That's me down there on my knees to your left, peeking out between players, the little masked man in search of a puck. What I'm really doing—honestly—is checking out the color of the socks on all the legs around me. The players wearing blue socks are good guys from Pittsburgh; ones with other colors are the bad guys. If the blue socks don't outnumber the others, I'm in trouble. Deep trouble.
Life around the goal mouth can be very hazardous to your health, and I don't recommend it to anyone. Besides having to dodge 100-mile-an-hour slap shots aimed at my head, I also have to worry about flying skates, errant sticks, misplaced elbows, the crossbar and the two goalposts. A few months ago I lost a battle with one of the posts and ended up in the hospital with a concussion. Paul Henderson of Toronto cruised down the left wing and cut in on me from a sharp angle. After he shot, Henderson crashed into me and knocked my head against the post. Unfortunately, the post did not give way, and I was unable to play for almost two weeks. All I remember is that when I was stretched out on the ice one of my defensemen rapped his stick against my pads and said "good save." As a result of that concussion, I now wear a protector on the back of my head, too.
The 4-by-8-foot crease in front of the goal is my place of business, and I get pretty mad—if you can imagine a 5'8", 150-pound goaltender getting upset—when rival players drop by for an unannounced visit. So mad, in fact, that I will welcome them with a whack on the backs of their legs or on their ankles with my big goaltender's stick. And that hurts. Or so I have been told.
What bothers me and other goalies the most, though, are the not-so-subtle intimidation tactics rival players like to use. For instance, when Vic Hadfield of New York, Alex Delvecchio of Detroit, Wayne Cashman of Boston, Bob Kelly of Philadelphia or Joey Johnston of California is on the ice, I always anticipate getting slashed on the hands by their sticks. They are not being malicious; they just want to unsettle me and take my mind off the puck.
Stan Mikita of the Chicago Black Hawks is the sneakiest pest of all for us. Once a play breaks away from me, Mikita—knowing that the referee is looking in the other direction—does his act. Instead of going directly down the ice, Mikita skates right around the crease and brushes against me. Worse yet, he likes to drag his skate and trip me—or at least knock me off balance.
I am not the combative type of goaltender, like Gerry Cheevers, Doug Favell or Billy Smith, so when a player gives me a hard time I simply tell one of my defensemen about it—usually Dave Burrows—and then get ready to watch the action from ringside. It is no real coincidence that when we play the Rangers, somebody usually has an altercation with Hadfield. My defensemen know they have to protect me.
Like all goaltenders, I spend part of each day thanking the man who invented the mask and cursing the player who invented the slap shot. Even wearing the mask I have picked up 41 stitches in my face and have had my upper teeth knocked out. Without the mask, I hate to think what my face would look like. I know I would never throw my face in the way of a flying puck the way I do now. No, sir. And I definitely would not look for screen shots by crouching down and almost putting my nose onto the ice; I'd play them on my tiptoes.
The mask undoubtedly makes all of us act braver than we are. I really don't know how much courage I have, because I live in a fog during a game and do things strictly by instinct. If I had time to think about what I was doing, well, maybe I wouldn't do it. For instance, Eddie Shack is forever asking me to drop the puck in a certain place after I make a save. I may nod at him or shake my head, but what he says never even registers. I just want to get rid of the puck in what looks to be the safest place.
Surprisingly, I'm not nervous before a game, but I am when it's over. Glenn Hall was my goaltending idol, but I never want to get to the point where I vomit before every game like he used to. Everything hits me once the game is over and I have had a chance to think about what happened, about the pucks I stopped. Sometimes I don't get to sleep until four or five in the morning.
During a game what I fear is giving up a bad goal. The goaltender, remember, is the last line of defense; two other players can make the mistakes that cause a goal but the goaltender is the one who lets the puck get past him. When I have a bad night everybody knows it, but who knows when a forward or a defenseman is playing poorly? If I allow what the coach thinks are a couple of bad goals, he probably will take me out of the game. That's what really upsets me. In fact, I had a breakdown several years ago after my coach in junior hockey replaced me during a game. If I'm not playing well, or if I don't feel well, I'll tell the coach myself.
I guess if I had to do it all over again I would have lifted weights and done a lot of stretching exercises when I was a kid (I'm still only 24), and now instead of being 5'8" and 150 pounds I'd probably be 6'3" and 190. Then I would be a forward, shooting pucks at the goaltender instead of being shot at. Even now, if I knew I could make the NHL as a forward I would probably give it a try. Checking out socks is hardly the best way to make a living.
MELCHIOR DI GIACOMO