For another goaltender, one who lived more comfortably through the years, this might have qualified as a strange situation.
A last-minute phone call. An early-morning flight. Playing a game with no practice alongside teammates he only just met.
Before Sean Bonar was the emergency opening night starter for the Kansas City Mavericks, he had done that sort of thing before. The British Columbia native built the early part of his career around it.
“This is my seventh year pro now,” Bonar said. “For the first three years or so, I wasn’t really stable anywhere. I’ve gotten my fair share of calls like this where you need to be in a town the next night playing a hockey game.”
Bonar has carved out an unusual niche. He is, more than anything else, a survivor.
The Princeton grad has bounced around the ECHL since 2014 while never having an NHL or AHL contract. It’s almost impossible to make a living that way for that long. Most goalies either give up or the league gives up on them.
Three games for Indy. Two for Orlando. Five for Brampton. Three for Fort Wayne. Nine for Wichita.
Between those stops and starts over his first three seasons, Bonar played 70 games in the SPHL. That’s where players who can’t find an opening in “The Coast” often bide their time.
“You need luck and a hole to open up,” Bonar said. “You need to be prepared for that. It wasn’t an easy few years but I learned a lot for sure. I learned how to take confidence from myself and not from any outside voices, which is a pretty important lesson.”
Bonar’s big break came with Atlanta during the 2017-18 season. That was the first place he had staying power.
For goalies on ECHL contracts, it takes someone else getting injured or deciding not to play. Opportunities are often created by paperwork rather than performance.
Bonar played three seasons for Atlanta. He even had two cups of coffee with the Gladiators’ AHL affiliate in Providence. There was finally some stability.
That was supposed to continue this season. Bonar re-signed with Atlanta in July. His plans fell through when the Gladiators opted out of the season three months later.
Bonar was back in that familiar spot of looking for a job when few were available. That was especially true this season, when COVID-19 meant only 13 teams began play before Christmas.
Being an outsider hasn’t worn him down.
“You can look at that one of two ways,” Bonar said. “You can get bitter about it or frustrated and blame everyone else. Or you can see it as a freeing way to look at things. You just have to look inward for your drive and the chips are going to fall wherever they’re going to fall. It’s not a reflection on you at all.”
Bonar spent training camp with Jacksonville on a tryout contract. He was released by the IceMen on Dec. 9 and joined the Mavericks two days later.
When he was looking for a job over the summer, Bonar had productive conversations with Kansas City coach Tad O’Had. That’s how he ended up on the Mavericks’ radar when they were scrambling for a starter after both of their goalies went on the COVID exempt list.
Bonar made 26 saves and Kansas City lost to Indy 4-3 in a shootout on Dec. 11. He spent about 10 days in quarantine after testing positive for COVID and has returned to play one more time.
Through all his travels, the 6-1, 175-pound veteran has played 121 ECHL games, recorded eight shutouts and posted a .909 save percentage.
Bonar has a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from an Ivy League school. It’s not like he has to play hockey. There are other paths available to him.
What has kept him around for so long?
“I still like learning and improving every year,” Bonar said. “I’m not clutching on and overextending my career. The year I stop improving is the year I’ll probably stop playing. I like to think I’m still pushing. That’s why I keep doing it.”
Bonar is good enough to play at this level. That’s why there has always been another job waiting for him.
Jason Guarente has covered the Reading Royals and ECHL for 10 seasons. He can be found on Twitter @JasonGuarente.