If you recall goalie Roman Turek from last spring's NHL
playoffs, you probably remember him standing in the St. Louis
Blues' crease looking pleadingly toward the bench. This was in
Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, which the Blues would
lose to the Colorado Avalanche in five games, and Turek had just
surrendered three goals in 78 seconds. Each goal had been softer
than the one before, and as Turek stood in his state of
distress, waiting for rookie backup Brent Johnson to spell him,
fans gave in to their worst rubbernecking impulses and stared.
Voyeurs, take a look at him now. Turek wears the red and gold of
the Calgary Flames, and as of Sunday, with the season nearly
three weeks old, he was about as hot as the flaming logo on his
chest. He had established a Calgary record by opening the season
with consecutive shutouts, he had beaten the supposedly superior
Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers, and he had
a 6-1 record and had stopped 95% of the shots against him. The
Flames, in fact, had won more than three games in October for
the first time since the 1996-97 season, and Calgary's
long-suffering faithful were coming to the Saddledome with
placards demanding that the 31-year-old Turek run for mayor.
One local pub got so hopped up that it offered beers for the
same price as Turek's goals-against average. That meant that the
brews last Saturday night cost a piddling $1.27 Canadian (about
80 cents, U.S.) and were helping keep Flames loyalists blotto
with joy. "It's not totally Roman, but it's almost all him,"
Calgary center Craig Conroy says of his team's start. "He's made
some unbelievable saves, and he gave us confidence right away."
Confidence seemed to be what Turek lacked in last spring's
conference finals. After turning in a solid regular season
(24-18-10 with a 2.28 goals-against average), he had led the
Blues to convincing victories over the San Jose Sharks and the
Stars in the playoffs' first two rounds. Then he succumbed to
the Avalanche with an ineptness reminiscent of his performance
against the Sharks in the 2000 postseason, when he surrendered
several odd and avoidable goals.
In Game 1 against Colorado in May, Turek illegally threw his
stick trying to stop a shot from an Avalanche player, setting up
a successful penalty shot by Joe Sakic. In Game 2 he gave up an
inexcusable short-side goal to third-line winger Shjon Podein.
In Game 3 he took a delay-of-game penalty that led to a
power-play goal. In Game 4 he had his 78 seconds of infamy. And
in Game 5 he sat on the bench as Johnson battled the Avalanche
gallantly in a 2-1 loss.
When the playoffs ended, St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau,
who had been looking for a replacement for Turek even before the
postseason had started, began an earnest, though ultimately
futile, attempt to trade for Buffalo Sabres' goaltender Dominik
Hasek. One month after the Blues' final game, Turek was dealt to
Calgary for the less accomplished goaltender Fred Brathwaite, a
pair of minor league forwards and a draft pick.
Where the Blues saw vulnerability, Flames general manager Craig
Button saw strength. Before coming to Calgary, Button had been
the Stars' director of scouting and had been instrumental in
signing and developing Turek, who'd played with Dallas from
1996-97 through '98-99 as the backup to Eddie Belfour. "I've
known Roman a long time, and his makeup impresses me," says
Button. "I saw him win the world championships for the Czechs in
1996 and make a smooth adjustment to North American hockey.
Every time I see him stumble, he gets right back up. Just look
at that stuff with the Sharks. After what happened two years
ago, he came back and beat them last year. I look at Roman a
little bit the way I do Belfour. In the '98 playoffs Eddie lost
his composure against Detroit, and everyone said that we
couldn't win with him. The next year Eddie comes back and wins
the Cup. It didn't hurt Roman that he was there watching Eddie
deal with all that."
Such support means a great deal to the sensitive Turek, who was
wounded by what he perceived as a lack of faith in him by St.
Louis. In fact, coach Joel Quenneville repeatedly wavered last
season on endorsing him as the No. 1 goalie ahead of Johnson.
"It's nice to know that management and coaches believe in the
players here," says Turek. "In St. Louis I know they tried to
trade me before the  playoffs. Then we start the playoffs,
and they say, 'Now you're the Number 1 guy.' That sounded funny.
Craig trusts me. He lost good players in the trade for me, so he
knows what he wants."
Turek's physical ability, which enabled him to put together a
sterling 1.95 goals-against average and be a finalist for the
Vezina Trophy in 1999-2000, has never been questioned. At 6'3"
and 215 pounds, he fills the net well enough to discourage
shooters from aiming high. He also employs a butterfly style so
that when he drops to the ice, his long leg pads seal off the
lower portion of the goalmouth. "When you come down on him, you
don't see any net," says Conroy. "You're looking to find a spot,
but he's everywhere."
For all his ability, and his fast start, Turek may be in danger
of becoming a journeyman. He's played for three teams in four
years, and after this season he'll be eligible to become an
unrestricted free agent and seek a raise from the $2.8 million
he'll earn this year. That could test the budget of the
financially challenged Flames. "We'll have to see what happens,"
says Button, "but when we got Roman, it was because we wanted him
for the long term. We believe in him."
Those are just the words that the sometimes fragile Turek needs
COLOR PHOTO: GERRY THOMAS
"Roman's makeup impresses me," says Button. "Every time I see him
stumble, he gets back up."