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Pheonix Rising: Copley's Journey From Abyss


On the relative eve of his 28th birthday and during a rare four-day gap in the schedule, Pheonix Copley has to marvel at the journey he's taken to get to this moment in time.

From being born and growing up at the 'North Pole' (North Pole, Alaska, of course), to going undrafted, to being signed by the New York Rangers in 2015, but never making the EHE. To being traded to San Jose, staying in the AHL, and to winning a Calder Cup and a Hap Holmes award in 2018 despite only appearing in two playoff games (he played in 37 that regular season).

And then there's last season.

Copley re-signed with San Jose after the Calder Cup run, but due to his age, required waivers to be sent back down to the Barracuda after the Sharks' 2018 training camp. He was claimed by Boston, a quizzical move at the time, as the Bruins already had Craig Anderson and Ville Husso on the main roster (this was just days after the B's moved out Dustin Tokarski and Tristan Jarry in a deal with Calgary, as well).

Copley figured to compete for time with Husso at least. But despite neither Husso or Anderson putting up reliable stats in net, Copley remained in the press box. All season long.

"I have to admit, it was pretty bizarre," says Copley. "They didn't seem to need or want me, so to keep me here didn't make a lot of sense. I kept working as hard as I could in practice, but they never played me."

Copley had no stats for the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign. He wasn't waived, either to get a chance at playing time in the AHL or with another EHE team. He wasn't traded. He was just there, for 82 games.

"It's probably one of the weirdest things I've seen in this game, and I've been around a while," said Matt Niskanen, who was part of the other end of the 2017 trade that saw Copley go from the Rangers to the Sharks. "When he got (to Chicago), I asked him about it. I mean, what can you say, really?"

When the former Bruins GM Pierrick Cote was fired in July after a four-game sweep at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings in Round 1 of the 2019 playoffs, new GM Adam O'Blenes got to work rebuilding a team once full of promise and top-end talent. He re-signed Copley to a one-year contract in his final year of RFA controllability, despite him being eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of his next contract.

"I signed him out of necessity for our situation," said O'Blenes. "(Craig) Anderson was a free agent, so I had no guarantees that we'd even have a starter, let alone a backup. It was purely a numbers thing."

Boston would eventually re-sign Anderson and also inked Jacob Markstrom via free agency, putting Copley again in limbo. The Blackhawks were in need of a backup after moving out Curtis McElhinney during this past offseason. They also needed to shed some salary. The Bruins were a perfect fit, and Chicago moved Andrew Cogliano to Boston for Copley.

To say it was welcome news to Copley would be an understatement.

"(The Bruins) had new management but I really didn't interact or learn about what they were thinking of doing. I re-signed since they had my rights, but I had no idea what was coming."

"Once I heard about the trade, I was relieved, to be honest. I just wanted a chance to compete and prove myself."

He's on his way in doing just that.

After Tuukka Rask started the first eight games, the Hawks were 3-4-1 and had just been blanked 3-0 by Columbus. It was time to give Copley a shot, and he didn't disappoint. Chicago lost in overtime, but Copley shined with 35 saves and was credited by coach Rick Tocchet for keeping his club in the game.

"I didn't think we played well enough to win that game," said Tocchet. "But Pheonix did his part and kept us in it. I'm sure not having played a real game in a while gave him some added incentive. He was a rock for us."

Rask would get the next start - a 3-2 OT loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. But since the Blackhawks played again the next night, Copley was tapped to start. The Hawks came to life in a 6-2 drubbing of the Flyers, with Copley adding 20 saves.

"After that Philly game, I thought it was important to give Copley another start," iterated Tocchet. "He earned it."

What followed was another impressive display. After 65 minutes and 28 saves, Copley had backstopped a 2-2 deadlock against Carolina. He stopped Wayne Simmonds and Artemi Panarin in the first two rounds of the ensuing shootout, but the Hawks failed to score and the Canes' Joe Pavelski slipped a third-round shot past Copley for a 3-2 Carolina win.

With the high-powered Kings coming to town last Monday night, Tocchet had a decision to make. He went back to Copley again for his third-straight start and was not disappointed. Despite Los Angeles jumping out to a 3-1 lead early in the second period, the Blackhawks rallied for four unanswered goals en route to a 5-4 victory in regulation.

In four games, Copley is 2-0-2 with a 2.66 GAA and a .913 save percentage. It's a small sample size. But there is no doubt that Copley's early play has been a spark for Chicago after a so-so start.

Rask's 3-4-2 start, along with his 3.07 GAA and .891 save percentage, is likely an outlier. Perhaps this run on the bench will serve as a needed reset for the 32-year old netminder. To his credit, he couldn't be happier for Copley.

"He's played with hunger and drive, and it's exciting to watch him," said Rask. "I'm happy for him. He's been a great support for me so far and I hope I've been the same for him. We're in this together."

For Copley, from the Christmas-themed hometown of North Pole, Alaska, to all of the ups and downs of his professional journey, he's just glad to be in the game.

"Personally, this is all I could ask for. An opportunity. I don't know what the future holds, but I know if I get a chance, I'm going to take it and make the most of it."

Make the most of it, indeed.

Chip Whitley
Blackhawks Beat Reporter

Jared Mitchell

Great article though! Definitely a unique situation, which makes for a fun read.

Pheonix Rising: Copley's Journey From Abyss
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Jared Mitchell

Still salty about that move, even though it all worked out for my team in the end. Just so aggravating watching him sit the entire year.

Pheonix Rising: Copley's Journey From Abyss
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Dan Bacon

Really good read. Well written. You still suck.

Pheonix Rising: Copley's Journey From Abyss
Chicago netminder surprises in early season action

• 1 teams Like this  8 months