Gerry Cheevers is welcome any time.”
— Gordon Downie,
from “The Goalie Who Lives Across the Street”
Goalies are weird. Anyone who has played or even just followed hockey knows this. Maybe a more polite way of putting it is goalies are different. They dress differently than the other players; they’re forced to stay (mostly) in an 8’ x 4’6” area of coloured ice known as the crease; they get a bigger stick; they don’t have to serve penalties. Goalies even have the best nicknames: consider Andy Aitkenhead, “the Glasgow Gobbler.”
But why? I put out the call to some twine-tending friends, and they came up with some interesting answers. Jay Streeter, a tax lawyer for the Ontario government, says goalies are different because they are treated differently. “Everyone in the dressing room knows that if the goalie has a lousy game, the team is going to lose. On the flip side, if you have a great game, the team will likely win. That isn’t true for the other players. They can contribute to a win or a loss, but it isn’t on their shoulders like it is for a goalie. Because of this, most goalies I know are pretty fatalistic about playing hockey. We know that there isn’t much difference between a great glove save and missing the puck altogether. On some days the puck hits you, despite your best efforts to get out of the way. On other days, the puck goes in, no matter what you do to stop it. This fact makes goalies much less emotional than most players.”
Indeed. Many goalies choose that responsibility (although not necessarily the spotlight). But this stoicism—or even, dare I say it, masochism—is not the prime reason that a player ends up between the pipes. Gone are the days when the fat kid, or the guy who couldn’t skate, would be thrown between two boots on a frozen pond to emerge years later as Andrei Medvedev. By his own admission, Streeter chose to tend goal because with only four goals in his first two seasons of minor hockey, he knew he wasn’t going to make the NHL as a forward. Another keeper I know, Toronto teacher Mark Jacquemain (not to be confused with Ed Giacomin), became a goalie not because he was the fat kid, but because he was small. When he moved up to peewee hockey, hitting was allowed, and he “got smoked” one too many times. He took refuge from the flying bodies by jumping in front of flying pucks. He says it also helped that his dad was a goalie.
Jacquemain’s believes goalies are “different” because the position requires so much focus. As a result, goalies tend to lose their “peripheral vision.” Jacquemain started meditating before games and found that the relaxed state he achieved allowed him to play better. He attributes most rituals—the source of so many of the strange rumours—to various forms of goaltender meditation. A likely hypothesis.
While goaltenders do have to focus on the task at hand, to say that they lack vision would be misleading. In fact, they have a better view of the game than anyone else. They see the whole play develop and often shout orders to their unmasked teammates (though sometimes to no avail). Goalies are often compared to catchers in baseball—for obvious gear-related reasons, but also because of their roles as on-ice/on-field signal callers. A hockey team is kind of like a rock band: the flashy play-making centre is the sexy singer, the goal-scoring winger is the lead guitarist, the stay-at-home defenceman can be compared to the bass player and the goalie, like the drummer, is usually in the background just doing his thing. No one notices the drummer unless he misses a beat and screws up the whole band. If a forward misses a pass, the puck goes in the corner; if the goalie screws up, the puck goes in the net.
It is perhaps to the credit of the goaltending community that the taboo-breaking Manon Rheaume—the first woman to play at the International Hockey Pee-Wee Tournament; to play in a major junior game; to play in an NHL game; to sign a professional hockey contract; to play in a professional hockey game during the regular season; and to win a game in professional roller hockey (phew!)—was a goalie. This is, however, likely due to a number of physical and sociological factors: although the goaltender is in a position of power, he (or in this case, she) is considered valuable and vulnerable, like the queen in chess, and so is insulated. Perhaps this bubble was what allowed the male-dominated hockey fraternity to let a girl play. (I continue to find it odd that even the best female hockey players in the world are not yet allowed to body check. In the twenty-first century, are we still worried about an exploding uterus? That is so 1900s!) Or maybe all the extra equipment concealed the tempting female figure that, presumably, would otherwise cause havoc on the ice. Perhaps Rheaume liked playing with the boys because it meant changing in a different room (something goalies might wish for anyway).
Favourite goalies? Well, it seems there are two schools these days. Streeter subscribes to the “positional” school, the headmaster of which is Martin Brodeur. “He is a master of the position. Full stop. He is the most fundamentally sound goalie on the planet. He is never out of position. He never gives up a bad goal. He can play the puck better than most defencemen.” Jacquemain, on the other hand, follows the example of bigger goalies like Jean-Sebastien Giguère or Jose Theodore, who he says worry more about where the puck is than where they are in the net.
And where does the Masochist fall? Well, nostalgia is my criteria for favourite players, so—admitting the supremacy of Brodeur, Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour—I’d have to say Allan Bester is my man. What has Allan Bester done to deserve to be mentioned alongside these names? Well, he managed a career goals-against average of 4.00 despite playing on the worst team in the league in the 1980s (I won’t tell you which team that was—I think you know), while Grant Fuhr managed 3.38 playing on the best. Despite Bester’s penchant for letting the puck go through his legs (“five hole” in hockey, “petit pont” in football), the little guy made me believe, more than Gary Leeman or Wendel Clark—or even, in better days, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin—that the Leafs had a chance.
Goalies. What strange and unusual powers they wield.
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist appears every second Wednesday