SPORTS WATCH

In praise of the masked marvels

The most valuable player in almost any hockey series is the poor, put-upon pariah in the padded cell, the lowly goaltender

TRENT FRAYNE May 7 1990
SPORTS WATCH

In praise of the masked marvels

The most valuable player in almost any hockey series is the poor, put-upon pariah in the padded cell, the lowly goaltender

TRENT FRAYNE May 7 1990

In praise of the masked marvels

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

The most valuable player in almost any hockey series is the poor, put-upon pariah in the padded cell, the lowly goaltender

It is an obvious miscarriage of justice that people named Mark Messier, Bobby Orr, Bryan Trottier, Wayne Gretzky, Jean Beliveau and Mike Bossy, to cite half a dozen at random, have been elected over the years as most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But it is an understandable misapplication of honors.

As any thinking person knows, the most valuable player in almost any hockey series is the poor, pestered, put-upon pariah in the padded cell, the lowly goaltender. Without him, all of the fancy stickhandlers and rocket launchers on the forward lines could set aside their autograph pens and go looking for work.

It was back in 1965 that the practice of fingering a most valuable player was instituted. Maple Leaf Gardens, an old brick pile at the corner of Church and Carlton streets in downtown Toronto, presented the league with a memento for the winner, the Conn Smythe Trophy, honoring the feisty former coach, manager and principal owner of the local hockey team.

Each year since, hockey scribes have been electing a winner, far too frequently fouling up justice by naming a non-goaltender. Indeed, in the 25 years since the trophy’s inception, pretenders have been permitted to carry away the hardware on all but eight occasions. When virtue triumphed, Bemie Parent won back-toback election in the mid-1970s while his Philadelphia Flyers were beating people up. In other years, his honored sidekicks were Ron Hextall, Patrick Roy, Billy Smith, Ken Dryden, Glenn Hall and Roger Crozier.

Although the scribes have overdone the injustice, their predicament is, as I say, understandable. If they directed the trophy where it belongs, the masked marvel in the Cup-winning team’s cage would get it every time. Accordingly, avoiding boredom and giving themselves something to write about, the scribes look past the net-minder for a free skater.

In truth, though, it’s the lonely guys wearing the birdcages who matter in springtime. Back a

week or so, just for illustration, there were 23 seconds remaining in a 4-4 tie between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens when Stephane Richer, the Guy Lafleur of the 1990s, burst in on the Boston net carrying the game winner on his stick. But somehow goaltender Andy Moog got a glove up to absorb a high puck headed for a narrow comer. He had small business doing this; it’s a remarkable moment when the gifted Richer misses such an opportunity.

Overtime soon followed and in it an obscure Boston defenceman, Garry Galley, scored for a Bruin victory. Next day’s headlines heralded Galley, a guy who had scored all of eight regular-season goals. Farther down, captain Raymond Bourque’s three assists were lavishly applauded. No mention anywhere of Moog’s game-saving stab (or of 29 other stops). See what I mean?

No question, goaltenders are the key performers, always were, always will be. There are indications, however, that as a group they’re not as anguished as they were in the days when Glenn Hall of the Chicago Blackhawks and Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens, among others, were baffling medical scientists and opposing shooters in bare-

faced audacity, absorbing scores of stitches from flying pucks. One of their number, Boston’s Gerry Cheevers, once remarked: “Playing goal is a very lonely and difficult task. Everybody says we’re a different breed and I guess they’re right.”

Plante, for instance, had what might be called psychosomatic asthma. Whenever he was close to the Toronto harborfront, he felt his breathing was determined to desert him. The Canadiens used to stay at the Royal York Hotel close to the harborfront and, on one trip, to placate the complaining Plante, coach Toe Blake installed his goaltender uptown at the Westbury Hotel near the arena. Did Jacques feel better next morning? “No,” said Jacques. “I slept okay but I dreamed I was at the Royal York. I woke up plugged.” However, Jacques won the Vézina Trophy she times in the Hab cage, so Blake let him breathe anywhere he liked (including behind a mask).

Glenn Hall played before Jacques made the mask popular. One night, Glenn caught a rising bullet just below his nose that knocked him out. When he came to, a doctor was working on his besieged kisser with a needle and thread but without anesthetic. The theory was that nerve endings around fresh cuts were already numbed. Soon there were 23 stitches and Hall tottered back onto the ice, his upper lip a tube of hamburger, his eyes beginning to blacken.

“Masks have eliminated all that stuff,” Dave Dryden said the other morning. Dave played goal for Chicago, Buffalo and Edmonton, and is now the goaltender coach for the Detroit Red Wings. But he says that, while masks ensure physical comfort, the mental pressures are unchanged, the awareness that a goof still means a goal.

Most modem sports have specialty coaches, but goaltending is a difficult craft to teach and few NHL teams have full-time goaler specialists. “The role is partly psychological,” Dryden says. “A former goaltender is someone who understands and can listen. He’s always positive, always constructive. Most head coaches still handle goalies warily; they don’t want to upset them. A goaltender coach helps head coaches, too, providing understanding of what the goalie’s problems are.”

Goaltenders often don’t know why they’re goaltenders. Ron Hextall’s father and uncle and grandfather were NHL forwards, but he persisted as a backstop. “As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a goaler and I’ve worked very hard at it,” he told me once. “But don’t ask me why.”

Ron is one of several NHL goalers with a Brandon, Man., background, a product of three seasons with the struggling Wheat Kings junior team in the Western Hockey League. Bill Ranford, the key to Edmonton’s success against Winnipeg and Los Angeles, is Brandonborn, and so are Ken Wregget of the Flyers and Detroit’s Glen Hanlon. Also, the junior goaltender most likely to go first in the NHL draft in June is Trevor Kidd of the current Wheat Kings.

How come Brandon goalers are so good? “It’s the lousy defence,” said Brandon Sun sportswriter Dan Denton on the phone. “They develop fast.”