Newell
Mike Willerding pulled a Columbia Inferno sweater over the bulky pads and skated onto the North Charleston Coliseum ice. Moments later, Kevin Swanson waved his glove and Willerding replaced him in net during the pregame warm-up. This was no dream; even in his sleep Willerding couldn’t have concocted it.
Just 20 hours before, Willerding was an auto technician at Jim Hudson Motors on Garners Ferry Road. Now, this transplant from Toronto is a 34-year-old rookie goaltender for the Inferno, playing cards with Dennis Vial and sharing practice time with Kevin Swanson. Willerding is expected to serve as the team’s emergency goalie for the third time tonight vs. Pee Dee (Carolina Coliseum, 7 p.m.).
“I’m living the dream,” said Willerding, who earns $100 plus per diem for each game and hasn’t given up his day job. “Here I am on the bus sitting across from Dennis Vial, who played in the NHL with Ottawa, Detroit, the Rangers. Here I am playing cards with this total ex-pro.
“Just awesome. “
An emergency goalie can play only if the starter is injured during the game. According to Inferno coach Scott White, ECHL teams sign an emergency goalie once each season on average when a goalie is injured or unexpectedly recalled to the AHL. Willerding was signed to back up Swanson vs. South Carolina after No. 1 goalie Patrick Couture suffered a high-ankle sprain against Charlotte on Nov. 15.
Willerding served as the backup for a 5-3 victory. (“The last time we played South Carolina we lost 8-1,” Willerding said. “So we went there, the team was on fire and we ended up winning the game.”) Josh Blackburn was assigned to the Inferno, but Swanson was re-called to Manitoba and Willerding was back on the bench Friday for a 4-1 victory at Pee Dee.
“Guys were like, ‘Hey Mikey, 2-0 buddy,’ ” said Vial, and the nickname Rudy has been circulating the locker room for Willerding. “It has been fun. The best part is to come to the rink and see someone so excited. It’s like a real dream for him. I’m sure he’s shocked how everything has turned out. I think all the guys look forward to coming to the rink and seeing him.
“He’s the first one there and raring to go.”
Willerding grew up in Toronto playing hockey during the day and dreaming about it at night. He played organized hockey until he was 15, then focused on his music career. That led to an eight-year run with a band called Feel, which included a full-length CD, tour and video that appeared on Canada’s version of MTV.
Willerding’s wife, Sharon, is from the Midlands – they met while she was part of an outreach program to the homeless in Toronto – and they moved to Lexington eight years ago after he received a job offer. Willerding had given up hockey until the guitarist in his band, Richard Gauci – he married Sharon’s roommate and moved to Newberry – saw a sign for Ice Land off Interstate 26.
Willerding has been playing hockey three or four nights a week ever since and met Inferno center Rejjie Stringer at the rink this summer. Stringer noticed Willerding’s Maple Leafs sweater, a little bit of talent and got his phone number in case the team was short a goalie in practice. Instead, Willerding ended up on the bench.
“When (Stringer) called, I was on fire,” Willerding said. “But the biggest thrill was to be in practice Friday morning because that was me out there, full blown with pros. These guys are coming in, ripping shots, everything they do in practice. No fish story, I was stopping 80 percent of the shots. That’s pretty good for a guy back into it for a year.”
Willerding’s band had its song “Third Eye” on the soundtrack of the 1995 Disney movie “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court.” This, however, is no Disney movie. It’s unlikely Willerding will ever see the ice – “Josh Blackburn would have to be pretty hurt to come out,” White admitted – and he probably wouldn’t fare too well if he did. But if the time comes, Willerding will be ready.
“I’m 2-0, basically,” he said. “It makes me feel good that they think I’m the good-luck charm. I guess they feel, ‘Here’s a guy giving it his all. We’re going to have to perform because he’s here.’ Maybe it’s some inspiration æ.æ.æ. Or maybe it’s just pure luck.”