Thomas Hodges, a 27-year-old life insurance salesman from the Metroplex, became an NHL goaltender Friday night. For the final twenty minutes of Dallas Stars’ regular-season finale at the American Airlines Center, Hodges took the net as an emergency replacement goalie for the injury-depleted Anaheim Ducks.
It’s not like Hodges had never played in a pro game before. He had in the minor leagues. Once. For one minute.
“I was probably about as nervous as I’ve ever been,” Hodges said after the game. “I’ve never played in front of so many people. But, you know—experience of a lifetime and something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life for sure.”
Hodges was twelve when his family moved to the Dallas area from Shropshire, England. He began playing youth hockey and dreamed of making it to the NHL, but his chances of competing at the highest level were cut short when a puck struck the fourteen-year-old Hodges in the head, causing impaired vision his left eye. He never left the sport, however, and went on to play goalie for Plano West Senior High School and then train with the club hockey team while attending SMU. After graduating, Hodges stayed involved with the sport by serving as an occasional practice player and emergency goalie for the minor league Allen Americans. He traveled with the team several times, but only made it onto the ice for the final fifty seconds of one game in 2016.
After the NHL began requiring franchises to make emergency backup goalies (EBUGs, in hockey parlance) available in 2016, Stars assistant general manager Mark Janko recommended Hodges for the job. League rules allow teams to field two goaltenders in their active rosters for every game, and if those goalies become unable to play, the replacement players are on hand to step in for either squad. But over the past six seasons, the desperate measure has only been used a handful of times. (Most recently, a then-42-year-old EBUG named David Ayres earned a win for the Carolina Hurricanes in February 2020 in Toronto.)
At Dallas home games, Janko typically alternates scheduling Hodges and his counterpart, Kenny Carroll, to watch the action from the arena’s lower bowl, seated close to the elevator so they can get down to the event level in a hurry. He has just one rule for them: no alcohol.
Friday’s game marked the fifth time Hodges has been summoned to dress for a possible appearance, but it was the first time he actually made it onto the ice. After an injury knocked Ducks starter John Gibson out of the game after the first period, Anaheim brought on second-string goalie Anthony Stolarz, who also got hurt and was unable to continue after the second period.
Carroll, who manages a Stars-affiliated family ice rink in Richardson, was originally scheduled to be Friday’s fill-in, but he asked Hodges to swap dates. Oops—neither of them informed the team of the switch. When Gibson bowed out at the end of the first period, the Stars first contacted Carroll to tell him to be ready, just in case Stolarz needed a replacement. It took a few more minutes to reach Hodges. Just in case . . .
He rushed to the staff parking lot beneath the arena to grab his gear. “It was a little bit of a jog,” he said after the game, “but it helped me get warmed up.” That equipment included a mask adorned with Dallas Stars art plus gloves and leg pads in Stars’ green.
The EBUG isn’t allowed to associate directly with the team whose goal he might be protecting until it becomes certain he’s needed. So Hodges spent most of Friday’s second period alone in a small side room within the visiting team’s quarters, slowly dressing with a number 68 jersey that had no nameplate on the back. Then an Anaheim staffer stuck his head in and, taking one look at Hodges, suggested he dress faster. About two minutes before the beginning of the third period, another Ducks employee came in and said, “Hey, he can’t go. You’re going to have to go.”
“At which point, it may seem really strange, but I suddenly was less nervous,” Hodges told Texas Monthly in a follow-up interview. “I was still sweating, but it was a more familiar thing—getting ready for a hockey game.”
As the Ducks gathered in the tunnel to take the ice for the third period, a couple players yelled “Solo lap!,” referring to the NHL tradition of allowing any first-timer to skate out alone and circle the rink once before the rest of the team charges onto the ice.
Hodges didn’t hear all that. He did approach Ducks forward Troy Terry while they waited in the tunnel: “By the way, what’s the score? Are we still in the game?” Hodges took what amounted to a solo half lap, which he noticed only when he glanced back and saw the sizable gap between himself and his nearest teammate.
Before the puck was dropped to begin the final period, the arena JumboTron showed a close-up of Hodges. Some fans noticed that the Anaheim goaltender appeared to be wearing a Stars helmet. A few seconds later, a chyron was added to the bottom of his image—“Thomas Hodges, emergency goalie.”
The contest was relatively unimportant to the visiting Ducks, who had already been eliminated from playoff contention and were simply playing out their final regular-season game. The Stars, however, were looking to improve their Western Conference playoff seeding with a win.
The score was 2–2 when Hodges took his position between the pipes. The Stars surely sensed the opportunity to capitalize on the Ducks’ net-minding misfortune.
It took more than six and a half minutes for Dallas to record an official shot on goal; shots that whiz past the goal or are blocked before reaching the goalie aren’t counted. This one came from the face-off circle to Hodges’ left by forward Roope Hintz, one of the Stars’ top scorers. Hodges deftly kicked it to his left, to the backboards.
The initial reaction of most of the 18,532 fans inside the arena was disappointment that Hintz’s blast was stopped. But a minute and a half later, when Stars forward Tyler Seguin sent a pass ahead from the far opposite side of the ice that wound up scooting slowly toward Hodges, the fans cheered as he steered the puck to a teammate. (The official stats recorded the play as a 160-foot shot on goal.)
Almost halfway into the twenty-minute period, the score was still 2–2, and Hodges’s record remained spotless, with two saves. But his task grew increasingly tougher when Ducks forward Trevor Zegras was sent to the penalty box for interference, which meant Hodges would have to defend Anaheim’s goal with his team shorthanded for two minutes (unless the Stars scored before then) while Dallas attempted to score a go-ahead goal during the power play.
Stars center Joe Pavelski won the subsequent face-off, and after few back-and-forth passes, Dallas’s top goal scorer, Jason Robertson, fired a thirty-foot laser toward the net. The airborne puck grazed the stick of an Anaheim defenseman, ever so slightly changed direction, and slid beneath Hodges’s pads into the net. Like most NHL goalies, he skated slowly to the sideboards to compose himself as the fans who’d cheered him only minutes earlier celebrated Dallas taking the lead.
“Look, it would be very easy for me to say the only goal I gave up was because it was redirected,” Hodges said. “But you know what? The Anaheim players played such amazing defense all period. They really stuck their legs out for me, gave everything they’ve got. I will absolutely take a tough deflection. So, no complaints at all. It’s a shot on goal; it’s my responsibility.”
That was the Stars’ last shot on goal. With two minutes left to play, Anaheim coach Dallas Eakins ordered Hodges to the bench for an extra skater. With the Ducks’ net empty, the Stars managed one more uncontested goal, and Hodges returned to the ice to finish the game as the Stars won 4–2. In the record books, he’ll go down as the losing goalie. Hodges’s 19 minutes and 16 seconds was the shortest time on ice of all 119 goaltenders who appeared in NHL games this season.
But how often is the losing goalie treated like this? When the “save of the game” was played on the JumboTron in the third period, the production crew chose Hodges’s stop on Hintz. Seconds after the final horn, Stars forward Michael Raffl skated over to Hodges and bear-hugged him. Then all the Anaheim Ducks congratulated him as if he’d won. The Stars lined up as they would at the end of a hard-fought playoff series and shook hands with him. Last was Dallas captain Jamie Benn, who escorted Hodges off the ice. They skated side by side to the visiting team’s tunnel.
Hodges returned to the rink briefly when he was recognized as one of the game’s three stars, acknowledging the appreciative crowd with a wave of his stick. Then he headed back to the Anaheim locker room, where he pushed open the door and was welcomed by a raucous water-bottle shower from his teammates-for-a-period. “Speech! Speech!” some of them yelled.
“Hey, boys, thanks for so much for having me,” he said, his gear drenched. “I think everybody knows I was about ready to have a panic attack right there on the ice, but, you know, talking to you guys has made it so much easier. So, thanks so much for calming me down.” He was then presented with a game puck. And he’ll keep the number 68 jersey.
Down the hall, during his postgame press conference, Stars coach Rick Bowness confessed: “I had no idea who he was. . . . I’m very happy for him.”
The Stars begin their first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames Tuesday in Canada, but the chances of Hodges or Carroll making an appearance during the postseason is miniscule. Most teams add an additional goalie to their roster, as Dallas did Saturday.
Hodges and his colleagues at New York Life in Frisco are mostly working remotely these days, but if they were reporting into the office, he’d have the best “How was your weekend?” tale of all time. Even without any high fives around the watercooler, he can already sense his coworkers’ excitement.
“I think,” he said, “the work group chat got ahold of the story.”