The Kings have gotten an early and special present from a North Pole resident. It’s the right size, and useful, too. It might actually help keep them on course for the playoffs.
This gift is the calm, stable goaltending provided the past few games by Pheonix Copley, a native of North Pole, Alaska. Not the actual geographic North Pole, but a town near Fairbanks that takes the Christmas spirit seriously year-round. The streets have Christmas-themed names and the streetlights are decorated with jaunty red and white stripes, a theme Copley has carried over by painting two candy canes on the lower part of his mask.
Copley, 30, is the textbook definition of journeyman, having bounced around the minor leagues since he left Michigan Tech and turned pro with St. Louis in the 2015-16 season. The most NHL games he has ever played in a season is 27 with Washington, in 2018-19. He thought that might turn into something more permanent. It didn’t.
“It was a tough situation there,” he said. “So, it’s just one of those things. In pro sports things kind of unfold that way sometimes, and that’s just the way she goes.”
His signing with the Kings as a free agent last summer for a relatively modest $825,000 drew little attention. It appeared to be a minor-league depth move, noteworthy for little besides the unusual spelling of his first name. Blame his parents for that. “They thought that [putting] the ‘o’ first looked like ‘Phonics” or foo-nix. They thought it looked more correct with the ‘e’ first,” he said. “Their decision.”
Copley has stepped out of the shadows and into the crease at a time the Kings didn’t have reliable goaltending. With veteran Jonathan Quick struggling behind sometimes sloppy defensive efforts and with heir to the goaltending throne Cal Petersen sent to the American Hockey League to work out his own considerable problems, Copley has seized a chance he wasn’t sure he’d ever get again.
Copley made 24 saves on Tuesday in the Kings’ 4-1 victory over the Ducks at Crypto.com Arena, never working too hard but getting the job done without fuss. The only goal he gave up came during a power play in the second period.
With scoring from three of their four lines and a solid penalty killing effort, the Kings extended their winning streak to three as Copley made his fourth straight start. That might be the longest streak in his career.
“At this level? Yeah, I’m sure that’s true,” he said, smiling.
For sure yeah, there’s times you’re wondering, “When am I going to break through? When am I going to get an opportunity?” But you’ve just got to keep going and that’s my mindset, just to keep working and trying to keep earning opportunities.
— Kings goaltender Pheonix Copley
Through all those stops, all those disappointments, something kept him going long enough to come full circle, in a way.
While hoping for college scholarship offers he played for the California Titans under-18 team in Simi Valley during the 2009-10 season. That his career would wind back to California didn’t occur to him. “Never. I guess it’s a small world,” said Copley, who played alongside Kings winger and Thousand Oaks native Trevor Moore with Tri Cities of the U.S. Hockey League in 2011-12.
Copley kept going year after year because stopping wasn’t an option.
“I just want to see how great I can be, I guess, and the only way to find out is to work for opportunities,” he said. “Every time I get a chance I want to do the best I can with it, regardless of what’s going on around me. That’s just my mindset and that’s what I’ll continue to do.
“There’s definitely times, I guess of self doubt and wondering. You work hard for a really long time and hope for a chance to come around and you can’t really predict when that will happen. For sure yeah, there’s times you’re wondering, ‘When am I going to break through? When am I going to get an opportunity?’ But you’ve just got to keep going and that’s my mindset, just to keep working and trying to keep earning opportunities.”
Coach Todd McLellan said Copley will play in one of the Kings’ two upcoming games, a back-to-back sequence that starts at home against Calgary on Thursday and continues at Arizona on Friday. He said Copley has been playing “outstanding,” but that the team still believes in all three of its goaltenders. Petersen, incidentally, is 4-2 for the AHL Ontario Reign with a 2.01 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.
Asked if it would be a stretch to suggest Copley has provided stability in goal when the Kings needed it most, McLellan responded with a couple of qualifications. “The answer to that question is yes, but it looks like I’m accusing other goaltenders of not doing their job and that’s not the case. Quickie and Cal, they need help, too,” McLellan said.
“Our team’s playing better right now in front of Pheonix than we did in front of the other two, and when it’s time for Quickie to go back in or Cal or whoever it might be, I certainly expect, and I’m sure the players expect, that type of performance in front of them as well. So the simple answer is yes, but it’s not an accusatory answer.”
It’s still the truth, no matter how it’s parsed. And it should make Copley the second-most famous resident (after Santa Claus) of any place named North Pole. According to Copley, that’s not the case.
“There’s actually an NFL player who won a Super Bowl who’s from North Pole, so he’s probably got the title there,” Copley said of Daryn Colledge, an offensive guard for Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV.
Copley was the most appropriate gift the Kings could have gotten. Fits perfectly and ready to go without batteries.