By Matt Malinowski
READING, Pa. – Reading Royals goalie Matt Yeats acknowledged through a shrug of his shoulders and the flash of a toothy grin that his life the last couple of years has been one of turbulence, complete with stretches of dizzying highs and periods of frustrating lulls.
Or, more simply put, “It has been weird,” Yeats said.
For a guy who has appeared in a mere 18 games since the start of the 2003-04 season, the 25-year-old Yeats already tells intriguing stories of winning at hockey’s highest level followed by tales of wondering when or if he’d ever again get a job offer.
Yeats’ roller-coaster ride definitely has plenty of huge climbs and gut-wrenching drops.
His pro career began with the ECHL’s Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies in 2002-03, where he compiled a 23-16-8 record with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage in the regular season. Yeats appeared in eight playoff games and was 4-1 in helping the Bullies win the Kelly Cup.
After the season, Yeats was the odd man out in AC. The team told him he was going to be traded, and Yeats accepted the news and waited for his phone to ring.
He waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Nothing materialized. After Yeats failed to report to camp when the season started, Atlantic City suspended him rather than releasing him.
“I was really discouraged,” Yeats said. “It was scary because I couldn’t go anywhere. It was frustrating to sit around. Nothing was happening and it didn’t seem likely anything was going to work out.”
Things got considerably, and surprisingly, better.
Yeats got a call from the Portland Pirates, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Washington Capitals, and went there on a tryout contract. The Capitals’ goalie situation was a virtual revolving door, with netminders flip-flopping from Washington to Portland regularly.
On March 19, 2004, Yeats was asked to walk through that door when he was signed by the Capitals after Washington assigned Maxime Ouellet to Portland.
“I was just like, ‘Wow,’ ” Yeats said. “I was pretty much in awe. It definitely wasn’t something I was expecting.”
Yeats received more unexpected news four days later when he was told during the second intermission of a game against the New York Islanders that he was going to play the third period in place of Olaf Kolzig.
Try as he might, there was no way to shoo away the butterflies.
“My knees really started to wobble,” Yeats said.
His knees may have wobbled, but Yeats didn’t fall down. In fact, he stood tall and stopped all 14 shots he faced.
One night later the nerves kicked into high gear again when he made his first NHL start against the Atlanta Thrashers. He tried with all his might to stay focused and stick to his pregame routine, but it was tough.
After all, here was a guy who was out of work a few months earlier who now was starting a game in the NHL. Talk about a 180.
Yeats didn’t get the win that night as the Capitals fell to the Thrashers 3-2. He didn’t experience his biggest hockey thrill until a week later, when he stopped 27-of-29 shots in a 4-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I remember looking up at the clock as the final seconds were ticking down,” Yeats said. “It was incredible. The puck was at the other end of the ice and I was just waiting for the clock to go down. To win a game in the NHL is simply something else.”
Yeats compiled a 1-3 record for the Capitals with a 3.04 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. But the wonderful ride was over, and Yeats again found himself standing in line.
Washington didn’t pick up the option in Yeats’ contract and he became a free agent. He was free to go anywhere there was an offer.
Only there were no offers. Not in the AHL. Not in the ECHL.
Not even for a guy who won a game in the NHL the previous season.
“Yeah, I was kind of at a loss why things weren’t working out,” Yeats said. “It was tough, and I just kept my fingers crossed.”
Yeats was hoping to get another shot with Atlantic City, where he and his fiancée were residing. But the NHL lockout made goalie jobs as tough to come by as parking spaces at the mall at Christmastime, and Yeats found himself on the short end of the stick.
“I was a free agent waiting for something to happen, and I really had nowhere to go,” Yeats said.
But an opening surfaced in Reading after goalie Cody Rudkowsky signed a contract with the AHL’s Providence Bruins on Nov. 30. Yeats got a call from his agent who also is Rudkowsky’s agent, by the way about the opening, and the ball was rolling.
On Dec. 10, Yeats was signed by the Royals as an emergency backup. A week later Yeats signed an ECHL contract with Reading.
That same night Yeats had a rather inauspicious debut with the Royals against his former club, the Boardwalk Bullies. He allowed four goals, including three in the third period, on 22 shots in a 4-2 loss.
Despite some understandable rust, Yeats was encouraged by his performance.
“I felt pretty good and got a feel for playing again,” said Yeats, who was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the ninth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. “It was a good experience and I have played a lot better since.
“Somehow things have just worked out,” Yeats said. “I’m very happy right now. I don’t know how things have worked out, but they have.”
And right now, the ride is smooth for Matt Yeats.