Ever since he was a child, Corey Schwab’s life has revolved around sports. Whether it was hockey or baseball, Schwab always kept himself busy in North Battleford.
“Growing up in a small town you always feel like you’re part of the community,” he said from his home near Seattle. “I didn’t work much, I tried to dedicate my summers to training for hockey.”
He lives in the Seattle, Wash. area with his wife Debbie, and two sons Austin and Brady.
Schwab played all of his minor hockey in North Battleford, and was lucky enough to have his family play an even bigger role than they normally would.
“My father Ken was my coach through bantam, so I remember a lot of road trips with my dad,” he said.
Schwab received his first pair of goalie pads from Don Backus, who still lives in North Battleford, at the age of seven.
There was no draft for the Western Hockey League when Schwab was of age like there is now, so his path to the Seattle Thunderbirds was a little different than usual.
“They just had a 50-player protected list back then and I was never on anybody’s list,” he said. “There was a guy from Battleford, Darcy Simon, who was put on Seattle’s list and I was on the same midget AAA team. Jake Goertzen, Seattle’s head scout, saw me play and invited me to their training camp in Castlegar, B.C. Darcy made the team, I went back and played another year of midget and they invited me to their camp in Seattle the next year.”
While he had been to big cities outside of North Battleford before, Schwab says he wasn’t sure what to expect when heading to Seattle full time.
“I had been to cities like Saskatoon and Edmonton and Calgary, but I had never really been to the States so I wasn’t really sure,” he said. “I had no expectations going. My dad and I drove down to Seattle and they had two returning goalies from the year before. Fortunately for me, the backup goalie from the year before came down with mono in training camp and they ended up sending him home. I was the next guy in line, so I had the opportunity to make the team.”
His first year in the WHL was rather uneventful as he appeared in 10 games, starting just three.
“It can be challenging times,” he said. “I remember talking to my mom and dad and they asked ‘Well, are you happy?’ but at that point, when you make a commitment to the WHL, there’s no turning back because you’re ineligible for an NCAA scholarship.”
Living away from home was new to Schwab, and so was living far away from the rink in Seattle.
“The players lived so far apart,” he said. “I was about half an hour north of the city, and there were other players who were the same distance to the south. Once you go to the rink you’re there all day because you’re not going to waste time driving back and forth. The guys who didn’t go to school had to come to the rink at 10:30 for a workout, then you’d go for lunch and come back at 2:30 for practice.”
After his second year in Seattle Schwab was drafted by the New Jersey Devils 200th overall in the 1990 NHL draft.
“Not at all,” he said when asked if he expected to be drafted. “No teams had talked to me, I didn’t even have an agent at the time. I was on vacation in Hawaii at the time and didn’t find out until a few days later that I had been drafted. Somebody from the Devils got in contact with my mom and dad in North Battleford.”
After getting the news, Schwab immediately began doing research on the Devils.
“I started looking into what goalies they had,” he said. “The same year I was drafted they drafted Martin Brodeur in the first round, and Mike Dunham in the third round. You start thinking about your chances of signing with them.”
Schwab received an NHL contract during his third and final year with Seattle, and remembers that moment fondly.
“It was the best day of my life up to that point,” he said. “It was surreal. It was something that I dreamed about. I walked into the GM’s office and he had the contract there waiting for me.”
Schwab began his professional career with the Utica Devils, and spent four full seasons in the minor leagues, culminating with an AHL Calder Cup title in 1995 with the Albany River Rats.
“We beat the Fredericton Canadiens in the final and I was able to have my dad along to experience winning,” he said. Schwab and Dunham split the AHL playoff MVP award.
The 1994-95 NHL season was locked out for the first half of the year, so by the time Albany had won the Calder Cup, the NHL playoffs were still going. Schwab was called up to the Devils to practice with the team for the remainder of the season, and was able to celebrate with the Stanley Cup after the Devils won.
“I had the opportunity to be the third goalie for them so it was great to win the Calder Cup and experience what guys go through during the Stanley Cup playoffs,” he said.
Schwab began the 1995-96 season with the New Jersey Devils, and says despite not getting much playing time, the feeling of being on an NHL team was a long time coming.
“It was a dream come true,” he said. “It’s everything that I set my sights on, putting the time in the minors playing four full years you start wondering if you’re ever going to get the opportunity.”
He appeared in 10 games with the Devils that season and was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the summer. It was an opportunity for Schwab to get more playing time.
“Playing behind Brodeur, he was clearly the number one guy, and they had Darren Puppa in Tampa but I felt like it was an opportunity to play in more games,” he said. “Tampa was a great city. Really enjoyed playing there, really enjoyed living there. One of the benefits of living there is I finally had a lot of friends and family who wanted to come visit.”
Schwab spent three years in Tampa, including the 1997-98 season when they went 17-47-10. That summer the Lightning drafted Vincent Lecavalier who was seen as a big time prospect season who could turn a franchise around, and Schwab says players on struggling NHL teams know the implications of a getting a player of that calibre.
“You’re definitely aware of it,” he said, “I’ve been following this (Connor) McDavid and (Jack) Eichel process this year, and I’ve heard people ask players ‘are you guys tanking to get the top pick?’ and that’s the furthest thing from their minds. Those guys are playing to save their jobs. They’re not playing to bring anyone else in.”
Schwab says one of his favourite memories about playing in Tampa was, strangely enough, a time he got scored on.
“It was the first game at the new arena for the Lightning and I got to play in it against the Rangers,” he explained. “Wayne Gretzky scored on the first shot he ever took on me. I can still picture it in my head, he gets a breakaway and I swear he was shooting high-glove and he kind of flubbed on it and it rolled over my stick and went five-hole. It’s a memory I’ll have forever just with him being my idol growing up.”
Schwab says he met Gretzky as a kid when he came to North Battleford for an autograph signing.
After the 1998-99 season, Schwab was taken by the Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL expansion draft, but was traded just a few months later to the Vancouver Canucks.
“I remember getting a phone call from Brian Burke and Marc Crawford in Vancouver and I was on a plane the next morning to Vancouver and I was starting the game the next night,” he laughed.
After spending the entire 2000-01 season in the minors, Schwab attended the Toronto Maple Leafs camp on a try-out basis.
“I didn’t have any contract offers from anybody and was waiting if anyone would call last minute,” he said. “I had a good camp and they offered me a contract a few days before the season.”
Toronto is the centre of the hockey world, and Schwab says being a professional hockey player there is exactly what you’d expect.
“It’s as crazy as people make it out to be,” he said with a laugh. “Anywhere I would try to go, restaurants, malls, people would recognize you and tell you how much they love the Leafs and what they mean to them. There’s multiple reporters for each newspaper and you really had to be aware of what you’re saying and who you’re talking to because if you say the wrong thing one time there’s no taking it back. I really admired guys like Mats Sundin and Curtis Joseph, guys who played in Toronto for a long time. Just the way they handled the media and the fans every day.”
The excitement was magnified during the playoffs when the Leafs reached the conference finals, the last Leafs team to do that.
“I had never seen anything like it,” he admitted. “We would win a game and all the sudden you can’t leave the rink. The streets are jammed and people are honking their horns. I lived downtown so I’d put a hat on, put my head down and walk to the rink hoping nobody would recognize me.”
After the 2001-02 season Schwab re-signed with the Devils, knowing he would have a good opportunity at a championship. One of the most nerve-wracking moments of his career came during the last game of the regular season.
“We were tied for lowest goals against in the league and Brodeur got a game off before the playoffs in a game where the Jennings Trophy was on the line,” he said. “I think I was more nervous for that game than I was during the finals because there was something on the line that I knew meant a lot to Marty.”
Because Schwab didn’t play the minimum number of games to qualify for the Jennings trophy, Brodeur still tied the combo of Roman Cechmanek and Robert Esche of the Philadelphia Flyers for the Jennings trophy, awarded to the goaltender(s) who allow the fewest goals over the course of the season.
The Devils reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2003, and Schwab was able to get into game action in game six.
“I got an opportunity to go in the third period down 5-2 at the time,” he said. “[Anaheim] scored to make it 5-2 and (Devils head coach) Pat Burns looked at me and said, ‘are you ready to go?’ and I said, ‘yep.’ Being in that game and having my mom and dad, my brothers Darin and Dallen and my good friend (Battlefords AAA Stars coach) Martin Smith, they were all there so it was a neat experience to play in the game and to have those people who were part of my success growing up.”
The Devils were up by three goals late in game seven, but while Schwab says the last few minutes went by quick, there was another moment from that game he remembers most.
“We were up 2-0 and after we scored the third goal Scott Stevens, who was our captain and doesn’t say much, turned to the bench and said ‘we’re going to win the Stanley Cup,’” he recalled. “For me it was a relief. I didn’t know how much longer I was going to play and everything I’ve put into my life was to play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup so it was a dream come true.”
The Devils celebrated with the Cup by appearing on TV talk shows and going to Yankee Stadium.
“They took us around the warning track in golf carts before the game and in true New York fashion people are booing us and yelling ‘lets go Rangers!’” he laughed. “The ultimate for me was being able to bring the Cup back to North Battleford. We had a little hockey game with my friends, my brother’s friends and my dad’s friends and to allow everyone to skate around with the Stanley Cup like they had won it was an unbelievable experience.”
Schwab played just three games the following season before retiring due to ongoing injuries, which was something he wasn’t prepared for.
“I wasn’t ready for it because my goal was to play as long as somebody wanted me,” he said. “Other than that injury I felt my body held up pretty well.”
Schwab became part of the goalie coaching team with the Lightning for the 05-06 season, and says being a coach was something he thought about doing for a while.
“Goertzen became the head scout for the Lightning and he came up with the idea of bringing in another goalie coach to their organization,” he said. “During that lockout year (2004-05) I went out and scouted some games in and around Seattle just on my own and filed my reports to him. He offered me a position as an associate goalie coach and it’s something I didn’t think twice about.”
After three years with the Lightning, Schwab moved to San Jose to take the same position with the Sharks, spending three years working strictly in the minor leagues before working in the NHL and minor leagues for the past four years.
“I’ll be on the road for a week or 10 days and then be at home for the same amount of time,” he said. “I have more flexibility while I’m at home to spend time with my family. I have two boy’s who are 12 and 14. When I’m home, I’m watching video in the morning and in the evenings I try and get on the ice with my boy’s teams and help out however I can.”
Schwab says each goalie he works with is different and the challenge is finding a way to relate to all of them through different teaching styles.
“To me it’s about building a relationship with the goalie,” he explained. “For the most part they appreciate having a second set of eyes there. They know what mistakes they’ve made and for me it’s just finding the right drills and the right way to approach them on certain things that I feel they need to improve on. It doesn’t have to be ‘what I say goes’ because I know what it’s like to play. To me communication is the key and I really want to know what goalies are feeling.”
When a goalie Schwab has worked with has success, it makes him feel accomplished. Troy Grosenick posted a shutout in his first NHL game for the Sharks last season, setting an NHL record for most saves in an NHL debut shutout with 45.
“For him to play the type of game he had, it was a remarkable experience for him and I definitely feel a part of it,” he said.
After a long playing career, Schwab says he’s found his new passion and plans on sticking with this career for a long time.
“I love being around the rink. I was a rink rat when I was a kid, I remember going to junior games when I was kid which was the Barons back in the day,” he said. “Whether it was helping out zamboni drivers or being a stick boy, sports is my life and I hope to continue doing this for as long as someone gives me an opportunity to.”
Schwab says while wanting to play one sport more than others is fine, expanding your sporting exploits is never a bad idea.
“I think it’s important for kids growing up that they continue to play multiple sports,” he said. “I feel it’s important to be a good all-around athlete. I recognize it and the NHL scouts recognize it when a player is an all-around good athlete. It seems like those kids find a way to make it. As much as they can, it’s important for parents to allow their kids to play multiple sports and whatever they have a passion for, that’s what they’re going to have success with.”
It certainly worked for him.