From napping in Charlotte to an NHL bench in Vegas: Inside Capitals’ goalie Hunter Shepard’s wild day

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LAS VEGAS — Hershey Bears goalie Hunter Shepard was lying in bed in his Charlotte hotel room Saturday afternoon, napping in preparation for a game against the Charlotte Checkers later that night, when his phone started buzzing.

He picked up.

The call was from Hershey’s vice president of hockey operations, Bryan Helmer, informing him there was a flight from Charlotte to Las Vegas leaving in about 90 minutes, and he needed to be on it.

Hours later Shepard was on the Washington Capitals bench inside T-Mobile Arena — 1,920 miles west of Charlotte — backing up Darcy Kuemper for the game against the Vegas Golden Knights. Fortunately, Washington didn’t end up needing to call him into action, but it was a whirlwind day nonetheless for the backup netminder.

“It’s just part of (the job),” Shepard said following the game, shrugging the rollercoaster day off with the indifference of an experienced minor league goalie. “That’s just how it goes.”

Now in his fourth professional season, having bounced between the ECHL, AHL and NHL, Shepard was genuinely unfazed by a day that would’ve left many with their heads spinning.

“The guys here are so on top of stuff,” Shepard said, praising the Washington hockey operations and equipment staff. “There’s no way I would’ve even made it here. The fact that he even got me a flight (was impressive).”

Shepard’s Saturday started with a morning skate at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte. He went through his typical routine, prepared to start against the Checkers in the second game of a back-to-back.

Meanwhile in Las Vegas the Capitals took the ice for morning skate without backup goalie Charlie Lindgren, who was out with what the Capitals deemed “body maintenance” according to Bailey Johnson of the Washington Post.

With Lindgren unable to play the Capitals desperately needed a backup goalie and called on Shepard.

“I woke up and there was a flight in like an hour and a half,” Shepard recalled. “(Helmer) just grabbed a car, I grabbed my stuff and he took me to the airport. I jumped on a plane and made it here in time.”

Shepard and the Capitals were fortunate the Bears were on the road. If he had been at home in Hershey it would’ve been more challenging if not impossible to get to Las Vegas in time. He also had the time difference working in his favor. He was three hours ahead of his Capitals teammates when he took off from Charlotte Douglas International Airport for the nearly five-hour-long flight.

Unlike most NHL travel, which is done on private chartered flights, in this emergency situation Shepard was flying commercial. He landed at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas with just enough time to get to the arena before the 10 p.m. ET puck drop.

“They just had a driver there at the airport,” Shepard explained. “He helped me grab my stuff, and he parked close so we got out of there pretty quick. It wasn’t bad.”

It wasn’t bad except for one minor issue: Shepard’s goalie pads weren’t on the plane when he landed in Las Vegas.

“I made it to the arena with plenty of time, but my bags got put on the next plane or something, so that was the only reason I was rushing a little bit,” he said.

When the Capitals took the ice for pregame warmups, Kuemper was alone in net. Shepard’s pads eventually arrived at the arena, but not in time for him to hit the ice for warmups. Instead, he spent time in the bowels of the arena, going through his stretching routine and bouncing balls off the brick wall to sharpen his hand-eye coordination.

He eventually joined his teammates on the bench, minutes into the first period. Kuemper played the entirety of the 4-1 loss to the Golden Knights. Shepard ultimately wasn’t needed, but that didn’t detract from his teammates’ appreciation. He was greeted in the dressing room by high fives and thanks for helping out.

Shepard has had an excellent start to the season. He’s 9-1-0 in Hershey, the best record of any goalie in the AHL. In two starts for the Capitals, he’s 2-0-0 with a .915 save percentage. His most impressive skill may be his ability to roll with the punches. He said even after a cross-country flight, last-minute arrival and temporarily losing his pads, he felt ready to play if he had been called upon.

“Everything that I would do if I was playing on a normal game day, I did today,” he said. “Besides the flight, which was whatever. I prepared like I was going to play, so it was like normal. I skated this morning, had my regular pregame meal, so I was honestly ready to go.”

(Photo of Hunter Shepard with the Washington Capitals in November: Michael Mooney / NHLI via Getty Images)

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