The hockey goalie: No rarer bird in any game
The dominant off-season story for the Bruins—other than the fundamental issue of whether there will even be a season next season—has to do with their whimsical goaltender who is threatening to pull a “Garbo.”
Tim Thomas says he needs to escape the madding crowd and find a quiet place to contemplate the deeper meaning of things and “re-connect with friends and family,” neither of which, apparently, includes his team and teammates. Nor does the fact that such a luxury might cost him roughly four million US large seemingly deter him.
Given the nature of these sporting times, it’s reasonable to wonder what tricks Thomas might have up his heavily padded sleeves. Could this be a contract-renegotiation gambit? He’s entering the last year of his rather team-friendly pact. Or is it a tactic aimed at manipulating a trade to some distant NHL outpost where his politics might be more compatible with the whims of the local populace? Scorning the White House and thumbing your nose at the president plays a lot better in the Golden West.
But this is not your ordinary jock. Moreover, he’s a goalie and there are no rarer birds in any game. When Tim Thomas declares it’s simply a matter of him wanting to be alone, you probably need to believe him. Goalies are like that; especially the great ones. The tradition runs deep.
The Bruins have been down this road before. In the mid-‘50s, when holding your own in the Original Six was a delicate business, they rolled the dice big-time and traded five worthy characters to Detroit for Terry Sawchuk, one of the greatest and strangest characters ever to play any game.
Though Sawchuk had backstopped them to three Cups in four years while compiling a goals-against average of under two per game over five consecutive seasons, the lordly Red Wings believed the incomparable but intensely temperamental Sawchuk was edging on burn-out, so in 1955 they dumped him on Boston when he was only 26. The fact that they had a fabulous and much cheaper successor standing by in Glenn Hall made the decision easier.
With the Bruins, Sawchuk remained terrific. But lacking the gilded supporting cast the Wings had provided—such hockey divinities as Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, Normie Ullman, and Red Kelly—the Bruins remained also-rans. Arrogant, aloof, and a definitive prima donna, Sawchuk was performing with customary brilliance but becoming impossible to live with his second season in Boston. In January of ’57, he quit cold-turkey, claiming some vague malaise, possibly mononucleosis, although that was never affirmed by medics. He sat out the rest of the season as the Bruins somehow managed to reach the Cup Finals (where they dutifully lost to Montreal) with Don Simmons subbing for Testy Terry.
In an era when the owners exercised an iron-grip and the players had no rights, the goalie’s behavior was totally unacceptable and quite enough to get a fellow banished back to Baffin Bay. But Sawchuk was Sawchuk, widely regarded a genius. Amazingly, the Wings welcomed him back and gave the Bruins a promising prospect named Johnny Bucyk for the privilege. In the end, the Sawchuk fiasco became a blessing for Boston, thanks to “The Chief,” one of the half dozen finest left-wingers in the game’s history.
It was an odd business. Glenn Hall had proven as gifted as expected but he’d also proven to be yet another eccentric customer who got himself in such a nervous lather before games that he invariably had to regurgitate just before taking to the ice, night after night. It was all rather frightful. That’s what led Detroit to peddle him to Chicago and re-immerse themselves in the Sawchuk melodrama, with all of its near Freudian dark-side.
The fragile but so often flawless Hall rebounded nicely to become known with a decided reverence as “The Ghoulie.” Insiders still maintain no net-minder was ever more technically skilled. Nerves are the eternal foe of goalies. There was the legendary Bill Durnan, driven near-mad by the stresses of goal-tending in Montreal. Jacques Plante, another Canadiens’ immortal, was another fabled basket-case. Then there were all those promising kids destroyed early-on, like Mike Moffat, once of the Bruins.
Hockey buffs love to debate the question of who was the greatest goalie of all-time. But that’s an impossible argument. For openers how do you compare modern net-minders adorned in space-age helmets and heavily protective layers of pads and garb and enjoying tightly enforced deference from on-ice officials with the old-timers (1960-1985, approx) who were protected by nothing more than thin plastic masks. And how do you even begin to compare today’s guys with those astounding ancient warriors (prior to 1960) who wore no masks, no extra protection and used thinner pads to allow for greater mobility. They fair game to ferocious adversaries if they dared wander from their crease because the game was more open then and fewer were offended by its inherent violence.
You cannot make any such comparisons and it’s pointless to even try.
Moreover, when we old-timers appear puzzled by the gravity of the contemporary injury crisis in this and other games you should understand that the main question we have is, “How come all this wasn’t so great a problem back then?” And it wasn’t. Nor should you dare suggest that it’s because the games then were softer, tamer, less intense, not as physical. Because that’s not true. The players may be bigger and faster now, but they are not tougher.
But we digress. The discussion is about the wonderful composition—physical, spiritual, and psychological—of goaltenders as a breed and it’s a great subject. I’ve never met a goalie I didn’t like and that’s not because they are invariably charming, because most of them are not, and many of them, like Sawchuk, can be downright unpleasant. The one striking quality near all of them share is a certain moodiness that makes them hostages of the relentlessly determined tides of their difficult game. But I never encountered a goalie who was boring or bored and many I found fascinating and I can’t say that about many other chaps who play other games.
When the Big Bad Bruins of precious memory were riding high in the ‘60s and ’70s, their undisputed leader—particularly in the locker room where it most counts—was Gerry Cheevers. His teammates craved the approval of “Cheesie.” Gerry and his back-up, the delightful Eddie Johnston, aka ‘E.J’, were beloved in the ranks of those warriors. A deep affection for the goalie lifts a team, causes it to play harder. It happened, on those great Bruins teams. Nor was it unusual. The Canadiens played harder for Gump Worsley, the Rangers for Eddie Giacomin, the Hawks for Hall, the Leafs for Johnny Bower and before him, Turk Broda, etc., etc.
Is that the case with Tim Thomas? I don’t know, for I don’t know him any better than all of you out there in TV Land, for I’m not the up- close observer of this team that I was in the past. But my sense from a distance is that Thomas is more a Sawchuk-type than a Cheevers-type. It is not deep affection that bonds the relationship of this team and this goalie but deep respect. I wouldn’t compare Thomas, who has been a bit of a meteor, with Sawchuk, who excelled for 20 years. But Thomas has proven that at given crucial moments he can rise to spectacular heights much like Sawchuk and Hall, Brimsek and Durnan, Plante, Dryden, Brodeur. and Roy, and other greats.
People wonder if Thomas at 38 will be finished if he takes the sabbatical. That’s nonsense. Goalies are different. He could return next year reborn and better than ever. Sawchuk, Hall, Bower, Worsley, and now Brodeur all starred into their 40s. The mercurial Plante was 44 when Harry Sinden called on him to bail out the Bruins in 1973. Bower was 46 when he last manned the pipes for the Leafs.
Can Thomas join that club? I wouldn’t bet against it, old Sport. Goalies are different.