Sure, it was a fluke. One of those crazy things that keep us watching sports, the faint possibility we might see something unprecedented.

Twenty years ago today, Nick Vitucci – now an assistant coach with the Portland Pirates – accomplished something that, as far as we can tell, has yet to be replicated.

As a goalie for the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL, Vitucci was credited with a goal against the Louisville RiverFrogs. It’s the only time in modern pro hockey history a goalie has been credited with a goal on a tended net.

“Scoring as a goalie has an almost mythical quality to it,” said Pirates goalie Mike McKenna, who has four assists this season. “We all dream of it, but the circumstances have to be perfect for it to happen.”

There are 14 instances in modern hockey history of NHL goalies scoring, all of them involving an empty net with the opposing goalie off the ice in favor of an extra attacker. Ron Hextall of Philadelphia scored the first, in 1987, and Mike Smith of Arizona the most recent, in 2013.

Both Hextall and Smith intentionally shot at the empty net 180 feet away, as did five others. The remaining seven times goalies received credit because they were the last to touch the puck before an opposing player mistakenly put it in his own net.

ALWAYS A HOCKEY PLAYER

Which brings us to Vitucci. When asked last week about the 20th anniversary of his historic goal, Vitucci was surprised.

“Is it?” he said. “Oh, gosh. I did not know that. Am I ever old.”

Vitucci grew up in Welland, Ontario, where he still lives. He was a die-hard Maple Leafs fan who so loved goalie masks that he would doodle their designs in his notebooks.

“I probably got slapped in the back of my head by a lot of teachers,” he said, “because instead of paying attention to the schoolwork that we were doing, I was drawing goalie masks and scribbling goalie masks everywhere and anywhere.”

His dream was to someday play for the Welland Cougars, the local Junior B team, and wear a mask with their red and black colors, looking not unlike the Darth Maul character from Star Wars. Alas, by the time he made the team, goalies were required to wear helmets with cages.

“But the first mask that I wore as a pro had that same paint job that I envisioned as a little kid to play for my Junior B team,” said Vitucci, referring to the 1988-89 Carolina Thunderbirds, whose roster also included Pirates head coach Scott Allen.

Vitucci enjoyed a 12-year minor-league playing career, most of it in the ECHL, although he flew to Portland to play one game for the Maine Mariners in the 1991-92 season when they were affiliated with the Boston Bruins. It was a 3-3 tie. He made 22 saves and returned to Greensboro the next morning with a copy of the Portland Press Herald that included a description of Vitucci in net.

“Obviously, I’m not a big guy,” he said. “I just remember the one line: ‘He fit like a loaf of bread in a bread basket.’ It was referring to my height (5-foot-9), which is fine. I thought it was good.

“I’ve kept all the newspaper articles that I’ve been in.”

‘SO I JUST SHOT IT DOWN’

Now 48, Vitucci is married with a 16-year-old son who also tends goal. Their basement is filled with hockey memorabilia, including more than 5,000 pucks, old equipment, his own game-worn jerseys, toys, rod-hockey games and plaques.

Somewhere among that collection is a videocassette of his goal, which became a CNN Play of the Day back when the cable news network was attempting to compete with ESPN’s SportsCenter.

“So at the end of the year they came out with a CNN Play of the Day year in review kind of thing,” Vitucci said. “I got hold of that tape and I have it somewhere, but I haven’t looked at it in a long, long time.”

What he remembers about March 6, 1996, is that Charlotte was either short-handed or hemmed in early in the game. Because it was the first period, Charlotte’s bench was closest to Vitucci.

“We had the close line change, so rather than cover (the puck), I had time to play it,” Vitucci said, “So I just shot it down.”

Louisville’s goalie, Alain Morissette, came out of his crease to intercept the puck near the faceoff circle to his right. The Checkers took the opportunity to change lines.

“Our first guy over the boards went down at it hard and pressured him,” Vitucci said of Morissette. “He turned around to shoot it behind his net.”

Morissette’s aim was off, however, and the puck slid inside the near post for a Charlotte goal. The last Checker to handle the puck was Vitucci, so he received credit for it.

“I knew right away,” said Vitucci, who immediately raised his arms in celebration. “Mind you, you’re in Charlotte, North Carolina – great fan base but when it went in, everybody sort of cheered, but didn’t cheer because they didn’t know what happened.”

Morissette dropped his head in resignation. Fist bumps along the bench weren’t yet a thing, so his teammates swarmed the goal to congratulate him. The box score lists an even-strength, unassisted goal at 3:23 of the first period.

“We got a good laugh out of it,” said Vitucci, who doesn’t remember the final score, only that Charlotte won. “I know I’ve got the stick and the puck somewhere.”

Ah, the stick. A photo from that season shows Vitucci hefting a wooden Louisville stick with what appears to be a straight blade, but he said it actually had a pronounced curve.

“You look at the goalie’s equipment now and how advanced it is,” he said. “But we really didn’t have curved goalie sticks until just a few years prior to that. So goaltenders didn’t really handle the puck or shoot the puck that often.”

In hockey’s early days, goaltenders occasionally came out of net to join the attack. That ended in the late 1960s, after a goalie was injured by a body check and a rule was put in place prohibiting goalies from advancing past the red line in the center of the rink.

“So you never thought about shooting it, but I did a lot in practice,” Vitucci said. “My goaltender partner that year and I, we fired pucks down to each other all practice long, just to do it.”

NOTHING LIKE WINNING A TITLE

Years later, when both were playing in a short-lived roller hockey league, Vitucci and Morissette found themselves teammates at an all-star game.

“We had a giggle over it over dinner,” said Vitucci, who took part in NHL training camps for St. Louis and Buffalo and once scored an empty-net goal in a preseason game with an accurate rink-length shot.

“But they’re way down on the list of things I’m proud of,” he said. “Being part of five (ECHL) championship teams is the ultimate. You set goals at the start of the season, to win a championship or compete for a championship, and 10 months later when that comes to reality, there’s nothing better than that. There really isn’t.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

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Twitter: GlennJordanPPH