In a workplace with mandatory uniforms, a goaltender’s mask is a rare personal expression, each its own piece of artwork with the images typically symbolic of what’s important to that netminder. Pheonix Copley wanted a way to honor where he came from, and when your hometown’s main attraction is the Santa Claus House, a few obvious ideas come to mind. He decided on two candy canes intersecting, and as he has changed teams or masks with each season, that has remained a constant on the chin, a nod to North Pole, Alaska.
“I thought it was just a unique way to have something on my mask that can always stick around,” Copley said. “Maybe one day I’ll just do a full Christmas mask. Who knows?”
Well, Christmas is timeless. It was almost too fitting that Copley’s first NHL shutout came Dec. 22, the Washington Capitals' last game before a four-day holiday break, in a 4-0 win against the Ottawa Senators. Because travel to Alaska from the East Coast would take up a whole day, Copley hasn’t been able to get back to North Pole for Christmas in years, but the town is still in the yuletide spirit when he is home in the summer, the rare place where it’s Christmas in July, too.
“There’s definitely tourist stuff set up year-round for sure,” Copley said. “Our light poles are candy canes, so they definitely try and make it a theme. I think also people are lazy and just don’t want to take down Christmas lights."
North Pole is home to roughly 2,200 people — its population gets dwarfed by the number of letters to Santa it receives every year — and Copley said its tourism boom is in the summer, when the weather isn’t as severe. As the only NHL player to hail from there, he has gotten used to all sorts of comments and questions from teammates over the years. Some would assume that it’s the same as the actual North Pole (it’s not), or that it’s at the very northern point of Alaska (it’s actually close to Fairbanks, in the middle of the state). He has been asked whether there are igloos, polar bears and Santa’s little helpers there, and he has started to lean into it, dressing as Will Ferrell’s “Elf” for the Capitals' Halloween party earlier this season.
Copley is starting to become known less for where he’s from and more for what he’s doing in Washington now. The backup goaltender position was a question mark entering the season after the Capitals traded away Philipp Grubauer in June. The job was expected to go to Copley, but the team figured it would take time for him to grow into it. Washington also privately figured that if it didn’t work out, that was an area that could be improved through trade or waiver acquisition. But through the Capitals' first 35 games, Copley has appeared in 12 and has an 8-2-1 record.
Entering the Christmas break a year ago, Grubauer also had appeared in 12 games and had won just two of them, before finishing the season with 15 wins.
“It’s tough to say that he’s completely exceeded expectations because I didn’t know what to expect just with how it was going to go for him, having to earn the job in training camp,” coach Todd Reirden said. “He did that, and step after step here, he’s continued to grow as a goalie.”
Said defenseman Matt Niskanen: “He’s been fantastic, really fantastic. I don’t know anything about goalie, but that has to be a really tough job to just stay focused. It seems like goalies like getting into a rhythm, and you never get into a rhythm as a backup. He’s done a good job working his tail off in practice. He’s fun to be around at the rink — never complains and does extra work — and when he gets in there, he’s ready to go and do a job.”
Copley will spend this Christmas in the Washington area, as are many players who don’t want to spend their precious few days off on long-distance travel. While North Pole is considered a Christmas destination, to Copley it was always just a normal small town that happened to have a reindeer pen and streets with names such as “Snowman Lane” and “Saint Nicholas Drive.” Christmas was special there simply because it was home.
“I’ve always really liked Christmas,” Copley said. “I always got really excited to get the Christmas music going and everything, but I don’t know if that’s just my personality or if it has anything to do with North Pole. My whole family enjoys Christmas, but it’s also a time that with hockey and everything, you get a break and get to spend time with family.”