Sometimes in sports, we witness the meteoric rise of a player that seems to signal the start of long-term dominance. Others enjoy long, relatively quiet careers as a solid pro. Then there are the ones who disappear as quickly as they burst on the scene.
Jim Carey is perhaps the most famous in hockey circles for the latter. No, we’re not talking about Jim Carrey, the actor. We’re talking about the American-born netminder who took the hockey world by storm in 1996 with seemingly a decade ahead of him to dominate the NHL only to be gone from the game of hockey four years later.
Carey began his career with the Wisconsin Badgers of the WCHA, after being selected 32nd overall in the 1992 NHL Draft out of high school, where he led the league in wins, shutouts, and goals against average (GAA) in 1993-94. because of the lockout during the 1994-95 season, he would begin his professional career with the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates, leading the league in shutouts.
His rise began late that year when he was called up to Washington. With the Capitals, he played in 28 games, posting an 18-6-3 record and a sterling 2.13 GAA while making the NHL’s All-Rookie team. He had set himself up as the full-time starter for the 1995-96 season.
And that’s when things took off.
In 1995-96, Carey had his official coming out party. Starting 71 games, he posted a 35-24-9 record with a 2.26GAA and 9 shutouts en route to the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender and was selected to the NHL’s First All-Star team.
The Capitals had stumbled onto their franchise goaltender for the next decade. The then-22 year old, being compared to the actor, had earned nicknames around the league and the world from hockey fans such as “The Mask”, “Ace”, and “The Net Detective” — the latter two in reference to Carrey’s film “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”.
Carey was flying high. But after getting off to a slow start the following year, things seemed off. After going 17-18-3, just nine months removed from winning the Vezina, the Captials shipped Carey off to Boston with young forwards Anson Carter and Jason Allison in exchange for Bill Ranford, Adam Oates, and Rick Tocchet.
Then Capitals GM David Poile (now the GM in Nashville) on the trade:
“When we traded Jim, it wasn’t under normal circumstances,” Poile said. “We were struggling, and we traded three good, young players for three veterans. You could already sense that the passion, the drive wasn’t there in Jim. He was a nice person, but he didn’t really integrate with the team. Sure, there are loners in hockey, but it just seemed that Jim didn’t really want it. And you have to want it.I think it comes down to Jim not wanting it badly enough. He didn’t fight through the adversity the way we expected.”
The trade had crushed whatever confidence Carey had left. He would go 5-13 with a 3.82 GAA for the Bruins the rest of 1996-97. Like many fans who had witnessed his sudden rise, then Bruins GM Harry Sinden was just as surprised at the sudden fall of a once bright star:
“We sold that trade on getting Jim,” Sinden said. “He was a local kid, and he had just won the Vezina the year before. Everyone in town was excited. When we got Jim, we thought there was a good chance that he could get back to where he had been. But he was pitiful in his first game, and by the end of that season after he played 18 games for us, I said to myself, ‘Wow. This guy can’t stop anything.’
“Jim bore no resemblance to the goalie who had won the Vezina. He was flopping and diving and guessing. Everything was wrong. That was as big a dropoff as I’ve ever seen in a player. And when things didn’t go right, Jim looked everywhere except at himself. He said we didn’t have the right goalie coach. Jim said he wasn’t used to a defense playing like ours, leaving him wide open. He just couldn’t believe it was him. Jim was given a huge [$2 million] contract after just one full year. And the Vezina probably went to his head. It was like getting ready for games wasn’t as important anymore, like he was thinking, ‘It’s all over. I’ve made it.”
Carey played just 10 games in Boston and 10 for Providence of the AHL in 1997-98, not even dressing for the playoffs. He played well in Providence during 1998-99 but was still released by the Bruins on March 1st.
After a short stint with the St.Louis Blues, the young netminder decided he’d had enough of hockey and told his agent Brian Lawton to decline any offers. From the Washington Times:
“Jim made $800,000 or $900,000 the year he won the Vezina and then he signed a four-year, $11 million contract. And Jim has done so well with his investments that he doesn’t have to work. He’s working on his business degree at the University of Tampa and looking to get involved in the financial world. It’s disappointing that Jim didn’t persevere because he still had a lot to give to the sport. Despite everything that had happened, 24 was too young to leave hockey.”
And just like that, the fall was complete. From Vezina Trophy to out of the league in just four years. Carey was said to be able to get in shape in no time, but he never wanted to. Right now, Carey is the CEO and President of OptiMED Billing Solutions, which is a medical billing company in Sarasota, Florida.
Carey seemed to be undone by his laid back demeanor and any blow to his confidence ultimately helped push him further and further away from the mountain top. When challenged and faced with adversity, Carey backed off and determined he didn’t love the game enough.
Hockey fans will forever remember that magical 1995-96 season for a young American-born goalie and wonder what might have been.
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