NHL goalies have long been viewed as mysterious creatures -- enigmas, practitioners of voodoo, crazy creatures who defy prediction and probably ruin your fantasy team. The best among them have been notorious for that, as well as for stopping the puck.
Or as "Between The Pipes" (Greystone Books) by Randi Druzin sells it: "Some NHL goalies are great and others are intriguing, but a dozen of them are legends because they're both."
The Subjects: A Bunch of Winners Plus a Feisty Guy
While for New York Islanders fans it would seem a crime to not file Billy Smith under that description, the 12 goalies covered in Druzin's book are, save for one, undeniably legends:
Terry Sawchuk ("The Tortured Soul"), Glenn Hall (the folksy "trooper"), Jacques Plante ("The Maverick"), Gump Worsley ("The Joker"), Johnny Bower ("The Gentleman"), Bernie Parent ("The Bon Vivant"), Ken Dryden ("The Scholar"), Ron Hextall ("The Warrior," though one who doesn't really fit this group), Patrick Roy (every bit as full of himself as you'd think), Ed Belfour ("The Fanatic" is putting it mildly), Dominik Hasek ("The Enigma"), and Martin Brodeur (exhibiting a very un-goalie-like happy calm, though the whole affair-with-sister-in-law thing stands out).
Hextall's presence is an odd one here, as he had a very brief and early career peak followed by several forgettable seasons for the Nordiques, Islanders, and again back with the Flyers. It seems he made it due to some of his violent antics on ice (more on that in a follow-up post) as well as the fact he was the first goalie to shoot and score. Still, Smith would have added much of those traits to this book (not the shooting, but the scoring part) and much more, including four Stanley Cup wins and a refusal to treat the league's superstar with kid glvoes.
Nonetheless, the sidebars make this book go beyond the 12 subjects. Hextall's chapter includes a (very brief) sidebar on Smith, noting how he was the first "uncontrollable" goalie before Hextall, and referencing Smith's slash on Wayne Gretzky during the 1983 Cup finals sweep, as well as Smith's place as the first goalie credited with a goal.
Parent's chapter includes a bit about Gerry Cheevers as well as the late Pelle Lindbergh, the young Flyers phenom and Parent student who died while driving his Porsche intoxicated. Ken Dryden's section includes his own famous insight as well as tales about his brother, fellow NHL goalie Dave.
Druzin's book is methodically researched fro articles, books (including autobiographies) and plenty of contemporary source materials and newspaper reports. Sidebars in each chapter add extra bits of color (or in Brodeur's case, scratching the surface of his infamous marital detour). If you have interest in any of these 12 goalies, this is a pretty comprehensive place to start, including a season-by-season chronicle.
That year-by-year approach, however, is one of the book's weaknesses: In a book ostensibly about personalities, some seasons and eras frankly aren't that interesting.
The strengths are in the quotes throughout, and the tales about some of the historical goalies -- the ones many of us probably never saw live but heard plenty about, including Sawchuk's famous darkness and early death, Hall's famous anxiety and Plante's nonconformity.
Another key strength of the book: the quotes around the genius who may have been better than them all, Dominik Hasek.
The Enigmatic Dominator
I've long maintained that the standardization of butterfly styles and the common improvement (and enlargement) of equipment has created the goaltending atmosphere we have today: Many very good, almost indistinguishable goalies whose stats ebb and flow slightly each year, with very few truly and inargueably elite goalies who can stand out.
As great as Henrik Lundqvist is, he is essentially a very efficient butterfly goalie who also has the reflexes to allow him to play deep in his crease. He is not an improviser, which is what helped Tim Thomas top the league for a few seasons, and which is what made Hasek truly legendary.
Hasek combined an astute understanding of the game (and thus where shooters were likely to be and what they were likely to do) with tremendous athleticism and unpredictability, both of which frustrated even the best shooters.
A few partisan quotes from the book help illustrate how he came to be, and why his genius was hidden in Chicago (this after he turned pro at age 16 in the former Czechoslovakia), before a trade to the Sabres.
One is from his Czech goalie mentor, Jiri Holecek:
"I don't understand why people in the NHL are so concerned with the goalie's style rather than his success. Why is it important that a goalie look good in a goal? Why is it so important that he doesn't fall to the ice that often? Because he needs to look good in photographs? They're stupid, those Canadians. Lumberjacks!"
The other is from his brother, Martin:
"I think many people who are the best in something, who are almost genius, can sometimes make an impression of having a screw loose. Dominik was not just good, he was a genius."
To say that Hasek's career was marked by "unsightly" unorthodox goaltending and a "screw loose" demeanor is without question. I obviously believe those aspects were also key to what made him great.
No matter who you think was the greatest of them all, or who you might think should have been in this book (ahem, Smith), it's a full and digestible history of some of the biggest names to play the position over the last 60 years.
For a position that has become less interesting in recent years, these guys' stories and careers still stand out.