During the 1997-98 season, the Tri-City Americans won just 17 games. Along the way, goaltender Aaron Baker set a team record for saves in a season — 1,825 — and didn’t even know it.
That record still stands 16 years later, but Eric Comrie is on the cusp of knocking Baker off his perch.
Comrie enters tonight’s game at Toyota Center against the Everett Silvertips with 1,751 saves. With six games left in the regular season, he needs 74 saves to tie Baker and 75 to have the record for himself.
“I wouldn’t have expected I would have held the record, but when I look back, it makes sense,” Baker said of the Americans’ worst season in the Tri-Cities. “There are a few other stats I have from that season that I don’t want (4.82 goals against average, .869 save percentage and a 15-42-4 record). That was a rough season for us. We had a really young team. Now that I know I have the record, I can enjoy it for a couple of hours.”
More likely a couple of days, at least.
After tonight’s game with Everett, the Americans are at Kelowna on Saturday. Barring any unforeseen problems, Comrie should own the record in two or three games.
“I didn’t even know I was coming close to it until someone pointed it out to me,” said Comrie, a second-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets in the 2013 NHL draft. “You just play every single game, and all the sudden at the end of the year you look at it and say, ‘Oh I didn’t know.’ It just falls into place. It’s a lot of fun to beat a record, but it’s more about the team and how the team does. How we win, how we compete. At the end of the day, it’s a team sport and that’s the way it should be.”
Outside the Americans’ dressing room, team records stretch down the wall — everything from points to penalty minutes to shutouts. Comrie’s name does not appear yet, but likely will when the wall is updated this summer.
“I’m not on the wall,” Comrie said. “It’s amazing to look at the wall and see all the names. Carey Price, Chet Pickard, Brian Boucher, Olaf Kolzig and all the guys who have made the NHL. It makes you strive for that goal. Just to see what those guys have done gives you hope that you can do it. But you don’t play for the accolades or the awards. You play because you love the game.”
Baker is on the wall for career minutes played (8,053) and shutouts (6). The saves record is not listed.
“It’s great to see young talent come in and break old records,” Baker said. “Glad to see there is still is a great tradition of goaltenders in Tri-City — Olie Klozig to Boucher to Price. It’s quite a list.”
Baker also holds the Americans’ record for games played in a season with 65. Pickard has 64, and if Comrie plays out the season, he will have 63, tying Price for third on the list.
“I want to start every game. I want to play 72 games a year,” Comrie said. “I know Jim (coach Hiller) doesn’t want me to play 72 games a year. You can get a little tired doing that, especially my first year coming back from (hip) surgery. Playing this many games is a big confidence boost for me. My body feels amazing right now after all the minutes I have played (3,346). I want to keep going out there and win every single game going down the stretch.
“Sixty-five games is a lot. Chet, Carey and Aaron, they played a lot of games and it goes to show how hard they worked to reach that. It’s fun to be compared to those guys, but there is still a long way to go before I get there.”
Whereas Comrie was a first-round bantam pick by the Americans in 2010, Baker arrived in the Tri-Cities via a trade from Prince George in 1995. He was a sixth-round bantam pick of the Cougars in 1993.
“I really enjoyed my time in Tri-City,” Baker said. “Looking back, I would have enjoyed my time more if it wasn’t hockey, hockey, hockey all the time. That’s my fault.”
Baker, from the small town of Eckville, Alberta, played for the Americans from 1995-99. During the 1998-99 season, coach Don Hay traded him to Saskatoon. He has yet to forgive him.
“When I got traded, I drove to Saskatoon,” Baker said. “After the first game, I had to leave my car in the parking lot at the rink because it was frozen over. It was minus-40 and my car wasn’t used to that. Tri-City is a nice place to live when it comes to winter in the WHL.”
During his stay with the Americans, Baker played with the likes of Scott Gomez, Daymond Langkow, Terry Ryan, Dylan Gyori and Boucher.
“When Gomez came to Tri-City, we had an average team,” Baker said. “He enjoyed playing the game. We had a rough year the first year he was here (1997-98), but he always had a smile on his face. Gomez was the type to go on and have a good NHL career. Langkow too. They were a step above everyone else.”
After his WHL career was over, Baker took a year off from hockey and worked in the oil fields in Alberta. Then, he launched a four-year career with the University of Calgary. He graduated in 2004 with a degree in finance. He has worked for BP Canada in Calgary for 10 years.
Even though he has been out of the game for many years, his past catches up with him every once in awhile.
“We were moving into a neighborhood in Calgary a few years back and one of my neighbors, Glenn Agnew, said I looked familiar,” Baker said. “We went through the standard ‘where have you worked, where have you lived.’ Then he asked if I played hockey. I told him I played in the Western League for Tri-City. He asked if I got into a fight in Seattle, and I told him yes. He said he remembered the fight. He was a referee for that game.”
Baker fought Seattle goalie Cody Rudkowsky on Jan. 16, 1998, at KeyArena in Seattle. With the theme song from Rocky blaring from the sound system, the referees let the two goalies exchange blows for nearly a minute before separating them.
“I had never seen the fight,” Baker said. “Glenn told me it was on Youtube. I’ve watched it and so have people at the office.”
Baker, 36, and his wife Carmen have two daughters, Ava, 9, and Elle, 6. The girls don’t play hockey, but they do like winter sports.
“They are big into snowboarding,” Baker said. “We spend a lot of time in the ski hills. It’s something I have taken up since I quit playing.”
A hockey player’s career in the WHL is short — no more than five years. With that said, Baker had a piece of advice for Comrie.
“Really enjoy your time there,” Baker said. “Junior is tough; it’s not an easy life. It becomes almost a business. But it’s a game. Enjoy it because it goes by so fast.”
w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: tchicequeen