TORONTO – It was 2006. Then an unknown goaltender from the Red Deer Rebels, James Reimer had just been drafted by the Maple Leafs and was in Toronto for the organization's annual prospect camp. There at Lakeshore Lions Arena, the team's former practice facility, Reimer strolled through the dressing room before he came across the sticks, pad and equipment of his idol.
"I didn't want to touch them," he said. "I just looked at them."
On Wednesday night at the TD Garden in Boston, the 25-year-old will become the first Leaf goaltender to start a playoff game since Ed Belfour, following in the footsteps of the goalie he idolized growing up in rural Manitoba.
"It is kind of cool that you can follow in something that he did," declared Reimer, now coached by Rick St. Croix, Belfour's goalie coach with Dallas.
In altogether fitting fashion, Reimer eclipsed Belfour with the highest single season save percentage for a Toronto goaltender in 2013, his hearty .924 mark surpassing that of Belfour in 2002-2003 (.922).
"The part of his game that I really liked was that everything just seemed to hit him in the chest," said Reimer, becoming a fan of Belfour during the Stars' run to the Cup in 1999. "He just seemed to make everything look simple. That's what I really liked about his game."
Unlike Belfour, who was already established as a future Hall of Famer when he came to Toronto, Reimer enters his first post-season with the Leafs as an untested commodity. While he thrived in his first extended go-around as the number one in Toronto – compiling the seventh-best save percentage in the NHL – the Manitoba native remains in the process of building a track record, one that can be furthered against Boston.
"We have had some important games down the stretch that we had to get points and he was a big reason that we did get points, so I think he's prepared himself well for the challenge of the post-season," Leafs general manager Dave Nonis said of Reimer, who won a Kelly Cup with South Carolina (ECHL). "But I think for a lot of guys it's going to be different. And how they approach it and how they tackle it is going to be interesting for us to see."
While the fierce test of the post-season will pose different challenges, Reimer has indeed acquitted himself quite well under various microscopes this year, be it in his ability to rebound from an injury-plagued, disaster-ridden second season, establishing himself as the defined number one or most recently, responding positively to the organization's aggressive pursuit of a capable security blanket, namely Miikka Kiprusoff.
"What he did is he proved to himself, he proved to the guys in the room and he proved to outsiders for whatever that's worth, that he is an elite goalie in this league," Ben Scrivens, his counterpart in goal, told TSN.ca. "He's had a fantastic season. In my opinion, he's got to be in the running for the Vezina, with his record, with his numbers, with where he sits."
In particular, Scrivens points out, it was Reimer's ability to perform capably in spite of constant scrutiny and distraction, elements that will be lingering in what should be a testy first round matchup with the Bruins.
"I think James has done a fantastic job of putting a lot of stuff out of his head and out of his way to just play well," Scrivens said, referring to the external questions surrounding both he and Reimer all year.
"People didn't have a lot of confidence in us going forward compared to what they could've had in other guys and you hear all that other stuff. If we didn't have confidence within ourselves and with each other as a tandem, then we would've been behind the eight-ball mentally. When it comes to expectations from the outside – what do the people expect – it doesn't really matter. What he did was he played well on the ice with a group many people didn't expect to [have success]."
While he won just once in three starts against Boston this year – the Leafs scored only five goals – Reimer certainly did his part, compiling a .948 save percentage and 1.63 goals against average. Similar efforts of brilliance are likely to be necessary opposite a Bruins squad which allowed the third fewest goals in the NHL this season.
It was almost nine years to the day of Wednesday's Game 1 – April 30, 2004 – that the now 48-year-old Belfour emerged with the last Leaf playoff victory.
Reimer never met the man in person, only speaking with him at one point by telephone, but he can continue to follow, however modestly, in his footsteps.