Robert moves to upper Esche-lon

The Americans will rely on a goalie who just a week ago was in the press box. Fate has dealt him a good hand in Halifax.

13.05.2008
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Robert Esche makes a save against Finland. Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Jukka Rautio

HALIFAX – Although Robert Esche was given equal opportunity in the mini-training camp held by USA prior to the start of the World Championship, the pecking order in goal was pretty clear for the three netminders – Tim Thomas, Craig Anderson, and Robert Esche. “Coming in, we thought it would Timmy, then “Andy,” and then Bobby {Esche} behind them,” coach John Tortorella said. “But things turn out differently sometimes.”

They sure do. Esche has gone from the press box to the bench to the blue ice in short order and is now almost certainly the goalie who will take Team USA into the quarter-finals on Wednesday against Finland. He, however, won’t commit to such confidence. “I never assume anything,” he said. “I’ve had a good year and I’ve been playing well, so we’ll see.”

Drafted in 1996 by Phoenix, Esche enjoyed a nearly decade in the NHL before moving to St. Petersburg, Russia, to play for Ak Bars Kazan this past season. “I left the NHL in part because I couldn’t stay healthy. It seemed like I had one surgery after another, but I was able to put that behind me this year.”

Esche had played with the Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers until he signed a two-year contract worth $3.6 million with Alex Medvedev’s team. Medvedev, the wealthy owner of Gazprom, a natural gas company, will be part of a group starting a new Russian-based league next year.

Esche will return to Ak Bars for the coming season. He joined the team during 2007-08 and played 18 regular season games while recording a sparkling GAA of 1.86. He then played all ten games for the team in the playoffs.

“I had a good year there and had a lot of fun,” he said. “St. Petersburg is a beautiful city.” After the season he returned home to Utica, New York, and three weeks later he got a call from USA Hockey. Don Waddell, the team’s general manager, asked him to play for USA at the World Championship.

“He said we’d all be given a chance in camp, but when the tournament started it looked like it would be Tim, then Anderson, then me. It’s funny how things work out.”

Here’s what happened. Tim Thomas was, indeed, the number-one man, but he twisted his knee in the team’s 5-4 loss to Canada. Anderson came in, but in the team’s next game, a 6-4 win over Germany, he was anything but impressive. Tortorella pulled him after allowing four goals on ten shots over two periods, and Esche didn’t allow a goal in the final 20 minutes against the Germans. He started the next game, against Finland, a narrow 3-2 loss in which he played very well.

It would have made sense to start Anderson the next game, against Norway, because it took place only 18 hours after the emotionally and physically demanding Finland game. Tortorella’s vote of confidence, though, didn’t surprise Esche. “I’ve already had a few weeks off and have a lot of energy left,” he noted.

And now, with the quarter-finals around the corner, it would seem impossible for Tortorella to return to Anderson in light of his play against Germany and Esche’s impressive play since.

From Russia to Canada, from third to first, from one of 16 teams to one of eight teams. Robert Esche is ending his season in a way he couldn’t possibly have imagined even a few days ago.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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