How Owen Sound guided Curtis Sanford through a long, winding pro career

Curtis Sanford spent two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks during his NHL career. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty)

Even all these years later, Curtis Sanford still has the seats memorized: Section B, Row C, Seats 2 and 3, right behind the opposing goalie.

It was right there in those seats, in Owen Sound, Ontario’s J.D. McArthur Arena, that he and his dad used to catch every one of the local Owen Sound Platers’ games as a kid. The family had season tickets for the OHL club since the first year it arrived in town, in 1989.

And it was that history with the Platers that made the 1996-97 season all the more special for Sanford’s family, that particular season marking the one that first allowed him to suit up for his hometown team.

“I pinched myself every time I was able to throw on the jersey,” Sanford says now, looking back on that first year tending the net for the Platers. “I was playing in front of people who, you know, I was fans with, watching the team play, just so many short years before. It was a great experience every time I got to skate on the ice at that rink.”

Now a goaltending consultant for the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Abbotsford, Sanford enjoyed a long, winding career on the ice, one that took him from his hometown club all the way to the NHL — with stops in the AHL and ECHL along the way, and an emotional final act as part of the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

But before that journey through the pro ranks, Sanford was just another kid skating circles around one of the many outdoor rinks dotted throughout Owen Sound. Outside of schools, on top of baseball fields — wherever a rink could spring up in Owen Sound, it sprung, and the locals were there soon after with pucks and sticks.

Including Sanford and his dad.

“My first memory was always going to those outdoor rinks on the baseball fields and him teaching me how to skate on the outdoor ice,” he says. “That was probably my first memory of actually getting into hockey. But it was a quick relationship that I found with hockey — I fell in love with it really quickly. Obviously, the first memories I could remember was of Hockey Night in Canada. You know, 8 p.m. start times, and you’re either watching the Toronto Maple Leafs or, a lot of the time, it was Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.

“It was easy to fall in love with the game back then, for sure.”

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Sanford didn’t start out as a goalie. He played out during his earliest days on the ice, hunting for goals alongside his pals in house league games, honing his skills at learn-to-skate programs put on by local hockey legend Red Leckie.

It was a decision made by his parents when he was nine years old, to help out the local Junior B team, the Owen Sound Greys, that changed everything.

“My parents decided that they would help the organization, become a billet family. And lo and behold, we got a goalie,” he says. “The first time I went and watched him play, I was just in awe. I wanted to be just like him, and I just decided to throw on the pads. Getting the pads on for the first time and actually having a great deal of success the first time out, I immediately fell in love, and I never switched out of them again from that day forward.”

That success in the pads continued, eventually earning Sanford the 104th selection in the ’96 OHL Priority Draft, the team who made the pick none other than his hometown Platers.

“You know, I think every game was an exciting time for me,” he says. “Just being able to suit up for the hometown team that I watched growing up. My parents at every game, my sisters at every game, a lot of my family members at every game. I met my wife while I was playing there, so she was at every game. Just a lot of family and friends being able to come watch and support me throughout that entire journey was great.”

Nearly three decades on, after that journey took him through the bright lights of the NHL on multiple occasions, those years back in Owen Sound remain among Sanford’s most cherished.

“A lot of the memories I have are just memories of the great teammates that I had. I think that’s one thing that the players do take for granted, is just how quickly the junior years go by and evaporate,” he says. “And you just hope you do something well enough that you can have the respect of your teammates as they move on.

“And, you know, hopefully they share the same memories of yourself that you do of them.”

After heading out on the road following those unforgettable junior years — first to Missouri to suit up for the UHL’s River Otters, then on to the ECHL to play for the Peoria Rivermen, and then on to a pair of seasons swapping jerseys between the Rivermen and the AHL’s Worcester IceCats — Sanford eventually wound up in St. Louis.

Somehow, even as his NHL career began, the Owen Sound connection remained strong, as Sanford took up residence on that 2002-03 Blues roster behind Brent Johnson — the same pal he’d played behind during their Platers days.

While Johnson impressed, Sanford’s time eventually came, and the young netminder was granted the chance to finally start a game in the big leagues.

“It’s a flood of emotions, you know?” he says of that first shot at NHL glory. “I think back on all the sacrifices that my parents had to make, that my sisters had to make, the sacrifices that my wife had to make to allow me to follow my dreams. You’re thinking about that, but you also have a job to do.

“You’re nervous because you want to do well, you’re excited because you’re playing in the NHL, and you’re just trying to manage all those emotions all at the same time — while preparing to play a game.”

His first bona fide start came against the Dallas Stars, at the time led by Mike Modano and more than a couple other marquee names. They got a few by Sanford, but he managed to hold on and lead his Blues to a 5-3 win.

“You just pinch yourself. I remember getting back to my hotel room that night, and I’m just like, ‘I can’t believe I just played a National Hockey League game and won,’ you know? Because it’s always such a long journey.”

And yet, it wouldn’t be the greatest pinch-yourself moment of Sanford’s career. That came years later, after a few more stints in the AHL and another longer run with the Blues, when he eventually landed with the 2007-08 Canucks.

“Playing in a Canadian market is something in and of itself,” he says. “The pressure’s high, the stakes are high. Every game is a Hockey Night in Canada game. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tuesday — there’s none of those games where it’s just like, ‘Ah, no one’s really paying attention to our game tonight.’ Like, everyone’s always paying attention if you’re playing in a Canadian market.

“You know the city’s always going to be buzzing, the rink is always going to be packed. It’s such an exciting moment. It brings back memories of tuning into Hockey Night in Canada, and how big those Saturday nights were – and now you’re taking part in them almost on a weekly basis. … It was fun to be a part of.”

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After two seasons in Vancouver getting a masterclass in professionalism from a who’s who of Canucks greats — including Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Roberto Luongo, Trevor Linden and Markus Naslund — Sanford played one more NHL season, with Columbus, before a day in early September 2011 altered his path.

On Sept. 7 of that year, KHL club Lokomotiv Yaroslavl endured a heart-wrenching tragedy, a plane crash on the banks of the Volga river that took the lives of 44 people, including 26 Lokomotiv players and three members of the team’s staff.

Sanford remembers seeing news of the crash soon after as he prepared for a workout in Columbus.

“I turn on the TV in the morning before heading out for my workout, and I’m reading this. … I knew some players and some people that were on that plane, and you just, you just can’t wrap your head around it,” he says. Eight months later, he was offered the chance to join the Lokomotiv organization, which by this point was trying to find a way forward.

“I got the phone call from Lokomotiv with an opportunity to help kind of start that healing process for that community and that team. It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly,” he says. “I knew that there was going to be a lot of responsibility that came with that, but I wanted to do it. And I didn’t have a second thought about it. When I got that call and I was asked to sign, it was just, ‘Absolutely, let’s do this. I want to be a part of this.’

“Getting to the city and getting to meet people that had relationships with these fine people that perished in that tragedy, and just being able to try and come up with a way to begin a healing process for them, you know, to give them something to cheer about again, to give them something to feel good about again — that’s the way our team approached that entire season. And that’s the way I approached my entire time playing for the Lokomotiv organization.”

In 2015, after three years with the KHL club, Sanford finally hung up the pads, leaving the game having suited up for 10 teams as a pro, in five leagues, three countries. Quite the journey for a kid from Owen Sound who had just wanted to be like his billet brother.

Looking back on it all now, what stands out most to Sanford, he says, is how big an impact those years in his hometown had on the long journey that followed.

“I think what you learn is just how much the community has to do with the bringing up of individuals. I think everybody in the community played a part in my success,” he says. “I always call Owen Sound my home. I go back there in the off-season no matter what. My kids — my three sons — and my wife, we’re still very much involved with that community in various ways, trying to give back whatever way we can … just trying to pass down my knowledge, my journey, to those that are following the same path, and just them knowing that it is possible.

“It is possible to reach your goals, and the community can help you do that.”

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