By now, you’ve heard the story of the former Temple Owls club hockey goaltender making his mark in NHL history books as a now twice-used emergency backup goaltender for the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers. While that story has been told many times over, there hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion surrounding Eric Semborski that doesn’t have to do solely with his experience with the Hawks and Flyers. I recently talked with Semborski over the phone about his life and the experiences he has had throughout this past year.
Growing Up With Hockey
Like many young hockey players, getting ice time was difficult for Eric Semborski. While the opportunity for many people who wish to play hockey never seems to arrive, Semborski was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to play hockey, albeit at a much older age than most other future NHL-contracted players – “I didn’t start playing ice hockey until I was 14 or 15 in high school. That was the first opportunity that I had.”
The Bloomsburg, PA native grew up a hockey fan. It was his life. His favorite team, the Flyers, was entering a stage of playoff success when he was just old enough to start following the sport. Of course, being over 2 hours away from the Wells Fargo Center – which went by many different names throughout his youth (with my personal favorite being the ‘FU’ (First Union) Center) – meant that it took a passionate type of fan to continuously watch his team. Trying to replicate their actions on the ice, however, proved difficult. With rinks being a rarity in Bloomsburg, Semborski was forced to take on an alternative method of hockey: roller hockey. The late ’90s was a great time for roller hockey as well; over 10,000 fans attended the Major League Roller Hockey championship game at Arrowhead Pond – now known as the Honda Center – in Anaheim. It was only a normality for Semborski to take up roller hockey. Goaltending, however, was something he was always interested in.
“I was always drawn to the goalie position,” Semborski said. “I always watched them very closely, and when I got the chance, I knew I wanted to be a goalie.” The position that is full of pressure to anyone who straps up the pads was the very spot that Semborski wanted to take on the ice. What was the reasoning for his choice? Was it because he wanted to be the star of the show with a beautiful save to win the game for his team? No, it “maybe was all the pads. The look of it.” To the self-described defensive-minded player, goaltending was just a position he was naturally drawn to.
While many kids of his youth enjoyed watching the unorthodox goaltending of Dominik Hasek or the fine-like-wine playing of Martin Brodeur, Semborski’s favorite goaltender was John Vanbiesbrouck. Although his days were seemingly behind him when he came to the city of Philadelphia, Eric Semborski was a big fan of his style – “He was someone who played his position very well, very square. He was always in the right spot at the right time.” Semborski liked practicing the angles that the NHL ’97 cover player was so well-known for, something that he’d continue to practice up to this very day. It’s good that he practiced this religiously, as he “probably only [played anything other than goaltender on ice] once or two times” in his entire life. While this was definitely an unorthodox way of working his way through the positions, he had to “make up for lost time” due to the fact that players around him had been playing since they were 5 years old.
That lost time, unfortunately, would cost him a shot at playing junior hockey. Starting at such an old age with the hope to make it to ‘the show’ is a pipe dream; it rarely happens. Players start being drafted into the USHL at age 16 and 17, so to start playing hockey when he was around 14 or 15 created a road block in his hopes to become a future NHL player. And while many players who are hoping to make ‘the show’ at a point in their lives try to continue playing at the highest level possible without much care for a classroom, Semborski made a very responsible and mature decision: he was going to begin his education. Hockey would come second.
The Temple Owls
Temple University would be the college of choice for Semborski. Knowing full-well that he would most likely end up playing ACHA hockey, Temple seemed to be a good fit for him. “They had a club team and they had what I wanted to go to school for,” Semborski told me. “I was more than happy to play ACHA hockey.” For his education, he was to be pursuing his degree in sport and recreation management. The original plan was to go into a business major, but when the combination of business and sport presented itself on a silver platter for Semborski, he jumped at the opportunity to attend Temple.
“Nothing is going to prepare you going into situations that I [went through this year],” Semborski said when asked how his hockey days with the Temple Owls prepared him for this past year. “We used to joke about how the ACHA was ‘the show’, and then it finally happened to me.” While the ACHA is not ‘the show’, it still is a difficult league, as evidenced by the struggles that the Owls have undergone the past few seasons. When Semborski was with the team, they were in the 2nd division of the ACHA. In 2014-15, his final year with the team, the Owls went 16-10-4. The following year, they were moved up to Division 1, where they have held a dismal record of 15-49-3 over the past two seasons. It certainly has not been an easy transition for the team, but Semborski sees a bright future with the Owls hockey club in terms of fan outreach. “I think the broadcasting and social media aspects are definitely going in the right direction,” he said. “I would say to get more involved on campus because a lot of students don’t even know about the team… Let them know we’re around.”
Sidenote: In terms of Temple Owls hockey broadcasting, social media, and fan outreach, GNGHockey has a very special announcement that will be made in the coming weeks.
‘We’. When describing the Owls, Eric Semborski still bursts with Temple pride, even after being in the so-called ‘show’ – and not the ACHA ‘show,’ the real ‘show’. Being the first Temple hockey player to make it in the NHL is a very special title to hold for Semborski. “Now I have to find a good men’s league,” Semborski laughed when he remembered his thought process after he graduated from Temple. One of my friends, Geoff Naylor, told me about how he had to go up against Semborski in a men’s league game just a few months ago. “It was unfair,” Naylor laughed. Semborski has the oh-so-glorious honor of making others happy that they scored against an NHL goaltender when a puck slips by him in his men’s league.
The Blackhawks Come Calling
On December 3rd, 2016, Semborski got his first taste of the NHL when Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford had to get an emergency appendectomy surgery. While at work at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, Semborski was on the ice at a learn-to-play clinic when his coworker frantically told him to call his boss. Of course, in a normal circumstance, this is the equivalent of the PG-13 rated version of ‘oh-no’. This was, of course, no normal circumstance. “The assistant GM of the Flyers, Barry Hanrahan, asked me if I was Eric and where I played hockey in the past and I thought this was kind of strange, and I was like, ‘what’s going on, what’s happening?’. [Hanrahan said] Chicago needs a backup for today. I was like, ‘the Chicago Blackhawks?'” He asked Semborski if he had his gear, and when the answer was no, Hanrahan said to “go get it.” For the confirmation that he was going to be a backup for the day, Semborski was told that he’d get a phone call in around 10 minutes. “Sure enough, I was driving home to get my equipment and my phone rang. It said ‘Chicago, Illinois’. It was pretty wild. I knew it was real then.”
A multitude of emotions started to swirl in the mind of Eric Semborski. Shock, excitement, happiness; it was all there for him. “As it was sinking in a little bit, I was just more and more excited. I was like a kid on Christmas. I didn’t even have too much time to even let it sink in.” From the time the call came from the Blackhawks to game-time, 2 hours had passed. “By the time I got to the Wells Fargo Center, I got dressed and by the time I was dressed, I was out there for warmups.”
The first people that he saw associated with the Blackhawks that day was Joel Quenneville – their head coach – and the rest of the coaching staff. As he was talking in the coach’s room, he signed the day contract for an emergency goalie. Being an emergency goalie gets you $500 and a jersey to take home with you. Although nowhere near what the minimum salary per game is in the NHL ($7012.20, to be precise), the contract is not really a big deal for a person gifted with the opportunity to live their dream for a day. It’s just some extra cherries on top of a giant, tasty ice cream cone.
Quenneville joked around with Semborski prior to the game, but it was evident that he and the entire coaching staff were extremely thankful for the help Semborski was providing to the team that day. What were they joking about? “‘Suit and tie next time’ they said, because I was still wearing rink clothes as I just got off the ice coaching. I was a little unprofessional.” I think they gave Eric Semborski a pass.
Going through warmups, his adrenaline was running. Semborski had suffered a poor night’s sleep in preparation for the supposed work day, and it wasn’t until he was finally on the ice that it hit him: he was in the NHL. “If you look at pictures of me in the 1st period, I’m just smiling the whole time just watching the game.”
One of the people that helped Semborski feel comfortable in his position was the Blackhawks’ Brent Seabrook, but it was really all the defensemen who were making the experience as awesome as possible for him. It was who he was sitting with, after all. While the light ribbing coming from Seabrook and the defensive corps of the Hawks helped Semborski transition into his newfound fame, it was Scott Darling – in the locker room – who really helped him feel comfortable. “Scott Darling, I have to say, in the locker room was great. I got dressed next to him and with him being the starting goalie that day, he kind of showed me the ropes of what I should be doing for warmups and some bench stuff. He really took me under his wing.” Hearing that Darling was such a good influence on Semborski, I was curious as to what his thoughts were on Darling being given a new leash with the number 1 role in Carolina; “I’m happy for him. I kind of wish he came to Philly,” he laughed. “I’m definitely happy for him. He’ll be a great number 1 there and I wish him nothing but the best.”
With Semborski being a Flyers fan playing for the Blackhawks, there was most likely a thought in his head surrounding the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. As he talked to Patrick Kane a bit, he said that he is a “great guy”. On the goal that clinched the cup for the Blackhawks, Semborski said, “That was a tough one to take for all of Philly, but I was a Hawks fan that day [as the backup]. I wasn’t cheering for the Flyers that day.”
After the game, after the whirlwind of attention at the rink, the experience was to continue. He went out to dinner with his friends and sister, but his phone was blowing up. “I couldn’t even open any social media,” he said. “My phone would just turn off.” Even after dinner, the requests for interviews went on for weeks; he didn’t get done filming some interviews until around 3 weeks after the game. The newfound fame was an experience that he would never forget, and it only got better when the Blackhawks invited him to Chicago for a game. In addition to the mask and all-new equipment that they gave him, they flew him and his wife to Chicago for a game and put him on the videoboard. There was even a trading card made of Semborski. Although he hasn’t talked to any Hawks in a while, save for some PR workers with the team, he was told that he would be hanging out with the team when they come back into Philadelphia next season. An absolutely amazing experience for Semborski this year seemingly came to an end, until April 1.
A Scary Incident Leads to Suiting up for the Flyers
Almost 4 months to the day from the game that thrust him into the spotlight, Semborski was called upon again. This time, he was to suit up for his childhood team, the Flyers. Semborski was in the press box for this game, as Steve Mason was deemed sick just a few hours before the game against the New Jersey Devils. Anthony Stolarz was with the Phantoms following their game in Bridgeport. Michal Neuvirth was set to start in Mason’s place, but Stolarz needed to rush to the arena to back up Neuvirth. Semborski was in the press box, just in case Stolarz wasn’t able to get there in time, but Stolarz arrived just before the game began. In an extremely scary incident, Neuvirth collapsed before a faceoff in the neutral zone. Neuvirth was stretchered off, Stolarz came in, and Semborski went through the emergency backup process again. Neuvirth would turn out to be okay, thankfully, but it was an extremely scary situation. “When he went down, people were halfway down to the locker room taking me to get dressed. So I was just strapping up when they wheeled him in. They were doing tests on him and I was thinking how serious this could potentially be and hoping he was okay, but I was just trying to get dressed and get focused in case they did need me.”
Despite having one emergency backup event already under his belt, the feeling of excitement did not seem to leave Semborski. It was a bit different of a situation this time around, however; the game was already underway. “I was just trying to stay loose, keep the blood flowing, and trying to be ready.” No matter what, it was a much different experience simply due to the fact that the team he was suiting up was the Flyers – his favorite team since he was a young child in Bloomsburg. While beginning to ask a question, I commented on how he almost played for the Flyers, something he responded with, “Yeah, almost.”
Semborski was able to get on the ice in the dying seconds of the 3-0 contest in an attempt to finish out the game as a Flyers player. He was extremely excited, telling me that he was trying not to smile too much and to get focused. When the whistle blew just before the faceoff, Semborski knew his brief time in the NHL was about to end. “I looked at the bench and I saw the ref going over. I knew something was up and knew I probably was not allowed to play. I was definitely upset. I wanted to log some actual time, but it was still a great experience to be out there during an NHL game in the net, ready to go. Maybe it’ll happen again and I’ll get the opportunity. I’ll still be grateful for how it happened.” Due to a little-known rule in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, an emergency backup goaltender can only play if both goalies have been injured beforehand. ‘Come on Stolarz, act hurt‘ was what most hockey fans probably thought at that time.
Flyers Head Coach Dave Hakstol didn’t talk to Semborski much during the game, but he did thank him for coming out. When the clock was winding down, Semborski was hoping to get the opportunity to play; the contest did remain at a somewhat large deficit, mind you. “They called me with about 2:30 minutes left. I put my mask on and got ready and was staring at the clock thinking I hope this happens. It was a class act by Coach Hakstol and the whole coaching staff to try and get me in there. I’m so grateful that they tried.”
Semborski was used to being one of the Philly faithfuls, one of the fans cheering on the athletes that deserved it. Now he was the man being given the ovation. This was his time.
When he was taken out of the game, the Philly faithful gave Semborski a standing ovation, something reserved only for the people that show their effort and work their hardest. Semborski was used to being one of the Philly faithfuls, one of the fans cheering on the athletes that deserved it. Now he was the man being given the ovation. This was his time. “It really says a lot about the city and the Flyers fans.” When he was being shuffled back onto the bench by the refs, the fans started booing. “I definitely got a kick from the boos,” Semborski chuckled.
The experience of putting on the Flyers jersey for Semborski was a dream come true. “You grow up watching these guys your whole life, and then you look down and you’re wearing the same jersey as the whole team… It’s definitely something I’ll remember forever.” Due to the fact that he was the emergency backup for the Blackhawks, Semborski became the ’emergency contact’ for the Flyers. Practicing a few times with the team, he’s almost become an unofficial player on the roster. It helped him make the transition into being a Flyers emergency backup easier.
Semborski didn’t flat out say that he would be the future emergency contact for the Flyers, but he did say how it was something that was being discussed and he’d like to continue doing. In his own words: “That is something I’m obviously interested in and would love to do, and I’m hoping it works out. That’s kind of ‘to-be-continued’ at this point. It’s looking like I’ll be around just in case, but we’ll kind of have to wait and see a little bit.”
To Semborski, there were no negatives to go alongside his newfound fame in the hockey world. In fact, it has opened up career opportunities in the world of sport and recreation management. Although some might not like having to deal with so many media inquiries, it hasn’t gotten to Semborski at all. “I’m a little bit busy with keeping my gear around all the time and trying to be available,” he said.
Currently, Semborski works at the NorthEast Skate Zone as a hockey director, something he loves doing. Connecting back to his roots at Temple, the Owls will begin playing at this Skate Zone next year. The past doesn’t escape Semborski, and he seems to greatly enjoy that. “I’m hoping that these experiences can expand some opportunities for me and I can continue to grow professionally and ride this out as far as I can.”
There is no one memory from his experiences in the NHL that stick out to Eric Semborski. It was something he never expected to happen in his life, and while the former Temple Owls goaltender continues to grow in his career field of choice, he will seemingly always be known as someone with a special place in the history of the NHL, as an emergency backup goaltender. “It’s a dream come true,” Semborski said as he looked back at what his life had become. “Those are memories I will have forever.”
Dylan Coyle is a writer and the founder of Good Night, Good Hockey. He is also a Philadelphia Flyers, Hershey Bears, and Reading Royals reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanRCoyle_BSH.
Dylan was the President of GNGHockey from its beginnings to January 2018.