Where have all the kooky masked men gone?

 

The question to Phoenix Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov seemed straightforward enough.

 
 
 
 
 

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The question to Phoenix Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov seemed straightforward enough.

After sitting out a couple of games, how do you feel about returning to the crease?

Bryzgalov replied: "Three-hundred Spartans. We go to the Hot Gate, we march, brothers, fathers, we march. Give them nothing, but take from them everything -- King Leonidas."

Initial reaction? Typical flaky goalie.

Follow-up reaction? Hey, there just doesn't seem to be as many opportunities to invoke the crazy netminder stereotype as there once was.

Where are all the zanies in the mold of Gilles Gratton, the former New York Rangers netminder who once begged out of a game because of a wound he claimed he suffered in a previous life as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War?

Whatever became of eccentrics such as Jacques Plante, the Montreal Canadiens great whose hobbies included knitting and sewing?

What happened to loons such as Battlin' Billy Smith, who was foolhardy enough to tangle with Dave Semenko, one of the game's all-time nasty heavyweights?

"Semenko hit him so hard that Smitty's helmet was spinning sideways," former Islanders captain Bryan Trottier once recalled. "At least, I hoped it was just the helmet."

By comparison, today's puckblockers seem so . . . normal.

Theories for the mainstreaming of masked men abound.

In the Original Six era, goalies tended to be lonely types, particularly in the days teams didn't carry backups. These days, netminders have a support group of colleagues and position-specific coaches at their disposal.

Gone are the days when the misfits and the unfit gravitated to the crease. Still, it'd be a mistake to suggest all the nutty netminders are gone.

Former Ottawa Senators goalie Ray Emery, currently trying to get his career back on track in Russia, once collected $500 from teammates for eating a cockroach on a dare.

Former Flame Roman Turek, still active in his native Czech Republic, once went into a rage because a teammate had removed a bottle of hand lotion from his stall. Turek is also the guy who named his firstborn after Eddie, the gruesome mascot of heavy-metal rockers Iron Maiden.

Then there's Bryzgalov, the kooky character who said the best thing about playing for Russia at the 2006 Olympics was the free McDonald's food. Bryzgalov also claims reading Plato and Socrates helps him stop pucks.

"I think (the off-the-wall reputation) was justified and I think it still is," said goalie-turned-broadcaster John Garrett. "But now, there's so much media coverage, the guys are more cognizant of their reputation. The flaky reputation doesn't help your relationship with your teammates and so the goaltenders protect it.

"The superstitions and the dangers of the position lead you to be an individual in a team sport and coping mechanisms or superstitions or whatever gets you to be at your best -- it's still there, but it's not as open as it used to be."

"You still need a certain personality to want to be under the kind of pressure you're under and to be in the spotlight at a very young age," said Greg Millen, another of the goalies who traded in his pads for a microphone. "That part hasn't changed. It's a high-pressure position and with that comes . . . some personality, if you will. I'm not so sure that's changed that much. If you ask the forwards and the coaches, they'll all say the goalies are different. Maybe not to the extreme it was years and years ago."

And boy, were there extremes.

"I've never seen a sane one," said longtime WHA and NHL forward Mike Rogers, now the Flames' radio analyst. "At least not the guys I played with."

Take Rogers' former Whalers teammate Al Smith.

"Al had these certain things he'd like to do when he got drinking -- he liked to jump, slide or fight," said Rogers. "I've seen him do all three. Once we're going through this cross-walk near the hotel in Edmonton. Next thing we know, he's running through the cross walk and we see him leave his feet. He's in the air and lands on the hood of a car. Then he's looking through the windshield and screaming at the people inside the car. He obviously didn't really look at the car that close because it was a cop car. So now we've got to bail him out of jail so he could start the game the next night."

Most goalies don't bother fighting the stereotype.

"I think where there's smoke," grinned veteran stopper Curtis Joseph, "there's fire."

Garrett freely admits to his own zaniness.

"I remember when Saturday Night Live and the Mr. Bill character was in vogue," he said. "I was playing and I used to talk to the puck (in Mr. Bill's high-pitched, terror-stricken voice): 'Oh noooooooooo, there you go again. You're going in again. Oh noooooooooo.' And the guys just thought that was weird. I thought it was OK. I was loosening up and enjoying the game. They thought, 'Oh, here's another flaky goalie.' It probably was (weird) but it was just a coping mechanism and it worked for me."

Then there's the story from Garrett's days in Quebec, where the backup sat in a tunnel behind the bench.

"I had the trainer get me a hot dog," admitted Garrett. "Nobody saw you, the only person who knew was the trainer. The best hot dogs in the league, by the way, were at Le Colisee. Toasted buns and everything. So I'm eating one and Dan Bouchard was the (starting) goalie. So he's playing and the game is going OK, so I figured I'm not going in this one. Some nights, when the other team scores three quick ones, you had a hint you might be going in so you get rid of the dog. But he lets in one goal and he's (ticked) off at whoever's on the ice at the time and he just charged off the ice. Well I'm sitting there and I've go the hot dog tucked in my pad. So I've got to go in and I stand up and put my mask on. I can't reach down and dig the dog out of my pads, people are looking at me. So I go out there and finish the game. I had to fall down a couple of times and mustard and ketchup was flying. I had to tighten the straps on my pads so the dog doesn't come out. The trainer's just killing himself (with laughter)."

Funny thing is, Garrett doesn't believe the chien chaud caper is a particularly good example of goalies being different.

"Ah, that's not being flaky," he insisted. "That's just enjoying the game."

jlefebvre@theherald.canwest.com

 
 
 
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