The Columbus Cottonmouths have gone through plenty of players on their roster, mainly to find the right talent to avenge their last-place finish last season, but also to supplement those injured in the team’s Jan. 19 bus crash just outside Peoria, Ill.
One of those midseason pickups is goaltender Spencer Bacon. The 25-year-old native of Victoria, B.C., came to the team as a rookie after a three-year stint at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa.
“I first spoke to (Columbus head coach) Jerome (Bechard) a couple of months ago,” Bacon said. “He sent me an email and said he was going to bring someone in. I emailed him right back to show my interest, but he went in a different direction with Gordon Ceasar.
“Gordon had other plans as well, though, so he left the team, and Jerome got back in touch with me in the beginning of January. It’s been a real positive experience since then.”
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The Cottonmouths host Evansville on Friday night and first-place Huntsville on Saturday night at the Columbus Civic Center. The puck will drop at 7:30 p.m. both nights.
Bacon made his professional debut on Jan. 5 against Huntsville in relief of starter Brandon Jaeger and performed admirably. He stopped 24 of the 25 shots on goal he faced in a 4-1 loss to the Havoc.
“Before I came here, I thought my hockey career was over,” Bacon said. “I hadn’t skated in probably two months, and I work part-time for a company doing what I went to school for. I played one of my better games this season but was probably running on pure adrenaline.”
However, his first two professional starts didn’t go as well, with Bacon surrendering six goals each game in losses at Knoxville on Jan. 13 and against Pensacola on Jan. 15.
Since then, however, he has buckled down, with his numbers among some of the best in the SPHL in his past five games. Including his first pro victory, a 4-2 home win against Roanoke on Jan. 27, he has a 2.41 goals-against average and an impressive .936 save percentage in that time.
“In the past six weeks, I’ve been getting back into midseason form,” Bacon said. “I feel really comfortable now and have been getting better every night. It’s a learning curve for sure, playing consistently two games a week. It’s been awesome adjusting to the pro level, just as much fun as I expected it to be.”
His last time out was a 1-0 shutout win over Fayetteville on Sunday, his first professional shutout and only the second shutout for the Cottonmouths all season, dating back to a 2-0 blanking of the same FireAntz team in Fayetteville by goaltender Lukas Hafner on Nov. 5.
“It felt awesome,” Bacon said. “That’s the most dialed-in I felt for a game. Brandon Fehd actually jinxed me in the room the first period. He put $20 on the board if I got a shutout, and everyone was like ‘Awww, c’mon.’ I thought that hope was gone after that, but it was great. Our defensemen were clearing out all the pucks and all my rebounds. There wasn’t more you could ask for.”
Bacon has one asset that cannot be taught – size. At 6-foot-6, he takes up a lot of real estate in front of the 4-by-6-foot net.
“I’m very grateful to have a big frame like that,” Bacon said. “I don’t have to move as much as the little guys. What I try to do is move as little as possible and put myself in a good position. I play a butterfly style, so I’m dropping down on every shot, moving on my knees and getting as square to the puck as I can. It gives me a little leeway having that big frame.”
Fans who get to the Civic Center early enough on a night when Bacon is the starting goaltender get to see him work out with forward Evan Neugold. With a dozen pucks or so, Neugold shoots pucks at Bacon’s catching glove, then blocker, then leg pads, then into his chest pad.
“Warmups for me is getting my eyes going,” Bacon said. “I do a pretty heavy off-ice warmup to get my legs going, so I’m feeling fine. On ice, it’s more about puck tracking, taking as many shots and watching the puck to my body. I get a shooter like Goldie where I’m confident about his puck placement.”
Bacon was on the Columbus roster when the bus crash occurred last month. For him, it was a harrowing experience, although he escaped with only a few bumps and bruises.
“I was sitting in the back on one of the top bunks across from Keegan Bruce,” Bacon said of the crash. “We realized we were rolling, and I blacked out. When I came to, I remember looking around, and it looked like a bomb went off. I remember thinking to myself ‘there’s no way someone’s not dead, someone’s seriously hurt.’ I looked and Keegan’s beside me and we’re both just covered in mud.
“The first thing I did was look down and see if I was injured. Everyone was on the same page, making sure everyone else was OK. (Jaeger) was in the worst shape, so we cleared some of the rubble and bunks off him so the first responders could have a better angle.
“The Peoria people were awesome at getting us right to the hospital. (Rivermen owner Bart Rogers) drove me to the hotel from the hospital, so I can’t say enough about that. But the experience was something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But I’m happy everyone is OK for the most part.”
Bacon agrees with many observers both in and around the team that the bus crash galvanized the team and brought them closer than ever before, helping them to a surge in the standings over the past four weeks.
“There’s absolutely no question,” he said. “I was talking to one of the guys (Wednesday) about it, actually. Being in an experience like that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, especially since we all got away alive. That really brought us together as a family for sure. You look across the room at someone and know you’ve been through something wild with that person.
“It brings you closer in the fact we’ve been to battle on and off the ice now, and I’m confident in you, you’re confident in me, and let’s do this all together.”