October 22, 2007

Goalies Gone Wild

Gilles Gratton, aka Grattoony the Loony, was quite possibly the NHL's weirdest goalie.

He claimed to have been reincarnated several times, and that being a goalie was actually punishment for his sins in his past lives.

He once refused to play because the moon was in the wrong part of the sky, and spent most of 1976-77 season threatening to strip naked on ice in front of the fans. (For the record, he didn't follow through on that threat.)

As a rookie, Patrick Roy was asked why he had so many lucky bounces off of the goalposts. His answer: he talked to the goalposts before and during games. The posts were his friends. (Yes, he made a commercial joking about it. No, it's not on YouTube.)

That wasn't his only quirk, either. Roy refused to skate over any line on the ice and so had to step over them. He also had a pre-game routine composed of dozens of smaller rituals.

Gratton and Roy weren't the only oddball goalies, either:

* Jacques Plante refused to spend time with his teammates, instead knitting in the locker room and his hotel room.

* Glenn Hall threw up before every game and between periods, because "[w]hen I threw up, I felt like I was doing what I needed to do to prepare for the game. I felt that if I threw up, I played better." Upon finding out Hall would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, his teammates asked if Hall's bucket would be inducted too.

* Darren Pang also threw up before every game, but not before putting on all of his equipment left side first and finishing his warm-up.

* Tony Esposito created an imaginary crease around his equipment, and no one was allowed so much as accidentally bump any of his gear. He also would take all of his gear apart by hand and then put it back together.

* Gary Smith insisted on showering between every single period.

* Gump Worsley refused to wear a mask until near the end of his career. He said he didn't need a mask because his face was his mask.

* Andy Aikenhead used to lock himself in a room for hours after every game, win or lose.

* On game nights, Bernie Parent never left the locker room without first putting on his mask, and never took it off unless he was in the locker room. He would also sit below a miniature Stanley Cup and think about the night's opponents.

* Martin Biron wore the same skates for over 12 years. They didn't have the same protection as more modern skates, so every day he'd have to use rolls of tape to achieve the protection needed.

* Arturs Irbe refused to change his shin pads, wearing them almost continuously for 14 years. Another former goalie said, “I wouldn't wear those pads for a pick-up game,” but Irbe obviously felt they had mojo.

* Dominik Hasek would arrange every item in his locker—right down to his nail clippers—and no one was allowed to touch or move anything.

* Ed Belfour obsessed over his equipment. If he moved left to right to make a save and failed, he might sharpen his skates multiple times, or he might take his glove apart by hand and put it back together.

Goalies these days are, well, more normal than their counterparts of just 10 years ago, though there are a few oddballs left. Gone is the image of the goalie as the neurotic basket case—though I would argue having small rubber disks flying at you at speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour is a good basis for neurosis.

Coaches used to tell their players not to talk to the goalie. Once banished to their own little corner only to be called upon to stop the puck, they're now recognised as the key to any good team. (Or even a mediocre team. Just ask Roy.) A team's run to the playoffs now lives and dies with a goalie's performance.

Unlike the early days, goalies now have their own coaches. Instead of being used for merely target practice, they now work daily with a goaltending coach and have a conditioning routine specially designed for goalies. If they feel stressed out by their job, they can turn to the team psychologist.

Not only do goalies now have coaching and professional psychological support, they have another goalie to commiserate with. Unlike the early days, when a team only carried one netminder, each and every goalie is now guaranteed one teammate who understands what it's like to stand in front of something like Sheldon Souray's 100-mph slapshot. (My advice would be “duck,” but that's why I've never played in goal.)

Now that goalies now have someone else who needs the same workout and the same equipment, they are no longer completely isolated from the rest of their teammates. Much like Diana Ross, every goalie has backups. Except the goalies actually hang out together and tend to be nice to each other.

But I digress.

Now that goalies have gone from team nutcase to valued teammate (some achieve both), they are able to socialize more with the rest of the team, instead of being almost completely isolated and encouraged—or forced, take your pick—to stay isolated.

In fact, it's now necessary for a goalie to be liked and trusted by his teammates. As Darren Pang once observed, "As a goalie these days, you have to win a team over. You want to be liked/respected by the guys. You want the guys to follow you. You basically do things with them socially and do those little things. Then, when you go to the rink, you work your tail off. You give them no excuses not to play hard in front of you."

So now we enter the newest era of goaltending. Normal guys everywhere, performing the role of team saviour, and functioning as team good luck charms. They may still be supersitious and odd, but it's not as obvious to the public as it used to be.

Goalies gone normal. Who knew such a thing was possible?

-- Contributed by Jennifer Conway

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