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Reimer’s likeability doesn’t hurt; long-term, is the sky the limit?

If most fans were honest, they would probably acknowledge that it’s more fun to cheer for someone who you actually like.  By that I mean, you may be a Maple Leaf fan and “like” all things Leafs, but most of us have guys we just don’t like, for whatever reasons and we also have favorites—players we take a liking to for any number of reasons.

Why do we like particular players?  It could be the way they play, their “star appeal” or just how they come across in public.  And I sense that’s where we are with young James Reimer.  We certainly are liking the way he is playing, he may become an NHL “star” (who knows?), but along with that, I think people have been blown away by the fact that he is seemingly what he appears to be:  a young person who has struck it rick, metaphorically speaking, yet who appreciates his good fortune and is, most importantly, simply a genuinely nice young guy.

How do I “know” that?  Well, I don’t, of course.  I’ve not met him, and we all know that people are not always what they seem.

But I’ve worked with a number of athletes professionally over the years, and for me, it’s always important they they allow themselves to be genuine, not “rehearsed”- prepared for what they might face, for sure, but not phony.

Reimer just presents, to me at least, as someone who genuinely appreciates the opportunity he has been given.  He is refreshingly positive, but he is also candid.  He has stepped up to defend criticism of goalie coach Francois Allaire, for example.  He says things like, “Sometimes the puck just isn’t hitting me” as an explanation for tough outings.  And he doesn’t mean that as an excuse, simply an honest evaluation that he wasn’t doing anything different on that particular night.  (The corollary is he realizes that good luck, as in the puck is hitting him, has a lot to do with his good games, too.)

I’ve been trying to think about Reimer in the context of Leaf goaltenders in my lifetime.  Since that lifetime goes back to the early 1950s, I won’t list them all here.  But suffice to say Reimer is, in my memory at least, a bit different.

Johnny Bower was—and remains, now well into his 80s—one of the nicest guys in the world.  He was an intense competitor but wildly popular in Leafworld and remains so to this day.  (Bower, a Hall-of-Famer, is pictured at left in the early 1960s.) Terry Sawchuk was surly, moody and intensely private (though we would not have won in ’67 without him).  Jacques Plante was much the same as Sawchuk.  A loner, but very good for the Leafs even into his 40s after he joined the team for the 1970-'71 season.  In the early 1970s, Bernie Parent was a young goalie who later became a Hall-of-Famer but he left Toronto before we really knew him.

Mike Palmateer (right) stands out as someone who came into the 1976-’77 season a bit unexpectedly, somewhat like Reimer (Wayne Thomas was  supposed to be the Leaf veteran and number one-guy, but when things went south, GM Jim Gregory looked to Palmateer, the Leaf draft choice who had been biding his time in the minors).  Palmateer, though, was loud, chatty and very cocky.  He was very popular in Leaf lore, but in truth, his career here was relatively short—three plus seasons in the late 1970s and then a brief return a few seasons later.

Allan Bester and Ken Wregget were good young goalies for the blue and white through a good chunk of the 1980s, but the competition between them kind of ruined any opportunity for them to be beloved in Leafland.  Their struggle to be number one, if anything, pitted fans against one another.  Some, like me, preferred Bester, others liked Wregget.

Grant Fuhr was only here for a short time in the early '90s, and Grant seemed to present as kind of flip, laid-back and not-too-concerned. (Hey, it worked for him in Edmonton.  Grant was Grant, not too worried about what other people thought.)  When Felix Potvin took over from Fuhr as number one in 1992-‘93, he was the somewhat surprising “answer” for GM Cliff Fletcher and coach Pat Burns.  A fairly high Leaf draft choice, he was certainly popular and at times a mini-saviour through those back-to-back “final four” runs, but his personality was kind of quiet.  He certainly didn’t draw attention to himself, which is a good quality but I don’t know if he was ever as popular as he could have been in this market, in part because he was so quiet and unassuming.  (Though when he knocked Hextall around in that famous fight, he earned himself a spot in the hearts and memories of most Leaf fans of that era.)

By the time Curtis Joseph arrived as a free-agent in 1998 to make Potvin expendable, he had a strong pedigree which preceded him.  At the time, we all remembered not only Cujo’s work with the Oilers, but the classic series with the Maple Leafs in 1993 when he was a member of the St. Louis Blues.  Curtis became immensely popular, accessible and approachable and was generally good with the media.  He “gave back” to the community and was perhaps the most popular goalie in modern Leaf history other than Bower.  He also took us to two "final four" appearances, but left in an unfortunate cloud of apparent greed, only to discover the grass was not necessarily greener in Detroit.

What’s the difference with Reimer?  Well, he is “our own”, I suppose, a Maple Leaf draft choice (John Ferguson Jr.).  He has come up through the ranks.  And, he's done a remarkable job with the big club when absolutely no one expected it (and yes, expectations will be much higher come the fall, for sure) but through it all, he has presented as keen, responsive, level-headed—a stand-up, straight-shooter and pleasant fellow.

If he continues to play well (that’s key, obviously) on into next year and beyond, and doesn’t lose the down-to-earth qualities that athletes usually lose along the way, he can, as they say, “own this town” some day.

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