OTTAWA – The start was to be a secret.
Ron Wilson, then the head coach of the Maple Leafs, didn't want the "piranhas" in the Toronto media to catch wind of his plans for this young kid in the nation's capital. He wanted the very first start in the unlikely career of a fourth round pick from Morweena, Manitoba to remain secret.
"I don't want him to be bothered," Wilson said of his intentions two days later. "Around here a guy wins a game and we're ready to build a statue for him."
The statue was never built, but the tenure sure was memorable for James Reimer, whose Leaf career almost certainly ended Saturday in the same place it began in earnest more than three and a half years earlier. The 26-year-old wondered aloud if this was it, if a strong 36-save performance in a 1-0 season-ending loss to the Senators was how his tenure in Toronto would ultimately end.
"Really sad," he said if that were, in fact, the case. "This is the team I always wanted to play for my whole career. It's just sad that now there's a question mark over it because I would've wanted it to be a sure thing for 20 years.
"I always dreamed that I would be a Leaf right from the start, right from when I got drafted and especially after my first season up here. It's all I wanted to do is be here and be the guy. Just thinking that that might not be the case now it brings a lot of emotions and it's just real unfortunate the way it's turned out."
He was an unlikely case from the get-go. The 99th overall selection in 2006, Reimer wasn't all that highly thought of, never really projected to be anything of consequence even as he rose up the ranks of an organization lacking in goaltending since Ed Belfour's departure (Reimer's childhood hero oddly enough).
"I wouldn't have probably bet a plug nickel that he would be one of our goalies this year to be honest with you," Wilson said of Reimer during his rise to prominence in the 2010-11 campaign.
A relative unknown, Reimer won 20 times in 36 starts that year and boasted an unexpected, but impressive .921 save percentage, reviving the playoff hopes of a squad that would eventually fall short. "I don't think he ever ceases to amaze us," former Leaf Luke Schenn said after one particular shutout in Minnesota.
They called him "Sherman" or "The Sherminator" at first, because he bore a resemblance to the quirky character from the 1999 summer hit American Pie. He was from the smallest of towns in Manitoba, a religious kid who didn't have much use for vulgarity.
"I try to watch my swear words around him," Joey Crabb, another former Leaf, once said.
He was a feel good story in a hockey town that had little to feel good about. Excitement was high. The organization, it seemed, had solved a question long short on answers – almost by accident. He was dubbed the "saviour" by one local newspaper, hyperbole never quite kept in check in the hub of Toronto.
"The media in Toronto is going to have to be careful," J.S. Giguere once cautioned. "I think he's also human and we're all bound to make mistakes and have a tough week or a tough month – you never know what's ahead of us."
Giguere unknowingly foreshadowed adversity that arrived with a thud shortly thereafter.
The unquestioned No.1 for the Leafs at the outset of the 2011-12 season, Reimer picked up wins in four of his first five starts. Optimism was budding, that is until a late October night in Montreal. It was there that the elbow of Canadiens captain Brian Gionta slammed into Reimer's head and instantly altered all that was trending in a positive direction.
Wilson and the team called it "whip-lash" initially and figured he'd miss only a few days. Concussion speculation pattered around the city as his absence dragged on, all that uncertainty culminating in a reporter's phone call that unleashed all-out fury.
"I can't believe a media [member] would call up a parent," Wilson spewed.
Almost six weeks went by before Reimer returned to the net. And it was quite clear after that he was not the same goaltender. Save for a few bright spots, he struggled and it wasn't long before that rumours of a trade for then-Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo percolated.
Those talks fell through though and he remained a Leaf.
"We believe in James Reimer," said then-President and GM Brian Burke ahead of a September charity golf tournament, days before the lockout began. "We have said from the get-go that if we get an opportunity to upgrade at the goaltending position we're going to do it. That's still the case. But it's not a frantic search for a goaltender. We believe in James Reimer."
Health issues were put to bed in the summer – the concussion was later deemed a neck issue – and Reimer sought redemption. "I want to come in and show that I can be the starter and that they need to look nowhere else," he said in mid-July 2012.
He indeed came in and showed that he could be the starter after the lockout finally ended, but that didn't stop the organization's search for someone else.
Burke, chief in those summer talks for Luongo, had since been fired, but his replacement and longtime No. 2, Dave Nonis, felt the same uncertainty with Reimer as did his predecessor. This in spite of the fact that Reimer was playing about as well as anyone in the league – finishing amongst the leaders in save percentage.
Miikka Kiprusoff was the name that was circled (and Luongo too) and the club pushed and pushed to get him from Calgary ahead of the trade deadline, this to help an unforeseen playoff push. They said they wanted security behind Reimer, some veteran comfort behind a goaltender who had never played in the postseason, but it was all too clear that they really just wanted a potential replacement. In the end Kiprusoff declined the move and trade talk was put to bed – for the moment.
More doubt seemed to equal more motivation for Reimer.
He went on to post a .930 save percentage in the month after the deadline kerfuffle, leading the club to its first playoff berth in nine years.
"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," then-backup Ben Scrivens said. "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."
Game 7 is all that's remembered from the May that followed. Forgotten were Games 5 and 6 when Reimer out-dueled Tuukka Rask and pushed the eventual Eastern Conference champs to the brink of elimination in the unlikely all-or-nothing clash that followed in Boston – one that the Leafs would lose despite a 4-1 third period lead.
Doubts within about his viability returned after that night (or perhaps never left) and by late June, competition for the crease had arrived in Jonathan Bernier, a 25-year-old who dreamed of a No. 1 job for years in Los Angeles.
"I don't plan on giving up that starter's spot right now," Reimer said shortly after the trade, as diplomatic as his emotions would allow, "not to be a jerk about it obviously."
But ultimately he would cede that starter's spot, outclassed at last by Bernier in December. Pulled in the first frame of an eventual loss to Detroit that month, his bench stare-down with Randy Carlyle endured as a lasting image of his frustration. He saw the net only sparingly in the weeks and months after, his struggles mostly lingering save for the odd and very occasional spike. "It's been," he said delicately in late January, "it's been an interesting year. That's maybe the best way I can describe it."
An interesting year came to a boiling point in mid-March with Bernier sidelined.
It was there, with another (and perhaps final) meaningful opportunity, that Reimer could not overcome surrounding adversity and perform to a high level. Though left on an island on far too many occasions, he too struggled badly as the good vibes of a California road swing suddenly turned sour for the Leafs.
After the second of eight consecutive losses in Detroit, all the lingering internal doubts seemed to come to head. "I thought he was okay you know," said Carlyle of Reimer following a 3-2 loss to the Red Wings, "just okay."
"So he said I was just okay," Reimer responded. "I thought I played good, but obviously you'd like to make at least one of those saves in the third."
Confidence sunk, his struggles continued in three more losses – pulled in the opening frame of the fifth straight defeat in New Jersey after three goals slipped by on 10 shots. At his lowest, he tried to find some kind of silver lining afterward, anything to make the sting of some benefit down the road. "As crazy as it sounds I know I'm becoming a better goalie and obviously a better person," he said in empty Prudential Center hallway.
And then the circle of his Leaf journey concluded from where it all began in the season finale on Saturday. Reimer will almost certainly move on from here. A restricted free agent on July 1st, he is ready for a change, ready for a fresh start as much it probably pains him. He called this season one that was good for learning, a lesson in how to maintain an even-headedness through adversity.
Asked how he would remember his tour in Toronto, one that began with a 32-save performance on that secretive January day, Reimer gushed, "Wonderful, just wonderful.
"I'm so blessed to be able to do what I do. And as hard as it gets at the end of the day you're playing hockey in the NHL. Obviously, I would've liked to be better and I have high expectations for myself and I expect to be the best and get results, but I love this game, I love what I do and to be able to do it for three and a half years now for the best organization in the world it's been an absolute pleasure."