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Simply Superb Tommy Salo isn't flashy, which may be why one of the NHL's best goalies is so often overlooked

You fly to Stockholm, jump into a car, head west, and an hour
and a half later you hit Bars and Stars, a multistory pleasure
palace in Vasteras that offers a nightclub, a
memorabilia-crammed sports bar, a restaurant and a
sauna--basically the most fun a Swede can have without telling a
Norwegian joke. Two of the bar's owners are Nicklas Lidstrom of
the Detroit Red Wings, who is widely recognized as the best
defenseman in the world, and Tommy Salo of the Edmonton Oilers,
the best goalie in the world who is virtually unrecognized.

Question: If Salo is an owner, can there be a Happy Hour?
Grinchlike features on a pasty face and a manner as detached as
an airline clerk's camouflage the happiest man in Edmonton. He
is diffident, not dour. "Of course I'm happy," says Salo, who
last year signed a three-year, $10.4 million extension. "What is
there to complain about?"

This is the best of all possible worlds for Salo, barring a
second Olympic gold medal and a few playoff series in the coming
year. He is a new father. He loves his team, adores his coach
and cares so much about his city that he cut a $160,000 check to
Edmonton last week to fund an inner-city hockey program there.
Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, like all men in his profession,
sometimes asks his players to look in the mirror, but Salo is so
laconic that MacTavish should ask him to hold a mirror under his
nostrils to show that he's breathing.

When MacTavish approached Salo early last season to discuss
something, Salo, without a hint of impudence, told him, "You
don't have to talk to me. The only time you have to talk to me
is to tell me when I'm not playing." Considering that Salo has
started 109 of 123 games since MacTavish took over the Oilers at
the beginning of the 2000-01 season, including a 3-2 win over
the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday that left Edmonton with the
second-best record (19-10-4-2) in the Western Conference, their
conversations have been rare. In the twitchy world of goalies,
there is high maintenance, low maintenance and Salo, who is no
maintenance. "He's pretty quiet," says Lidstrom, who has known
Salo since junior hockey. "Even by Swedish standards."

Salo is the latest in the long line of outstanding goaltenders
who have played for the Oilers in their 23 NHL seasons. This
legacy was born of necessity as much as the singular talents of
past netminders such as Andy Moog, Grant Fuhr and Curtis Joseph.
Edmonton's fire-wagon style, with defensemen pinching in the
offensive zone and closing hard in the neutral zone, invariably
leads to odd-man counterattacks that force Oilers goalies to make
an inordinate number of what MacTavish calls five-bell saves.
Salo, who faces as many good scoring chances as any goalie on a
playoff-bound team, allows the Oilers to play like the Oilers.
"You don't feel bad about taking an extra risk," defenseman Tom
Poti says. "We know Tommy's going to clean up."

Salo, a sprite at 5'11" and 173 pounds, thrives because he reads
the attack as quickly as Evelyn Wood grads skim Tolstoy. In
Edmonton's 2-1 home loss to league-leading Detroit last
Thursday, Lidstrom rifled a cross-ice pass from the point
through the Oilers' penalty-killing box to Brendan Shanahan, who
was positioned for a one-timer in the left face-off circle.
Perhaps 25% of NHL goalies make that save, sliding across and
foiling Shanahan with a flailing leg or stick. Salo made it by
pushing off his left skate, moving laterally to the right and
being square to the puck by the time Shanahan's blast reached
the goal, making Salo's bravura stop look like merely a good
one. "He's the best in the league at stopping the goalmouth
one-timer, because of his hockey sense," MacTavish says. "A lot
of goalies can't feel where the threats are, can't tell how the
offense is developing. Tommy reads it better than anyone."

This is a small claim to fame for a goaltender--not even the
award-happy NHL has a prize for "best at stopping goalmouth
one-timers"--but it's better than being honored for "best at
turning into a quivering hunk of Jell-o at an arbitration
hearing." That dubious distinction, earned by Salo when New York
Islanders general manager Mike Milbury carved him a new
five-hole in August 1997, got more media attention than the five
stops Salo made in Sweden's shootout against Canada in the
Olympic final three years earlier. Of course, the Olympics
happen every four years, but what Salo's agent, Rich Winter,
called "character assassination" by Milbury apparently was a
once-in-a-lifetime experience for Salo. Milbury assailed him for
his poor physical condition and his penchant for giving up soft
goals, and adding injury to insult, he was awarded only a
one-year, $750,000 contract.

"It's still brought up all the time," Salo says of Milbury's
remarks. "It really hurt my reputation." He denies having cried
during the hearing but admits to having been shaken. "The
arbitration case," says Kevin Prendergast, Edmonton's VP of
hockey operations, "just about killed the guy."

If Milbury didn't have much use for Salo, the Oilers always had
been intrigued by him. Through the web of connections that spider
through any sport, Ron Low, then the Edmonton coach, was being
fed a steady diet of effusive praise for Salo by Butch Goring, a
close friend who had coached Salo to championships in the
International League in 1995 and '96. After Joseph left Edmonton
as a free agent in July '98 and the goaltending fell to the
sometimes hard hands of Mikhail Shtalenkov and Bob Essensa, the
Oilers got Salo from the Islanders in March '99 for a song: spare
forward Mats Lindgren and an eighth-round draft choice.

Joseph was a galvanizing figure whose departure intensified the
lament of a small-market franchise that had been priced out of
the NHL for years, but in Salo the Oilers found an inspired,
relatively cheap replacement. The team was at the yawn of a new
era in goaltending--Salo couldn't do the snow angel like the
flashy Joseph, but his unassuming professional and personal
style eventually insinuated him into the fabric of Edmonton.
"He's very close to where Cujo was in terms of popularity,"
Prendergast says. "He doesn't have Cujo's flair, but we have
knowledgeable fans, and they see, game in and game out, what
Tommy does. You can't trick 'em."

At 30, Salo is the oldest Oiler, on the cusp of what he hopes
are five more years of prime hockey. He no longer frets about
being beaten by a late pass across his crease, and therefore he
routinely challenges shooters--a sure sign of confidence.
Edmonton is every bit as confident in Salo, despite his
inability to steal a playoff series against the Dallas Stars in
any of the last three seasons.

MacTavish says Salo might have worn down last spring after 4,364
regular-season minutes--which, given his added Olympic duties in
February, means the coach will chat with Salo a little more
often. He wants his goalie fresh for the playoffs, hockey's
happiest hours of all.