The internet may brim with iconic images of goalies, but nothing gets to the soul of it like Ralph Morse’s photo of Terry Sawchuk in LIFE magazine.
Take a minute to let that image sink in. (It will become hard for you to walk down a dark alley without seeing Sawchuk’s face in the cracked asphalt.) The accompanying text informs readers:
This face belongs to Terry Sawchuk, a 36-year-old goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Re-created here, by a professional make-up artist and a doctor, are some of the more than 400 stitches he has earned during 16 years in the National Hockey League. Sawchuk has sustained other injuries not shown here: a slashed eyeball requiring three stitches, a 70% loss of function in his right arm because 60 bone chips were removed from his elbow, and a permanent “sway-back” caused by continual bent-over posture.
Last year there were only six NHL goalies, but games had to be interrupted so regularly for spot surgical repairs that a new rule was passed requiring every team to carry a spare. The bloody ordeal has bred a special kind of man — half commando and half human pincushion — and it is not surprising he has special problems.
The poet Randall Maggs referred to goaltending as night work. In the vein of Michael Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Maggs’ Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems—which has been called “the truest hockey book ever written”—opens with a page-long description from Sawchuk’s real life autopsy report. Plante and Sawchuck were the heroes of goaltending’s last golden age. (Like most Canadian immigrant kids, trying to fit in to a new country, Sawchuk was a Ukranian who found belonging in a new culture through sport.) But over his career, Sawchuk would suffer from severe depression and alcoholism. He died at age 40 after a fight with a teammate.
Denied the leap and dash up the ice,
what goalies know is side to side, an inwardness of monk
and cell. They scrape. They sweep. Their eyes are elsewhere
as they contemplate their narrow place. Like saints, they pray for nothing,
which brings grace. Off-days, what they want is space. They sit apart
in bars. They know the length of streets in twenty cities.
But it’s their saving sense of irony that further
isolates them as it saves.
While trying to update some stereotypes about modern goaltending, the story in this month’s Atlantic explains that “what happens on the ice is notably free from religious exhibitionism.”
Players don’t kneel in prayer at center ice after a game or cross themselves before a breakaway. The game is the spirituality. And while fans may sense that Sidney Crosby is channeling some divine power when he weaves through a team of the world’s best-trained defenders, saucering a perfect pass to a racing teammate amid a maze of skates and outstretched sticks, it is really the almost inhuman movements of a goaltender that come closest to anything like glossolalia. But a goaltender—especially in Canada—occupies the more ominous end of the sport’s spirituality. Only the weirdest kid on that prairie pond would ever play the role of preventing the dreamed-of goal. To make a big save, in the parlance of the play-by-play man, is to “rob” the shooter of the moment. And while big saves are remembered initially, their significance fades with time. The goals become the lore.
Consequently, goaltenders have developed a reputation for being odd and dark. Their skills and psychological makeup are completely different from those of their teammates. By stereotype, they are the sort of people who psych themselves up with heavy-metal music and favor masks covered in vaguely satanic 1970s van art. One coach in Finland told me about a goalie who would place a puck on a shelf on the other side of the dressing room before each game, then sit silently in his stall staring at it for hours. Patrick Roy, an all-time great from Quebec, was known for talking to the posts that held the net behind him.
Frank McCool, who was afflicted with bleeding ulcers once abruptlye skated off the ice—in the middle of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. He downed a quart of milk in the dressing room. His coach Hap Day had to plead with him to come back out.
If you’re remotely impressed by Cal Ripken’s iron man streak, consider that the Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall played 502 games in a row, and is said to have vomited before each one of them. He played a long stretch of that streak with no helmet.
“You don’t have to be crazy to be a goalie,” said the former Flyer goaltender Bernie Parent. “But it helps.” (A bumper sticker in Philadelphia in the 1970s was: “Only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent.”