Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, right, listens to goaltending coach Pierre Groulx during the Montreal Canadiens training camp in Montreal on Monday, January 14, 2013.
Photograph by: Allen McInnis, The Gazette
MONTREAL — There was not any one save, a single game or a light-bulb revelation that put Carey Price on the road to becoming an elite National Hockey League goaltender.
The process began not on the ice, but on the Canadiens bench during the three-round 2010 playoffs, where he was parked in a backup role to the sizzling Jaroslav Halak.
Price started once in 19 postseason games, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal against Washington; he surrendered four goals on 36 shots, two more put into an empty Montreal net in a 6-3 Bell Centre loss.
On three more occasions, coach Jacques Martin inserted Price in relief of Halak — once against the Capitals, then against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern semifinal and the Philadelphia Flyers in the final.
Price finished the playoffs having seen 135 minutes of action to Halak’s 1,013. His save percentage of .890 and goals-against average of 3.56 paled next to Halak’s .923 and 2.55.
It was on the bench, his pride dented, stripped of his starter’s role, that the harsh reality of playing goal in Montreal truly dawned on Price.
At 22, the young man was in the eyes of many — perhaps even some in his own organization — no longer the present of Canadiens goaltending, much less its future.
Pierre Groulx had a front-row seat to the drama, completing his first year as the team’s goaltending coach. Groulx had been building a relationship with Price, as he had with Halak, throughout the season. And he knew, as Martin anointed Halak the Habs netminder for the playoffs, that Price was at a delicate, even critical crossroads.
“I don’t want to say that things were easy for Carey, but he learned then that being a goalie in the NHL is not easy,” Groulx says today. “You have to put the work and your heart into it. It doesn’t matter how much skill you have, the work still has to be put in.
“Carey realized in those playoffs that he got knocked down. It hit him hard at first and then he realized, ‘I can do one of two things: I can sulk or I can be the best teammate I can and work toward helping this team win. If it’s by sitting at the end of the bench, then that’s what my job is.’
“For him to realize that made his maturation process jump,” Groulx said. “His understanding of the game began right then and there. I saw a kid who was No. 1, and then he didn’t play. He had to take a step back and at first it was really tough for him. But after that, he understood his role. In the playoffs, I saw a guy who was starting to change, understanding that he wasn’t playing but was still a big part of the team.”
Price is not the same goaltender with whom Groulx began to mesh that 2010 playoff season, the coach having arrived from Florida the previous July with Martin, his Panthers boss.
The goalie crawled from that playoff pit and has emerged from the team-wide black hole of last season as one of hockey’s best goaltenders, at 25 beginning to knock on the door of his prime.
For Groulx, and for Price, it has been an enormously challenging process. This is not about a coach and his student. It is about a partnership.
For nearly 90 minutes early last Saturday afternoon, Groulx sat behind the Canadiens’ Bell Centre bench and discussed Price — where the goalie has been, where he is, where he’s going — and his own role with him.
A few hours later, his star pupil would be lit up for six goals by Toronto. Then on Tuesday, Price was terrific in Tampa through 54 minutes before the Lightning struck for three late goals — the second arguably punched in, the third coming 6-on-4, having deflected off the skate of defenceman Raphael Diaz.
Price then stoned Victor Hedman, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos to steal the victory in a shootout.
“I remember when I arrived in Montreal, going home and telling my wife about Carey: ‘This guy has every tool that a goalie wants: he’s big, he’s agile, he has a winning mentality,’ ” Groulx said.
Almost like a child actor, Price has grown before our eyes, starring in some great movies and coming up flat in some duds. He’s found his acting chops this season, though not without a few scenes for which he’d like a second take, and with a new six-year contract he’s the brightest name on his club’s marquee.
“Carey is so focused this year, from the beginning of the day on game day to the final buzzer,” Groulx said. “He’s brought that in from the summer.
“Last year was an awakening for a lot of people. He put a lot of pressure on himself. His focus is so much greater than before, his focus on details. When we need to talk about specific plays, he remembers that exact play. He pushes himself to be so much better. In every little detail of his game, his focus has expanded from last year.
“This is a young man who has grown into a mature adult. He has realized that hockey is a business, not just a sport. He has realized he had to see the importance of everything around hockey. It’s not just stepping on the ice and saying: ‘I’m ready to go.’ Every day is a routine. It’s a big lifestyle change.
“He took big steps last summer with his conditioning and his nutrition. He told himself: ‘OK, if I want to be an elite goalie, this is what I need to do.’ I’m proud of him that he understood that.”
Price arrived in the Canadiens organization with great fanfare in 2005, drafted fifth overall. He anchored Canada’s 2007 world junior championship victory, returned to Washington state to star for his Western Hockey League Tri-City Americans, then signed a three-year, $2.5-million entry-level contract with the Canadiens.
En route to Montreal, he stopped briefly with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, backstopping the Habs farm team’s 2007 Calder Cup championship with an MVP performance.
Barely 20, Price was handed the keys to Canadiens goaltending that autumn ahead of veteran Cristobal Huet, fast-tracked perhaps too quickly for his own good. Then came two seasons of sharing the workload with Halak, the latter seizing the reins for the 2010 playoffs.
Groulx met with both goalies after the Canadiens’ improbable playoff run, no one then knowing that Halak would be traded to St. Louis a month later.
The coach flew to Price’s off-season home in Kelowna, B.C., that summer for a week of training, the two sitting for a heart-to-heart.
“I told him: ‘Pricer, you’re going to be a top goalie in this league but we need to take a process,’ ” Groulx said. “Right then and there he said, ‘Yeah, I want to be here.’
“Carey wants to be part of the legacy of the goalies up there,” he added, nodding to Bell Centre banners celebrating team legends Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. “That says he’s a winner, and he wants to win in the best place possible, which is Montreal.”
Price signed a two-year bridge contract worth $5.5 million then immediately absorbed the early abuse of those with a lingering resentment over the trade of playoff hero Halak.
“We talked about the process of Pricer regaining his stature in net,” Groulx said. “He knew it wasn’t going to be given to him, but at the same time he knew that net was his.
“When the Canadiens made that trade, he thought: ‘OK, it’s mine. Now I’ve got to reward the people who gave me this job and show them they made the right call.’ ”
Price appeared in a franchise-record 72 games in 2010-11 with a superb .923 save percentage. He slid back last season in what was arguably the Canadiens’ most bizarre and dysfunctional campaign ever, the team finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference.
And then came his signing of a six-year, $39-million contract that cemented the club’s belief that he’s their goaltender for the long term, a cornerstone.
The front office was shaken up with the hiring of general manager Marc Bergevin, head coach Michel Therrien and the import of a host of new assistant coaches.
Quietly, Price made a strong case for keeping Groulx, whom he had got to know and deeply trust.
“Carey vouched for me last summer, that’s no secret,” Groulx said, clearly grateful for the vote of confidence. “I know there’s a great trust factor between the two of us. I relate it to a golfer and his caddie. If the caddie hands him a 7-iron and says it’s 140 yards to the pin, the golfer won’t turn back and say: ‘It’s 142 yards.’
“Pricer needs to have the trust in me that what we do on and off the ice is beneficial to him. I have a certain way of working with him and he appreciates that. It helps him. I’m not an in-your-face, rah-rah type of guy. And he relates a lot to his (rural B.C.) roots. He’s an easygoing guy and that’s exactly the way he handles things.
“He’s got the perfect next-shot mentality,” Groulx said, well aware that Canadiens goalies are forever on a fickle public’s short leash.
“He’s got the perfect demeanour for this city: ‘OK, we won, my teammates did a great job, now let’s move on.’ Until we accomplish the goal, it’s not good enough.
“We’re a team, partners. We focus on the things that make us better. The friendship we have goes a long way toward making the job easy.”
There are many facets to Groulx’s job: teacher, clinician, psychologist, cheerleader, confidant. He chuckles at this job description that doesn’t really exist; he simply seeks to provide whatever Price and backup goalie Peter Budaj need to perform at the best of their abilities.
“Carey and Peter and I are a team,” Groulx said. “Everything revolves around Carey, but it’s the three of us. A lot of times, you have to be a friend, just a shoulder. Just to talk, not necessarily about hockey.
“If I put more pressure on him than there already is, then I’m not helping. Often, it’s just shooting the breeze.”
You’ll regularly find Groulx on practice ice at one end of the rink, drilling his goaltenders.
“There’s a lot of tweaking, fine-tuning, a lot of reminders,” he said of how he coaches Price.
(For Budaj, the work is different, many practices designed to simulate games that the backup doesn’t often see.)
“A goalie of Carey’s stature, his technique is there. He does a lot of things well. There’s not much change going on, just a lot of reminders.
“I can critique and do all I want, but I’m not standing in front of 21,000 people trying to make a save. … I know the average shot might look easy to people, but there’s a lot that goes behind that save.”
Groulx will use video support on ice as well, recording drills on a tripod-mounted iPad for instant playback and review to illustrate his instruction. There will be in-class video sessions, or he’ll simply drop a few clips on a USB drive to send home with Price for study on his own.
No one is more demanding of Groulx, 37, than he is of himself. Born in Hull and raised in Ottawa-suburban Orleans, he got his coaching start in Ontario Central Junior A hockey, eventually moving on to the NHL Senators and Florida Panthers as a video and goaltending coach.
Now in his 12th season in the NHL, he works with every netminder in the Canadiens system and will travel to Europe in the off-season as an instructor and to enrich his own education.
In July, he’ll launch his own goaltending school, PG’s Goalies, near his Lake Erie cottage in Port Colbourne, Ont., where he spends summers with his wife, Wendy, and their twin sons, Eli and Leo, who turn 4 next month.
Groulx has no illusions that Price’s long-term contract guarantees his own future. At the end of the day, this is a performance-based industry.
“Carey and I have a good partnership and we work well together,” he said. “What I’m proudest of is the relationship we’ve built.
“But hockey is a brutal business sometimes and there are never any guarantees. It all relates to wins. Whatever I do with our goalies, nobody cares unless we win. I love my job and working with these guys, but if we don’t win, it’s not good enough.
“I want to be here as long as I can to work with Carey and the Canadiens. Really, who wouldn’t?”
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette