SUN Hockey Pool

Long-shot unlikely back-up for Flames

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

While Chris Osgood started for the Detroit Red Wings last night, another former Medicine Hat Tigers star watched from the best seat in the house: The visitors bench.

Matt Keetley joined the Calgary Flames in Detroit Tuesday night to backup goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff because of Curtis McElhinney's knee injury.

"I was actually in his (Osgood's) goaltending schools in Medicine Hat," Keetley said after the morning skate yesterday. "I was excited to get his autograph probably seven or eight years ago -- that was a big thing. So it's really exciting to be on the ice and watch those guys and see how they perform."

Keetley, 21, isn't expected to get in any game action on the four-game road swing, but he has started to expect the unexpected.

"You never know," said Keetley. "Like in Calgary, I wasn't supposed to play (in an exhibition game), and then Curtie gets hit in the groinal area. You just have to be ready to play at all times."

That sudden start came against the Florida Panthers in the Flames' pre-season debut, when McElhinney took an Owen Nolan blast to the unmentionables in the warm-up. Keetley was impressive despite the 3-0 loss and gained confidence.

So this marks the second time Keetley has profited from his pal's pain.

"That was quite interesting," Keetley said with a grin. "Me and him are so close -- we're really good friends. You feel for him, but at the same time, you're so excited to be here. We were in the same room last night. We were joking around and having a good time."

His call-up is another chapter in a great story of perseverance.

Just five years ago, nobody would have pegged Keetley for NHL duty. No one even saw him as a potential WHLer, never mind a star who would eventually be named the playoff MVP after leading the Tigers to a league title and a runner-up finish in the Memorial Cup.

At 240 lbs., Keetley was an overweight, part-time forward in bantam house league as a 15-year-old.

"I was a bigger kid, so I'd just run guys over, try to get in fights -- things like that," said Keetley, who has since trimmed more than 50 lbs. off his 6-ft.-2 frame.

A return to the net and a strong showing in midget AA the next year caught the eye of Tigers scout Barry Prins, who eventually convinced the Tigers to add the hometown product to their list.

"He was overweight, but one thing he did have -- with basically no training at all -- was a good style, and he had the ability to stop the puck," Prins said. "You had to take notice at that.

"I never ever thought he could be a starter. I thought he could be a back-up in the league. The rest of it, you've got to tip your hat to Matt for realizing what he had to do to become a player. We know what kind of player he ended up being."

A few years ago, Keetley didn't think last night would ever become a reality.

"I think for me, it's something special," he said. "I worked really hard. Every day is a day in the gym. So many guys can go eat four bowls of ice cream and not gain a pound. That's not me.

"I'm going to keep working hard, and hopefully get a chance to play some day."

Now, Keetley is facing the same sort of questions he did in the WHL. Sure, he may be a capable back-up, but will he ever become a starter in the NHL?

"After seeing him all of last year, to me, there's no doubt Matt can play in the NHL," Prins said. "Can he be a starter? Boy, I'm not sure on that. But I'll tell you one thing -- I wouldn't ever bet against the kid on doing it because he's proved a lot of people wrong to this point."


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