Unlike his fellow NHL players who tailor their game day meals with an eye on fuel and nutrition, Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby follows his gut whenever he is scheduled to start. “It’s all based around what’s not going to make my stomach upset,” the current Vezina Trophy frontrunner says. “It’s something you have to think about.”
On the road, for instance, that means pasta and olive oil, plain with no meat sauce. Hotel kitchens have not yet earned Holtby's trust. Like every other goalie, he has good reason for dietary caution. As he and his peers will attest, the demands of their position create unique challenges when the old boiler starts rumbling and nature comes calling. First, netminders wear more equipment than any athlete in any major professional team sport. They are buried in pads, straps, hooks, knots, buckles and buttons, plus jerseys that are baggy enough to pitch as campsite tents. Goaltenders are also uniquely needed on the field of play for an entire game, a requirement to which only soccer players can relate. No sneaking away between shifts like skaters or ducking into the dugout bathroom between innings as baseball players do.
The very real possibility of an unfortunately timed gastric event is why Holtby abandoned his usual pregame java during his minor-league visits to AHL Wilkes-Barre while playing for Hershey, switching to Diet Coke because the locker room coffee did not sit well there.
It is why meat sauce is bad.
“I think we’ve all had that uh-oh moment,” Holtby says.
Nine years ago, during the third period Western Conference semi-finals Game 5 against Anaheim, Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo developed, as he describes it today, “a little bit of a bellyache.” He dismissed the feeling at first, hoping it would disappear in the heat of competition. After all, the Canucks were already down three games to one in the series and needed a road win to stay alive.
Trailing 1–0, Luongo saved eight shots in the third period and Alex Burrows tied the game at the 11:03 mark. Before heading onto the ice for overtime, Luongo felt his bellyache worsen and realized he couldn’t fight it off much longer. Fortunately, a trainer assured him that the officials wouldn’t drop the puck until he returned from the can. “I was there doing my business and I hear the play starting in the arena,” Luongo says. “So I panicked there. I don’t remember if I wiped. I just put my gear back on, tried to get out there as soon as I could.”
When Luongo reached the bench, he saw that backup Dany Sabourin was in Vancouver’s crease. During the next three minutes and 34 seconds, Sabourin stopped five would-be-game-winners, admirably relieving Luongo after Luongo had relieved himself.
“That’s just the way it is with me,” Luongo says. “Bad stomach. Coffees don’t help, but I need those. Sometimes you’ve got to pay the price."
Luongo eventually replaced Sabourin and backstopped the Canucks into double OT, but he allowed Scott Niedermayer’s series-ending goal while signaling at the officials for what he thought was a penalty on the play. The elimination was bitter, no question, but it could have been worse in at least one respect.
“I don't know what happened,” Luongo says. “Something just came over me. Sometimes it just goes away, right? And your mind gets off it. But this time it wasn’t going away. Thank god they didn’t score (while I was in the bathroom), because our season would’ve been over. That might be a better story, but I don’t think it would’ve been fun though.”
(As a consolation prize, the most famous bathroom break in NHL history made Luongo—or “Loo,” as fans may chant—uniquely qualified to analyze Lightning goalie Ben Bishop's mysterious disappearance during Game 2 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.)
Lest you believe these matters aren’t discussed among the goaltending fraternity, consider this: When SI.com recently called about the business of avoiding business, longtime NHL netminder Olie Kolzig was in Hershey, Pa., visiting minor-leaguers as the Capitals’ professional development coach. After practice that afternoon, he took goalies Dan Ellis and Justin Peters out to lunch. Inspired by an assistant who had fled practice particularly fast, the topic came up.
“They asked me if it ever happened to me,” Kolzig says. “I said I never, ever had to leave a game to go to the bathroom. And having said that, your next question will be, did you ever have to relieve yourself? No. There were times I was probably gritting my teeth, waiting for the final horn to go, but never had an incident like that.”
Naturally, it pays to prepare for that possibility.Ty Conklin, a veteran of six NHL teams who retired in 2013, always took advantage of the first television timeout to dash to the urinal, getting the first flush out of the way early. “He was just so superstitious,” former teammate and fellow goaltender Jimmy Howard says. “I don’t know if half the time he had to go or what. He’d just take off down the hallway and take a leak.”
Among the nine current and former NHL goaltenders who were interviewed for this piece of “journalism,” smoking-gun stories were uncommon. Few recalled specific times when the need to go interrupted their professional duties. Science supports their memory. During exercise, the kidneys receive less blood flow but absorb more fluids, reducing the production of urine. Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk, for instance, regularly goes between periods but always manages to wait. Consider this the renal form of holding out. “You go there and you forget about it,” Holtby says. “Just the way your body works.”
In desperate times, though, the sheer volume of a goalie’s equipment poses an intimidating final hurdle. New, stiffer pants are difficult to scrunch beneath the bowl. Fiddling with the suspenders or getting stuck in the jersey wastes precious time. “You’ve got a bigger cup than the players do, so that’s a little awkward or bulky, unless you’re a really well endowed person, you’ve got to fight getting over your cup, your pants,” Kolzig says. For this reason, he adds, spillage happens.
"It’s a little easier for the forwards, because pants just drop down to your ankles and you go," says Ottawa goalkeeper Craig Anderson. "For goalies, you’ve got the pads on, the chest protector, everything’s tied in together. You lace everything together so you can have a good seal so you don’t have any other holes. To go to the bathroom, you’ve got to really push down on the pants as far as you can."
This all ties into the hot button rules issue of today: the discussion of goalie equipment size. In Nashville at the All-Star Game, Holtby, Dubnyk, Bishop and Cory Schneider all viewed prototypes of slimmed-down gear and offered feedback. The hope on both the NHL’s and the players’ side is to rewrite the rule book standards and clarify regulations. Maybe, tangentially, they will eliminate some bulk in the bathroom too. Whatever emerges, though, will likely not include what retired goaltender Marty Turco’s teammates assumed he had all along: “A trap door like a lumberjack.”
And since Don Cherry once called him the NHL’s smartest goaltender, it’s only fitting that Turco would lend his expertise to the last word in this sophisticated discussion.
“I really enjoy when even non-goalies put on goalie gear just to appreciate how hard it is to move, how tiring it is to go up and down with that crap on,” Turco says. “I think inevitably, one or two of them always says, ‘Uhhh, what happens if you’ve got to take a s---?” And you’re like, ‘Yeah, don’t s---.’ That’s why we’re smarter than the rest of you guys, because we think about this stuff all the time.”