EDITOR’S NOTE: It will be First Responders Night on Friday and Saturday at Hertz Arena for the Florida Everblades’ respective games against the South Carolina Stingrays and Orlando Solar Bears. The Blades will don specialty first responders’ jerseys for both games, and proceeds from the team’s jersey auction — which is currently underway — will be donated to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
The story of every goalie’s life is making the next save in net and never looking back, only moving forward.
For former Florida Everblades goalies Craig Kowalski and Cam McCormick, the next save after their hockey careers was making saves in the community.
After an 11-year professional career in North America and Europe, Kowalski, 40, came back to Fort Myers to work as a firefighter for the Lee County Port Authority near Southwest Florida International Airport. There is plenty for Kowalski to do on an average day. His day starts at 7 a.m. with a shift meeting, and from there, he checks out the trucks and equipment. After that he does training and is ready to tackle any situations that pop up in the community. At the airport, he mostly deals with medical, fire and aircraft-related emergencies.
McCormick, 43, played for two years professionally before becoming a deputy for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. McCormick’s average day at work consists of answering calls for service, making traffic stops, conducting area checks on locations in high crime areas and checking on the health of livestock throughout the county.
Kowalski is relatively new to firefighting, as he started immediately after he retired in 2017. McCormick, who retired in 2005, has been working at the Lee County Sheriff’s Office for 12 years and has been a deputy for nine of them.
In a lot of ways, coming from in net to out on the field has been very similar for the two former Everblades goalies.
“It’s a way to still have a locker room experience, which is what I miss most about not playing hockey anymore,” said Kowalski, who was brilliant during the 2006-07 season — the last of his three seasons with the Everblades — when he went 29-13-4 with three shutouts, a 2.61 goals against average and a .918 save percentage.
“Working with your partners is really no different than playing on a team,” said McCormick, who went 9-2-2 during his only season (2002-03) with the Everblades. “You have to know their personalities and when to step to help when things are beginning to go sideways. You have to count on them as much as they count on you.”
Added Kowalski: “The major similarity is that you are still part of a team, which I really enjoy. You just can’t accomplish your goals if you act individually. Whether it’s saving or scoring a goal, or saving a life, multiple people need to do their part in order to complete the task at hand. Having people come together and work toward a common goal is something I’ve always enjoyed.”
Goalies have to make split-second decisions and come up with the next big save to keep their team in the game. It’s been no different for McCormick in the field.
“Hockey, especially as a goaltender, is a very reactionary position — you don’t really think about what you’re doing,” McCormick said. “As a law enforcement officer, you make split-second decisions every day which could resonate the rest of your life or the life (of the) person you’re dealing with.”
In hockey, some players are notorious for how quickly they get ready in the locker room while others take their time and aren’t ready until seconds before the puck drops. For Kowalski, that has translated to his job as a firefighter.
“Getting gear on quickly is way more important in the fire service (than it is in hockey),” he said. “With hockey you know exactly when you are going on the ice, so you can get dressed as slow or quickly as you want. With our job, you never know when a call is going to come in, so it is critical for you to get dressed extremely fast in order to get out of the station and to whoever needs our help.”
The biggest similarity McCormick and Kowalski share is the leadership skills they acquired over their years playing hockey. In a lot of ways, the police and fire departments rely heavily on these leadership skills on and off the field of work.
“You have 20 different personalities in the locker room who count on you and you count on every game,” McCormick said. “It’s no different than dealing with your shift mates and people you deal with on every call. It’s the duck-on-water analogy: Be perceived as calm and showing a command presence when your insides are churning.”
Said Kowalski: “Leadership qualities that transfer over are actually quite similar. With hockey, you essentially meet 20 or so new people every year. You learn and see so many different personalities that it prepares you with the skills to learn (that) what might work for someone doesn’t necessarily work for another. I have a large crew at my station — eleven or so — so it definitely has helped me in that aspect.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed for McCormick or Kowalski? They are still looking for their next big save.