Leafs’ emergency backup Willows a Habs fan

Brett Willows is entering his third season as a member of the OUA's University of Toronto Varsity Blues (University of Toronto)

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ emergency backup is such a big Montreal Canadiens fan, he thought he might burst into flames when stepped across the threshold and into the Leafs’ dressing room mid-game Thursday night.

After Toronto’s starting goaltender James Reimer went down with injury in the first minute of Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, Brett Willows received the most unexpected of phone calls.

Wearing his Canadiens ball cap, the 23-year-old Willows had just tucked into a chicken dish at the Noodle Bowl when his phone rang. It was his University of Toronto head coach, Darren Lowe, saying he had to rush to the Air Canada Centre and potentially play in the National Hockey League.

Willows was sitting beside teammate and fellow goaltender Garrett Sheehan, with whom he splits starts for the Varsity Blues, when he got the dream call. Only because Willows was not scheduled to start Friday night’s game was he the one chosen. (The student had made a career-high 50 saves against Ryerson Wednesday.)

“I pulled out a 20 and dropped it on the table and said, ‘You guys can keep the change. I gotta go,’ ” Willows told Jeff Blair of Sportsnet The Fan 590 Friday. “Needless to say, I sprinted down Bloor and got there as fast as I could — in the pouring rain.”

Willows hopped in a truck with one of his U of T trainers and tore south to the ACC.

“At that point I blacked out,” Willows said. “It all seemed not real. We were mostly laughing in the truck. It was still relatively early in the game. What if something happened to Bernier and I got thrown in there?”

Traffic was held up for Willows to rush to the dressing room, where he saw Reimer being attended to.

Midway through second period, Willows strapped on the pads and sat in the dressing room. He later moved to trainers’ room, watching the game unfold on a small screen.

Leafs forward David Clarkson, still serving out his 10-game suspension, came down to the room in the third period and joined Willows to watch the conclusion.

“Leafs fans should be happy they signed him. He’s a great guy and made me feel real welcome,” Willows said. “If that’s any indication on how he treats the younger players on the Leafs, they’re in good hands.”

The Leafs gave the Rivers, Man., native a hat for his efforts and promised to send him the jersey he wore as he waited for a moment that never came.

“They had a name bar ready and everything,” he said. “Number 82.”

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