TORONTO – Who says Canadian college hockey doesn't lead to the NHL?
University of Toronto goalies Brett Willows and Michael Nishi got a taste of the big leagues this week when they were summoned by the Maple Leafs to serve as emergency backups.
Willows got a call to get to the Air Canada Centre immediately on Thursday night after James Reimer was forced to leave 32 seconds into the Maple Leaf's game against Carolina. Jonathan Bernier took over in goal, with Willows waiting backstage after getting to the rink and suiting up.
A nervous Nishi seemed in awe Friday after taking part in a Maple Leafs practice that saw a healthy Reimer and Bernier both take part.
"It felt great out there," said the 19-year-old Nishi, his lip trembling as he was surrounded by reporters in the Leafs dressing room at the club's practice facility. "It was a very great experience. I'm happy to be here, I'm honored."
Nishi skipped an English study session to face shots from the likes of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
"It was an eye-opening experience," he said of facing NHL shooters.
Asked who had the hardest shot, Nishi paused and said: "I'll have to see the shots first."
A Toronto native whose family has Maple Leafs season tickets, Nishi grew up as an "on and off" member of Leaf Nation.
The whirlwind started for the young goalies when Reimer went down.
Willows, a Montreal Canadiens fan, was out with some teammates after dinner when he got a call from Varsity Blues coach Darren Lowe.
"He told me that one of their goalies went down and that they needed me," Willows said in university release. "I sprinted down Bloor Street in the next 45 seconds and we jumped in the truck and got down there right away."
A third-year kinesiology major, Willows recorded a career-high 50-save performance in a 7-3 win over the Ryerson Rams on Wednesday night.
Willows, a native of Rivers, Manitoba, previously played for the Dauphin Kings in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
"What I dreamed about playing mini sticks in the basement just came true, Thanks @Maple Leafs for the hospitality," the 23-year-old said on Twitter.
Nishi, a first-year arts and sciences student also got a call from Lowe, telling him he might be needed for the Leafs' practice in the morning.
Nishi has spent time with the Windsor Spitfires, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Ottawa 67s and Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League and the Gatineau Olympiques in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
He has yet to play for the Varsity Blues this season. Toronto was 2-1-0 going into Friday's game against Western.
Canadian Interuniversity Sport hockey alumni who spent time in the NHL include Steve Rucchin (Western Ontario), Cory Cross and Randy Gregg (Alberta), Mathieu Darche (McGill), Bracken Kearns (Calgary), Mike Ridley (Manitoba) and P.J. Stock (St. Francis Xavier).