DENVER — Stephane Fiset, the Colorado Avalanche backup goaltender, sits in the dressing room in Denver's McNichols Arena, contemplating what it takes to play the most visible position in hockey - and perhaps in all of sport. He settles on an explanation that focuses on what it doesn't take: "If you're scared, you're not going to be a good goalie."
Indeed, like a swimmer who's afraid of the water or a pole vaulter frightened of heights, a goalie who closes his eyes or flinches when the puck heads his way probably should consider another line of work. "Oh," says Fiset in an afterthought, "anybody who wants to be goalie has to be a little bit crazy." Fiset is only partly right this time. It helps to be a lot crazy.
In the current Stanley Cup finals between Colorado and Florida, Fiset - and all hockey fans - are getting the chance to watch two of the best: The Av's Patrick Roy and the Panthers' John Vanbiesbrouck. Neither is scared. Both have their crazy bent. Indeed, a case can be built that Roy is at the top among the all-time best and Vanbiesbrouck may be greatness-in-waiting.
Both goalies have suffered enough to be worthy of winning now. Being goalie is about suffering. Goalies serve to be decimated. In this series (the Avs lead 3-0 in the best of seven and could end it tonight in Miami), Colorado rained goals on Vanbiesbrouck in Game 2. It was so bad that he was yanked from the game after the first period with the score already 4-1 - and Colorado had fired only 11 shots. Eventually, the Avs won 8-1. Afterward, Vanbiesbrouck - who was unloved in Vancouver, which is why he was offered up to Florida when the team was created in 1993 - was so down he could barely speak. "I was embarrassed," he mumbled.
This is the goalie's life. Embarrassment, humiliation, failure, pratfalls, screwups. When Roy is asked what it takes to be a great goalie, he says, "You don't want to give the other team any hope." Yet, while hope is in exceptionally short supply at the moment for the Panthers, Roy isn't gloating. After all, he came to Denver last December after a legendary goalie nightmare while playing for Montreal - where he had won two Stanley Cups. He was furious at being left in a game against Detroit as the Wings stunned him with nine goals. He refused to play any more with the Canadiens, because of the insult.
These days, Roy, of course, is delightfully upbeat about his position. "I really enjoy myself," he says. "I go out and show things from the bottom of my heart." Av's coach, Marc Crawford, says of his star, "He's a very confident person, very confident in his own abilities." And that is the crux of the matter. Being a goalkeeper is more mental than physical. After all, if you don't mind throwing yourself in front of a small, hard rubber puck that hurts when it hits you, then you are goalie material. Vanbiesbrouck admits, "Your emotions have to be controlled."
Former Chicago Blackhawks goalie Darren Pang says that "when you start playing hockey, the kids always blame the goalie. They have no compassion. They always say, 'We could have won but our goalie stunk.'" It's a position in which failure is always a microsecond away and success distant. Harry Neale, veteran NHL coach, says both Roy and Vanbiesbrouck "let in awful goals that 15,000 people sitting here say they could have stopped - and probably could have." He laughs and says it's odd that seldom is a goalie the National Hockey League's regular season MVP (last one was Montreal's Jacques Plante in 1962); seldom is the goalie the highest paid player. "But," says Neale, "a good goalie can make a bad team good and a bad goalie can make a good team bad."
Goaltender likely is the most unusual position in team sports. Neale says the only other comparable one might be a field goal kicker in football. Yet, he says, a kicker is barely part of the team and appears for only a few seconds. A goalie, conversely, is definitely a player and fully engaged at all times.
Fiset - a first-rate athlete who likely will start again somewhere in the NHL as he did before Roy sashayed into Denver - says that a good goalie also tends to like solitude. He has plenty of time to brood alone, approximately half the game being played at the other end of the ice. Then, suddenly, everybody is at his end. They are buzzing him and there is chaos and he can't see and sticks hit him and shots ricochet off skates and come in high and low and at different speeds and angles and the puck hurts. And if one of the barrage of shots, heaven forbid, ends up in the net, his teammates are hard-pressed to disguise their contempt for their own inept goalie. The goalie, of course, sees the debacle as being caused by poor teammate play that led to a shot no mortal could stop. Such is the position. Greg Millen, another former and well-traveled NHL goalie (seven teams), sees the task as simple: "Your job is to stop the puck. If you're not doing it, you're not doing your job."
Millen says a potential goalie "discovers at a young age that he likes the pressure and the attention - make that being the center of attention."
Neale says that "as a kid, everybody wants to be goalie and dreams of playing in the Stanley Cup. That's when dreams are born." But then, he says, "the players get bigger and better and you discover that you can be hurt by that puck. I guess a good goalie needs to have a lot of Evel Knievel in him."
These two do. Vanbiesbrouck (5 ft.-8 in., 176 lb) generally is considered better of the two at handling both rebounds and the puck and with his hands - but there are those who whisper that pressure games can sometimes bring out the worst in him. Roy gets higher marks for his size (6 ft., 190 lb) and intangibles - but is sometimes criticized for being rather average in regular season games (22-15-1 for the Avs) that do not carry the import of the playoffs, where he shines. Of everything, intangibles count the most. A goalie is a jumble of intangibles. Triumph and disaster are imposters, but he treats disaster as a fluke and triumph as a reflection of his true self and his just reward.
Roy, skating high and the darling of hockey these days, awoke just a few months ago shortly after arriving in town to an observation about himself in The Denver Post: "So far he's been a S-T-I-F-F." Respect, for a goalie is elusive, depending on which way the carom goes.