In the playoffs it nearly always gets down to the lonely guys in the padded cells. All winter long, who cares how many pucks they miss? In the endless season there’s always tomorrow. But now, in the playoffs, the light at the end of the tunnel is almost visible, and suddenly it matters that the only mortal standing between oblivion and continued television exposure is the poor wretch in the birdcage.
Once this sort of responsibility turned wild men wilder. Lloyd Percival used to say that normal humans endured the stress of playoff goaltenders only once or twice in a lifetime. Percival was the guy the Soviets learned the game from. Anatoli Tarasov, the daddy of Soviet hockey, acknowledged once that he learned his stuff from Percival’s classic textbook, The Hockey Handbook. These days when people talk about “European-style hockey”— meaning the freewheeling, drop-passing, nonstop motion that blinds North Americans—they don’t know they’re espousing what Percival was trying fruitlessly to pound into National Hockey League heads 25 years ago. Some day they’ll build monuments to him.
Anyway, Percival ran a national research organization called Sports College. After years of tests he concluded that a playoff goaltender contended with the same tension load as carried by a patient before major surgery or a man in an interview for a job vital to him. Something that Percival didn’t bring about, but that has occurred to your hard-thinking agent, is that it was not just responsibility that caused their mental anguish. There was the element of danger. Those were maskless times. Jacques Plante was the first to persist in wearing one as far back as November, 1959, but goaltenders were a long time accepting it.
Gerry Cheevers, the Boston Bruins coach who had a long goaltending career, once said that the disdain of pain went beyond vanity. “Playing goal is a very lonely and difficult task, so we tend to be very proud bastards,” he said. “Everybody says we’re a different breed, and I guess they’re right. But sooner or later, when you start adding up the scars, you realize that if you don’t wear a mask, you may not survive.”
Was he being melodramatic? Oh, a trifle, perhaps, because no goaltender
has ever been killed in action. But some things that happened to them are scarcely credible today. Before Plante put on his mask his nose had been broken four times, his cheekbones twice, his jaw once and he had picked up a hairline skull fracture, a concussion and 200 stitches in his face. Terry Sawchuk, one of the immortals, was a tall, heavyboned fellow whose normal weight was about 200 lb. I saw him get on the scales once after a playoff game, his body a mass of blue and yellow and purple welts and bruises. The needle stopped at
157. Terry had 400 stitches in his face and head before he put on a mask in 1962, three of them in his right eyeball.
An astonishing thing about those old goaltenders: they always came back. I don’t mean the following season or next week; I mean within minutes.
One night Glenn Hall caught a rising bullet just below his nose that knocked him down and out. He was carted off, dropped on a table in the infirmary, and, when he came to, his eyes were blackening and a doctor with a needle and thread was tenderly fingering the chaos below his nose. The doctor used no anesthetic; they never did in such cases, the theory being that the nerve endings around fresh cuts are already numbed. He put 23 stitches into the wound, and then Hall climbed off the
table, pulled on his mitts, clutched his stick and went back to his cage. Teammates lobbed a few shots at him to give him the feeling of being back, and then the referee got things going again.
All right. This sort of thing played on goaltenders’ nerves, right? Hall played 552 consecutive league and playoff games without a mask and he threw up before practically all of them.
Rudy Pilous, Hall’s coach at Chicago, remembers a playoff game against the Canadiens in the Chicago Stadium, a sort of zoo. There had been a play stoppage to clear debris heaved by the gallery lunatics, and the referee was about to resume play when Pilous happened to glance toward his own team’s net.
“It was empty!” Pilous cried years later. “I didn’t know what in thunder... and then Glenn came clomping up the stairs behind our net. He had used the break to go down to our dressing room and throw up.”
There’s a horror story for almost every goaler of the maskless era, but there aren’t many about the breed today, and for a couple of reasons. The mask, the long season and expansion have combined to give goalies a security they never knew in the bad old days. Once, with six teams and leisurely schedules, one goaler was enough. If a guy gave up his job for a few nights to nurse an injury, his replacement might keep it. So he fought off cuts and contusions and mental breakdowns. These days goaltenders look for relief. Seventy-four of the breed put on the pads for the NHL’s 21 teams last season. Goaltenders crop up like crocuses.
It’s a fact that they’re still the key, and assuredly there’s still responsibility. But tales of terrible injury and eccentricity have all but vanished. What most of them do these days to relieve tension is sleep. “I just lie down in the afternoon, close my eyes, and I’m gone for a couple of hours,” said Mike Palmateer calmly, a brilliant Toronto acrobat. Billy Smith, whose New York Islanders are working on their fourth Stanley Cup as we scurry to press, feels the same urge to close his eyes: “Some guys run to work off tension. Some guys talk. I need to sleep a lot.” This guy can sleep 14 hours out of 24. “I need it,” he contended the other day. “Without it I would burn out. As it is, I’m completely wiped out after the Stanley Cup every year. My wife has to lead me around.”
But she can recognize him. He’s not wearing scars on his scars. That’s the difference.
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