Because of the way he coils himself in front of the net, Goaltender Gary Simmons of the Los Angeles Kings is known as the Cobra. Accordingly, Simmons has a cobra painted on his mask and another tattooed on his right calf. He also wears Stetson hats, Indian bracelets and a belt fashioned from the skin of a diamondback rattlesnake that he claims he killed with his bare hands in Arizona last summer. "I guess cobras are quicker than rattlers," he says.
When Dave Dryden played goal for the Buffalo Sabres, he insisted on living in his native Toronto, 100 miles distant. For road games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dryden drove to Buffalo, boarded the team bus and returned to Toronto. After each game he rode the Sabres' bus back to Buffalo, got into his car and drove home to Toronto. Dryden played more recently for the Edmonton Oilers, a WHA team 1,700 miles from Toronto. To everyone's immense relief, he lived in Edmonton.
It has been the longtime practice of Minnesota North Star Goaltender Gary Smith to undress between periods, laboriously removing his 30 pounds of gear, then putting it all back on again. The reason for this ordeal, Smith once explained, was that his skate boots stretched and he had to remove his equipment to tighten them. And indeed, Smith's boots stretched so much that he had to wear as many as 13 pairs of socks at a time. This season Smith has found boots that keep their shape, and he now wears only one pair of socks. No matter. He still undresses between periods.
Ah, the goaltender! Howard Hughes is gone, but as long as hockey clubs find people willing to mind the nets, eccentrics will remain in the public eye. Playing goal, after all, is somewhat bizarre by its very nature, a job that is one of the loneliest in team sports and one of the most harrowing in any business. "It's 60 minutes of hell," says Chico Resch of the New York Islanders.
What makes it hellish, first of all, is that goalies routinely have to fling themselves in front of frozen pucks traveling in excess of 100 mph. Beyond the physical danger is the responsibility of being the last line of defense, where a mistake is often critical and usually highly visible. "You're afraid of getting hurt, but you're even more afraid of being humiliated," says Resch. "What terrifies me is that we might outplay the other team but that I'll let in a couple of easy goals that cost us the game."
The strain of their job affects goalies in various ways. In Resch's case, he becomes slightly manic before games. Driving to one home game, he got so carried away by a song on the radio—Santana's Black Magic Woman—that he began banging on the knees of his wife Diane, who had to plead with him to stop. That night he caught himself singing the song aloud in the nets as he shut out Buffalo 3-0. Though Resch credits Black Magic Woman for getting "the blood flowing," he is properly remorseful about pounding his wife's knees. "I think I'd be a more relaxed person if I weren't a goaltender," he says.
Resch has been spared some of the agonies that afflict other goalies, including nervous breakdowns, nervous stomachs and nervous tics. It is the stuff of legend that Montreal's Wilf Cude, who quit in the early 1940s, did so after throwing a steak at his wife, which persuaded him he was cracking under the pressure. It is also duly chronicled that during his 16-year, 906-game career, Glenn Hall threw up in the dressing room before each game and between periods. When Boston's Jim Pettie made his NHL debut recently he vomited before and during the game, which Boston won 5-3. Then Pettie got sick again. Finally he faced the reporters, a pale figure trying to light a cigarette with trembling hands. To get the ball rolling, a writer asked, "How do you feel?"
Ask goalies why they willingly subject themselves to such agonies and they concede—and the wording seldom varies—that, "You've got to be crazy to be a goaltender." And the position does attract certain susceptible types: the fat kid unable to skate, the younger brother too small to protest, the masochist willing to stand in goal in sub-zero temperatures while others are darting around the rink. Philadelphia Flyer Coach Fred Shero remembers that he was aghast when his son Rejean announced that he wanted to become a goalie. "I had to do something," Shero says, "so I told him the equipment was too expensive." Fourteen-year-old Rejean Shero now plays center on a kids' team, and his father takes pleasure in the fact that somebody else's boy plays goal.
To cope with the pressures, today's goalies resort to almost anything that might conceivably sharpen the senses or soothe the nerves. Transcendental meditation? Atlanta's Daniel Bouchard meditates regularly to relieve pregame jitters. Resch pays twice-weekly visits to an optometrist for eye-performance exercises that, he insists, help him see the puck better. "Most people use only 35% of their visual potential," the Islander goalie says. "The eye muscles can be strengthened like any other muscles." The New York Rangers' Gilles Grafton, who once streaked around the ice when he was playing for the WHA's Toronto Toros, finds comfort in his belief in reincarnation. Earlier this season he claimed that in Biblical days he stoned people to death, and now he was being repaid with a plague of pucks.
"I was kidding when I said that," Gratton admits, "but I do think the universe is balanced, and that good and bad are paid back in your later lives." While Gratton was with the Toros he dealt with the here and now by feigning injury to steal breathers during games. When concerned teammates gathered around their fallen goalie, Gratton signaled he was all right by whispering the code words "poisson mort [dead fish]."
Because goals are scored on deflections, screens and jam-ups at the goal mouth just as often as on well-executed plays, it is easy for goalies to conclude that goals are a result of uncontrollable forces, like floods and earthquakes. Accordingly, they have all sorts of lucky suits, lucky hats and lucky foods to fend off disaster. The Indianapolis Racers' Andy Brown even has a lucky fan, a middle-aged woman who once fed him lucky cookies and sprigs of heather. Brown could also use a few rabbits' feet and four-leaf clovers: he is the only goalie who still plays without a mask.
The lengths to which goalies will go to ward off the evil eye was demonstrated by Vancouver's 38-year-old Cesare Maniago before a home game against the Washington Capitals two weeks ago. Searching his closet for something to wear, Maniago carefully avoided the handsome blue suit he wore the night Boston bombed him 8-1 a few weeks earlier and settled, instead, on a green sport coat and matching slacks, an ensemble he considered luckier than his blue suit. He left so early for the arena that he was the first Canuck to arrive, assuring him of his lucky parking place. In the locker room Maniago was careful to put his lucky sock, the one with two holes, on his left foot, the same foot on which he wore it during his previous start. He had played well in that game; when Maniago plays poorly, he tries to change his fortune by putting the lucky sock on the other foot.
Following these preparations, the thoroughly charmed Maniago performed well in a 5-2 Vancouver win. "I guess having superstitions eases the mind," he says. "You kind of figure if you've done everything exactly right beforehand, nothing much can go wrong when you're on the ice."
Other goalies go through similar pregame rituals. For Philadelphia's Gary Innes, these begin the night before a game, when he unfailingly takes in a movie followed by a chocolate sundae at Howard Johnson's. Buffalo's Gerry Desjardins always takes the same route to the rink—and did so even when the city's blizzards made it prudent to try other ways of getting there. In the locker room, Winnipeg's Joe Daley begins putting on socks, leg pads and pants exactly 30 minutes before warmups, then waits precisely 15 more minutes before putting on anything else. Preceding every game, Toronto's Wayne Thomas wraps his stick with tape; the tape must be from a brand-new roll and it must be black.
Many goalies need a pregame perker-upper, which is why Los Angeles' Rogie Vachon always takes a whiff of smelling salts and pops a stick of gum into his mouth before leaving the dressing room. His backup man, Simmons, gets a lift when he slams his glove on the top of the door, leaving a dent—the mark of the Cobra?—in every rink in the league. Washington's Bernie Wolfe will not step onto the ice until a stick boy wallops him invigoratingly on the back with a stick. And Toronto's Mike Palmateer gobbles popcorn before he leaves the Maple Leafs' dressing room.
This sort of thing continues on the ice. As his teammates whiz by to wish him luck at the end of warmups, a ritual in itself, Toronto's Thomas recites their names aloud, taking pains not to miss anybody. "When they come by three at a time, it's a test of concentration," he says. After the opening face-off, Boston's Gerry Cheevers likes to bump a rival player—"just to get me into the game." At the end of a period, Atlanta's Bouchard often makes a mad dash to the exit. Superstition? Everybody assumes as much, but Bouchard says he just wants to work up a good sweat going into the dressing room.
The ranks of the ritual-bound also include Montreal's Ken Dryden, who has the NHL's best goals-against average for the second straight year. Dryden is a lawyer, an ex-member of Nader's Raiders and an utterly level-headed fellow who would never think of commuting between Toronto and Buffalo, as his brother Dave used to do. Nevertheless, Dryden takes pains to avert his eyes when the referee makes his pregame inspection to see if the red goal lights are working. "I just consider it unlucky to see the red light before the game," Dryden says with a slightly apologetic air. "I know it's silly and I tell myself, 'Ken, you've got to get rid of this bloody superstition.' "
Goaltender superstitions do change. For years Buffalo's Desjardins drank a lucky pregame cup of coffee. He skipped it before one game this season and played well anyway. Goodby, coffee. Like Maniago with his lucky sock, Cleveland's Gilles Meloche makes a practice of changing his headband between periods—unless, that is, he had a hot hand the previous period. During the national anthems, Houston's Ron Grahame stands either at the blue line or in the crease, depending on how things have been going lately. And Quebec's Serge Aubry no longer has the blue suit that brought him luck when he was with Tulsa in the Central League. It seems Aubry decided that the luck had gone out of it, so he took the garment to a teammate's back lawn. Aubry and some other players danced around the suit, kicking and spitting on it. Then they poured gasoline on it and sent it up in flames.
Another source of eccentricity are the designs that many goalies now put on their masks. Besides Simmons' cobra, these include star bursts, rebel flags, team insignias and the snarling lion worn by the Rangers' Gratton, a Leo. Cheevers' mask is considered the acme of the art form. It is decorated with painted stitches depicting the real ones he might have required had he played unprotected. Cheevers began painting his mask in this ghoulish fashion in 1970 and the "stitches" now total 120.
A mask seems an apt symbol for the goaltender's lonely station in life. For years Philadelphia's Bernie Parent avoided prying eyes by scrupulously wearing his mask from the moment he left the Flyers' dressing room until the moment he returned. One night last month, though, Parent lifted his mask during a couple of breaks in the action at a game in Montreal. Afterward, he was asked about the departure. Parent stroked his beard, flashed a smile and said, "It's because I've gotten better-looking."
Ah, the goaltender! Is there not an unburdened, uncomplicated one in the bunch? Well, yes there is. His name is Pete LoPresti, a second-generation goalie (his dad, Sam, played briefly for the Chicago Black Hawks just before World War II) who shares Minnesota's nets with Gary Smith of 13-pairs-of-socks fame. A native of Eveleth, Minn., who at 22 is in his third year with the North Stars, LoPresti is a tough-minded sort, as he demonstrated when the Canadiens came to town in his rookie season, needing five goals to give them a total of 10,000 in their history. After Montreal shellacked Minnesota and LoPresti 7-2 a reporter said, "Do you feel bad about letting the Canadiens reach that milestone, Pete?"
"Why should I?" LoPresti replied. "They've scored more than 10,000 goals and I only gave up seven of them."
LoPresti has no superstitions and no quirks. When he walks the eight blocks from his apartment to the North Stars' Metropolitan Center, he takes the shortest route, not a lucky one. To the despair of his wife Terese, the only pregame food he wants is whatever he finds in the refrigerator; before a recent game he dined on a bologna sandwich and a glass of milk. Nor does LoPresti waste too much time bemoaning the goaltender's lot.
"In a sense a goalie's job is simple," he says. "It's to keep the puck out, nothing more. A defenseman has to skate, stop two-on-one breaks and sometimes block shots. We're protected and they're not. Of course, a lot of goalies don't look at it that way." LoPresti allows a trace of mock anxiety to creep into his voice. "I see these other goalies with all their superstitions and illnesses and I wonder why I'm not that way. I mean, is there something wrong with me?"