How Blues rookie Jordan Binnington refused to take a career defeat

It's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the St. Louis Blues, and rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington is standing in the middle of a madhouse.

The Bell MTS Centre in Winnipeg provides one of the NHL's most raucous home-ice advantages, as generations of Jets-obsessed Manitobans assemble in white shirts to turn the arena into an alabaster cauldron every postseason. Many veteran goaltenders have entered it and melted down under the combined intensity of the crowd and the Jets' offense, which generated 71 more goals at home than it did on the road over the past two seasons. Binnington is the antithesis of a veteran. This wasn't just his first game in Winnipeg, but his first playoff game in the NHL.

The Jets decided to not only test him with shots on goal, but with shots of a cheaper variety. Just 26 seconds into the game, Binnington played the puck to a teammate and was skating back to his crease when Winnipeg star Mark Scheifele absolutely trucked him, knocking him to the ice and earning a goalie interference penalty.

"It's playoff hockey. I can take a hit. We're going to stay composed and keep working," Binnington recalled thinking.

The work continued after Patrik Laine opened the scoring at 13 minutes, 28 seconds of the first period. The crowd was ecstatic. The Jets were flying. If ever a rookie goalie was going to melt down in his first playoff game, the conditions were right.

And then Binnington didn't allow another goal in Game 1, as the Blues completed a 2-1 win. He even got his comeuppance on Scheifele, stretching his pad over to take away a gaping net from the Jets center in the last moments of the third period.

"I just had to make a little desperation save there. The boys came in and cleared out the rebound. We were happy with that," Binnington said. "That was cool. Canadian city. Passionate fans."

Passionate media, too. On the day of the game, Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press wrote about some tweets from 2013 that had garnered Binnington criticism online.

Like when a 19-year-old Binnington tweeted: "I was thinking. when people who wear the burkas are at the airport how is the security able to see if that's them in their passport... Srsly." He followed that thought with "also If you're underage & nervous of getting into a bar, throw the damn burka on. no way the bouncer will get into that awkward questioning."

In a story titled "Controversial tweets from Blues goaltender come to light," McIntyre wondered "whether or not Binnington [will be] brought out to speak about this issue remains to be seen, as teams often have a policy of shielding their starter on game days."

Binnington would, in fact, speak about it on the day of Game 1. "It was a while ago when I was a teenager. It was a little sarcasm and joking around. That's what life is about, you live and learn and you grow as a human. I'm just here to play a couple hockey games," he said.

Across Canada, his friend and former goalie coach Greg Redquest of the Owen Sound Attack heard about the controversy. He was unsurprised to see his protégé address the issue head-on, even before the biggest game of his life.

"He would want to get it out there, and get it right. That if he offended anyone, he was sorry. That he didn't mean to offend. I know him better than anybody, and he's not that kind of person," he said.

So what kind of person is Jordan Binnington? He's somehow both a study in humility and extreme self-assurance, a 25-year-old goalie that's put together a masterful (if truncated) rookie campaign to lead the Blues from the Western Conference basement to a spot in the playoffs. A player who waited years for his number to be called, and is now doing everything he can to keep the crease, because he believes he should.

"Most goalies are good. You just have to deal with their head. If you think you're good, you're going to be really good," Redquest said. "In St. Louis, the mindset for him was that if one door was shut, another one would open eventually. And it did. He kept on battling and battling until he finally got a shot at it."

Redquest met a 16-year-old Jordan Binnington in 2009, his rookie year in the Ontario Hockey League.

"You could just tell when you first got him that he was outstanding. A lot of confidence. Great technical goalie. He did what he had to do to stop the puck," said Redquest, who appeared in one game with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1977-78 season and has been the Owen Sound goalie coach for about a decade now.

"We knew back then that he'd be really good. You don't have many kids playing in the OHL at 16 years old. He was a big boy, but his feet movement was unbelievable. I didn't have to teach him anything. I just tweaked it. He stays between the posts. Never overplays anything. He never makes anything look hard. Good goalies make hard shots look easy, and that's what he does."

The 2010-11 season was his pinnacle, leading the Attack to the John Ross Robertson Cup as OHL champion with an overtime win, and securing a spot in the Memorial Cup tournament. Owen Sound was the underdog. Binnington came to the rescue with the team down 3-1 in the series to the Windsor Spitfires.

After winning the OHL title, Binnington displayed some of that swagger that has defined him. He searched out Redquest from the ice, turned to him, and mimicked placing a WWE championship belt around his waist. The two remained close after Binnington was drafted No. 88 overall in the third round of the 2011 NHL draft by the Blues.

How close were they? In-game food delivery close.

"I remember one time I was in a private box near the ice at one of his [OHL] games. He went by me and made this motion with his hands, like he was eating chicken wings, a signal that was like, 'I'm hungry right now.' So I grabbed some chicken wings from the private box, took them down to him between periods. He ate all of them," he recalled with a laugh. "Still got first star in that game."

But good times in junior hockey became frustrating years in the American Hockey League. He lingered in the minor leagues from 2013 through this season, save for one injury emergency game with the Blues in the 2015-16 season. Most of his time was spent with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL.

"Guys love playing for him. They'll go through the wall for him. He's got that personality. He's an unbelievable teammate, and very humble," said Stan Dubicki, his goalie coach in Chicago. "There were times he dropped on the depth chart, but he never lost confidence."

And there was that one time he just said "no."

Martin Brodeur met Binnington when the Blues acquired the Hockey Hall of Fame goalie in 2014, playing seven games before retiring to join the team's hockey operations department.

That's when he really got to know Binnington.

"I think I sent him down to the minors three times. Like, directly. And I'd see the look on his face and it was like, 'Seriously?' He thought he belonged [in the NHL]. That's a great trait to have, that confidence," Brodeur said.

In 2017, Binnington refused to take a step back in his career when the Blues asked him to take a demotion to the ECHL, because the team was sharing a minor league affiliation with the Vegas Golden Knights and didn't have a roster spot for him in Chicago.

"The year they tried to send him to the East Coast league, he refused to go. He said, 'I'm not an East Coast goalie. I'm better than that.' Another one of his goalie coaches found him a spot in Providence and that was fantastic. He thought he was ready to be a pro. He stuck to his guns, bless his heart, and said he wasn't going down," Redquest said.

"The kid had it. It's frustrating when you see goalies that you're better than playing in the NHL full time and you're not. He was toe-to-toe with John Gibson of Anaheim in junior. On any day, one was as good as the other, but Gibson only played one or two years in the minors. Pheonix Copley was his goalie partner in Chicago. He was in the NHL, and Binner was sitting in [the minors]."

So he told the Blues that he refused to report if demoted to the ECHL. He went home to Richmond Hill, Ontario, and waited for the process to play out. The remedy was to have Binnington play with the AHL Providence Bruins on loan.

It was something that changed the trajectory of his career. Binnington started 10-1-0 for the P-Bruins, and finished the season at 17-9-0 with a .926 save percentage. After that season, he entered Blues camp the following September expecting that he could compete for an NHL job. But even with the departure of both Brian Elliott and Carter Hutton during his time in the organization, Binnington remained buried on the depth chart behind starter Jake Allen, free-agent acquisition Chad Johnson and Ville Husso, a prospect they held in higher regard than Binnington.

"He was frustrated. He came to camp, he was ready, and he got one period of an exhibition game. But they told him that he wasn't in their plans," Redquest said.

Binnington was 25 years old. He felt he was NHL-ready. He returned to the AHL and dominated for the San Antonio Rampage -- 11-4-0, .927 save percentage -- while watching the Blues stumble out of the gate with very ordinary goaltending, eventually firing their head coach, Mike Yeo.

He watched. He waited. He needed a break.

Brodeur remembers his break. In 1993, the Devils had traded goalie Craig Billington to Ottawa for Peter Sidorkiewicz, who was expected to back up starter Chris Terreri. Except Sidorkiewicz had a bum shoulder, limiting him to just three games that season.

"I stole his job. If he comes in healthy, I don't even have a sniff of the NHL yet," Brodeur said. "It's the same thing with Binnington. If Husso doesn't get hurt, or have a slow start, Binnington's not up. Husso's up, because he's the better prospect. Certain guys can just grab it when it's time. You have to be ready when that chance comes."

The chance came when Johnson was put on waivers and Binnington was called up on Dec. 10, 2018. His first start came on Jan. 7, a victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Then another against Montreal. Then a third against Dallas, having given up just two goals in his first three starts. By Feb. 19, he was 13-1-1, having helped resurrect the Blues from the bottom of the conference to a playoff seed. By season's end, he had played himself into rookie of the year consideration with a 24-5-1 record in 32 appearances, with a .927 save percentage and an NHL-best 1.89 goals-against average.

"Nobody knows what happened, but it happened pretty good, though," Brodeur said with a laugh.

Dubicki wasn't surprised. "He just needed an opportunity. The game's a little bit quicker at the NHL level and he's got the speed to do it. Quick-thinking goalie, great reaction, incredible flexibility," he said. "He's been such a talented kid, for a long time. Just making the most of his chance."

Redquest and Binnington talk frequently, including after his Game 1 win. He knew that the rookie would make a quick impact in St. Louis when given the crease.

"He was the spark they needed in that room. He's so positive. Everybody loves him," he said. "You just want to be around him because he's a happy person. He makes you feel better about yourself."

Sometimes these things take a while for goaltenders. And when the waiting stops, the right goaltenders seize the moment.

"I don't think we made the mistake. I think the whole league made the mistake. He's a late bloomer," Brodeur said.

"If you make it at 25, that means you really, really want it. If you're a guy that was given everything at a young age, like you're a prodigy, and it hasn't happened yet when you're 25, you probably want to quit. In your mind, everything falls apart for you. But that second- or third-rounder who needs to grind, keep looking for that chance ... good things will happen to you. A lot of goalies, they're either not committed to do that or they don't get a break."

Binnington got his break, never wavering in his conviction that he could thrive when it arrived, even when he was buried on the depth chart or in the minor leagues. It's the journey that makes him savor this. It's the journey that keeps him modest.

"Every day in this league is incredible. I'm very humbled to play up here," he said.