Canadiens goalie Carey Price listens to goalie coach Stéphane Waite during a practice in Brossard. The two men clicked almost immediately and the results have been positive for Price so far.
Photograph by: John Mahoney, The Gazette
MONTREAL — In the view of Stéphane Waite, there might be one job in professional sports as difficult as playing goal for the Canadiens.
“Maybe quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys?” the Habs goaltending coach said with a grin. “That’s probably not easy, either.”
Four and a half months into his tenure with the Canadiens, 22 games into the NHL season, Waite laughed at the suggestion that Montreal, as a hockey town, is stark raving, certifiably mad.
“But crazy in a good way,” he said with a laugh. “I really like the hockey atmosphere here. I really enjoy that people love hockey.
“Even those who criticize everything, deep down, they love the Canadiens. They just want us to win. I understand that and I respect it.
“When we win, it’s the best place to play. When we lose, the fans push us to be better. I take that as a good challenge. I love it.”
Waite signed with the Canadiens on July 4, commissioned to write the next chapter — the one on which the full story is likely to hinge — in the development of Carey Price.
A 47-year-old native of Sherbrooke, perhaps destined for his current job by sharing the Canadiens’ Dec. 4 birthday, Waite had earned his NHL salary for a decade in Chicago.
He won two Stanley Cups in four seasons with the Blackhawks, reaching hockey’s pinnacle with two goaltenders for whom the expectations were modest, at best — Antti Niemi in 2010, then Corey Crawford this past June.
“With Niemi and Crawford, it was: ‘If you can just make the playoffs and win a couple of series, we’ll be happy,’ ” Waite said. “Here, Carey is so talented, the expectations are very high. He has the talent to win the whole thing. The expectations are very different compared to Chicago, but I love the challenge of that.
“You need someone very, very special to be the No. 1 goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. You must be a very special character and I think Carey is a special guy.”
Waite is Price’s third goaltending coach in Montreal, the 26-year-old netminder having played his first two seasons under Roland Melanson and his next four under Pierre Groulx.
But Price’s uneven 2012-13 season and lacklustre playoffs prompted Marc Bergevin to make a change, knowing that Price needed to step out of his comfort zone. So the Canadiens GM reached out to Waite, with whom he had worked in Chicago.
And so here he is, doing fine work with Price and his backup, Peter Budaj. Under Waite, Price has found a new level of performance through 18 games, his save percentage at .935 and goals-against at 2.05.
From Chicago, Waite had seen Price selected by the Canadiens, fifth overall, in the 2005 draft. He watched the goalie lead Team Canada to gold in the 2007 world junior championship, then turn pro that spring with the Hamilton Bulldogs before finally arriving in Montreal in the autumn to play here first with Cristobal Huet, then Jaroslav Halak and Alex Auld.
Price was then — and in some ways remains — a construction project. But it seems that now, backed up by Budaj, he’s more finishing nails and trim than crowbars and concrete.
From Day 1 with the Canadiens, Waite has been impressed by the attentive, quick-study pupil whose development has increased sharply this season.
“I’m very impressed by Carey’s work ethic,” Waite said during a 45-minute talk behind the closed door of his Bell Centre office Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before the Canadiens’ 6-2 win over Minnesota.
“He works very hard, he’s willing to change and make some adjustments in his game. He’s very open-minded, which is good for me. And he wants to win more than anyone else here. Carey hates to lose and that’s impressed me very much. It’s very easy to work with him.”
Throughout his coaching career, which began in minor and junior hockey and includes to this day his long-running goaltending school, Waite has adjusted to the game of his goalies, not had his goalies adjust to him. In his first media interview here when he was hired in July, he spoke not of reinventing Price, but of fine-tuning him.
And right out of the gate in training camp, the coach and goalie worked together on Price’s game preparation, something Waite believed was a weakness.
“Game preparation brings consistency,” Waite said. “So far this season, Carey has had 17 starts (18 after Tuesday vs. Minnesota) and they’ve all been good starts. Every one, he’s given us a chance to win and that’s what you want from your No. 1 goalie.”
Waite keyed on a pregame routine that begins the day before a start. He speaks of video study, practice, morning skate and pregame warmups and pregame meetings to discuss the opponent.
The day after a game, Waite and Price will review video, 80 per cent of the coach’s clips illustrating things the goalie has done well. The other 20 per cent isn’t negative, but “adjustments or things we can correct.”
“It’s all about the next game, playing it like it’s going to be Game 7 in a playoff series,” Waite said. “It’s not easy to do that 60 or 65 games a season. That’s a lot of Game 7s.
“Every day, I ask Carey to prepare like it’s Game 7. He has to be very disciplined off the ice — how he eats and rests. Then how he practises for every game. How he stretches pregame and in warmups, focuses in meetings and studies video. That’s a lot of stuff.”
Waite’s first conversations with Price, long before training camp began, explained that the coach had no performance goals mapped out, no benchmarks.
“The approach is, ‘Next game, next game, next game…’ ” he said. “There are no objectives in terms of wins or goals-against or save percentage. The only objective I have is the next game. That’s it, that’s all.
“And Carey loves that. For us, you lose a lot of energy trying to reach goals. The most important thing is the next game. I don’t care about the last game, no matter how good or bad.”
Waite knows that Price takes his own performance very personally “because he wants to win more than anything.”
“I agree with him, but in the end, he has to control what he can. I told him (Monday, after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the New York Rangers), ‘I don’t expect you to come in with a smile, but you played very well even if you didn’t win. You’ve got to control what you can, and that’s stopping the puck. As long as you give us a chance to win every night, we’ll be fine.’
“We’ll score goals,” Waite said prophetically, the Habs burying six on Tuesday. “Sometimes, Carey is going to give up three or four goals and we’re going to win. At the end of the year, those things will even out.
“When he wins, it’s all about his teammates, and I have a lot of respect for that. He played a great game against the Rangers but he was mad, not that we hadn’t scored, but because he felt he should have stopped the one that beat him.
“He’ll never blame his teammates, I respect him a lot for that and I can feel that teammates respect Carey a lot. He’s a team guy all the time. Even one-on-one with me, he never says: ‘We need to score some goals,’ or get more in the shootout. Never, never, never. It’s all about: ‘I should have stopped just one more.’ ”
It doesn’t hurt their relationship that coach and goalie are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. Both are private men, and neither speaks just to hear themselves talk.
Chemistry between a coach and athlete, especially in a goaltending coach’s small classroom, can take a long period to develop, if it develops at all. But Waite was impressed, even a little amazed, at how quickly he and Price clicked.
“A lot of people said Carey is not easy to approach, that he’s a little bit on his heels with new people around him,” Waite said. “But he’s like me. He’s not a big talker, we’re very reserved guys. We connected very well right away. We talked a bit about how I work and he liked it right away.
“Carey said: ‘I like that, I like that,’ and I said: ‘You’re sure? You like everything? If you don’t like it, tell me.’ And he said: ‘No, Steph, everything’s good.’
“I showed him some video of last year and proposed a couple changes in his game and he said: ‘Yeah, it makes sense.’ ”
Waite and Price talk very little away from the rink “because he needs to get away from me and me from him,” the coach said. “He’s a very private guy and I am, too. But I think we’re a very good fit. It’s all about business. There’s no bull---- between us.”
Waite had probably heard, from various sources, the pokes at Price suggesting the goalie wasn’t always fully committed to the task at hand, that practices weren’t his forte.
“The thing that has surprised me the most is his work ethic,” Waite said. “He works very hard on the ice. He’s always on time, always early, ready to go every day. He’s a quick learner. I explain something to make an adjustment and boom! right away he’ll do it very well.
“Carey understands the game very well. He’s a natural. He gets it immediately and the next game he can apply it. A lot of goalies can take a couple games, a couple weeks, sometimes a couple months. With Carey, it’s right away, no problem.”
Waite observed Price’s sliding from post to post on his pads in a butterfly position, on his knees. The coach wanted Price up on his skates more, to “beat the pass instead of sliding butterfly automatically as he had been doing.
“I wanted Carey more patient on his skates, more patient one-on-one. I think that’s made him more in control.”
Waite smiles and nods when it’s mentioned to him that Price’s jersey is often scarred with the black smudges of pucks that have struck him in the CH crest, arms and shoulders.
“That’s because he’s square and he’s patient,” he said. “His positioning has been very good, which I think is his biggest improvement so far.”
Price’s much better glove hand, Waite says, is another byproduct of positioning.
“When you’re still on your feet, you just react. Carey is almost always in a good position to make glove and blocker saves, instead of being off-balance,” he added, flailing his arms to illustrate.
“And I like the way Carey is battling more, competing through the screens. I have a lot of respect for goalies like (retired) Dominik Hasek and (Florida’s) Tim Thomas. Technically, they’re not very good. But they’re instinctive goalies and they battle more than anyone.”
Waite’s strength has always been his ability to teach goaltending technique. But since he began instructing in amateur hockey, he has evolved with the game. Where he used to preach butterfly, almost robotic goaltending, Waite has broadened his horizons.
“For me, technique is the basic,” he said. “Everything starts from there. You have to be square, set and patient. But at one point, you have to trust your instincts. Do the first thing that comes to your mind. Don’t think, just react.”
The coach is an intense student of the game, his database huge.
“I have a book on every goalie in the league,” Waite said, files on every NHL goaltender kept in his Brossard office. “I’ve been in the league 11 years so I have a lot of notes on every goalie.”
“None of them have any secrets.”
With that he holds up a heavily highlighted diagram of Minnesota goalie Josh Harding, a heavily marked blueprint of where Canadiens should be shooting that night, margins clogged with his notes.
A year ago, any discussion about Price and the Sochi Olympics would have been about on which beach the Habs goalie would unwind for a couple of weeks in February. Not so now.
“I don’t know if Carey will be in Sochi,” Waite said. “But he should be there, oh yes. So far this season, he’s been unbelievable. And he won world juniors, so he’s played on international stage and he’s won. There’s no doubt for me that he should be there.”
There is more hockey to be played before the Olympics, however, and both coach and goaltender know it.
Our conversation winding down, Waite would soon sit down with Price and review their keys for the game against Minnesota.
Around 10 p.m., the coach stepped aboard an elevator at Bell Centre press-box level and headed down to the dressing room, his debriefing already taking shape.
There was a win in the Canadiens column, a win attached to Price’s name, and a thin smile on Waite’s lips. Already, he was thinking about the next game.
“It wasn’t easy for me to leave,” Waite had said earlier of having pulled up his well-planted Chicago roots. “But to me it was clear that this was a great opportunity and challenge.
“I want to win another Stanley Cup, in Montreal. I grew up with the Canadiens. Ken Dryden was my idol.
“Even though I had a lot of success in Chicago, I always said: ‘One day, I have to be able to coach in Montreal.’ ”
And so here he is, and the early reviews are excellent.
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