Every hockey team used to have just one goalie. Why would it need two? There was only one goal to defend, and all the goalie had to do was stand in front of it. If Gump or Turk or any of the guys who played all 60 minutes of all 60 games back when the NHL was a six-team league went down with an injury, he would just get up, that's all. And play continued.
But the modern era's 80-game schedule, jet lag, crease-crashing 210-pound wingers, curved sticks and straighter-than-ever shooters have changed the philosophy of goaltending. Now a team must have two competent goalies, not only so that each can stay fresh, but also so that they can push each other to their best efforts. Ever since the advent of the two-goalie system, coaches have been experimenting with it, seeking to learn how best to implement it, and enjoying only off-and-on success. But it appears now that the New York Rangers have discovered goaltending paradise.
At week's end, the Rangers had a four-point lead in the Patrick Division thanks largely to the netminding tandem of John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter—or, if you prefer, Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck. There's no lead dog here. In 13 starts, Richter, a 24-year-old rookie, had a 7-3-3 record, an impressive goals-against average of 2.51 and a league-leading .928 save percentage. Vanbiesbrouck's numbers (8-3-2, 2.39 and .922) virtually mirrored Richter's.
The importance of these mirror images to the Rangers' 15-6-5 start is reflected in the fact that New York amassed that record despite the lengthy absences, because of injuries, of center Kelly Kisio and defensemen Randy Moller and Normand Rochefort, players who helped the Rangers win the Patrick Division title last season. Still, New York has had enough depth at the critical positions—center, defense and, especially, goal—to keep racking up the points.
December 3, 1990
Like most teams, the Rangers could use another scorer, but general manager Neil Smith says he will not deal either Vanbiesbrouck or Richter for help at another position. "I drafted goalies for years in Detroit [as the Red Wings' director of scouting] and came up with only one NHLer, Tim Cheveldae," says Smith. "Good goalies are just too valuable."
There are still a few one-man shows around the league (seven of the 21 teams use one goalie for the majority of their games), but the trend is clear: Marathon men are out, dynamic duos are in. And with the best pair in the league, the Rangers, who have not won the Stanley Cup since 1940, look as if they could be Cup finalists next spring—maybe even the NHL champion.
Of course, not everyone would join in that prognostication. Many hockey experts question the effectiveness of smaller goalies like Vanbiesbrouck, who is 5'8", and Richter, who is generously listed at 5'10". The skeptics' simple logic says that big goalies cover more of the net. In today's NHL, where the shots come harder and from more angles than ever, the goalie who sets himself in the best possible position to have the puck hit him is the one who gives himself the best opportunity to win. And with shooters releasing the puck more quickly than ever, little time is left for goaltending acrobatics. Quick little goalies who flop, dive and overuse their gloves can succeed for short stretches. But most are only a good scouting report—"Wait for him to go down, boys, and then shoot high"—away from being back in the minors.
But Vanbiesbrouck and Richter are two short goalies who stand tall. Richter positions himself as well as any goalie in the league. That means he does it as well as Vanbiesbrouck, whose picture should be featured in the chapter on positioning in the goaltending textbook.
Reflexes, of course, are still a job requisite. Vanbiesbrouck has outstanding quickness, and Richter may be even quicker. From the dropped-down, split-legged "butterfly" position used to protect the bottom half of the net while looking through screens and scrambles, Richter is able to spring back to his skates with astonishing speed. His short, swift but not-really-fluid movements suggest a toy goalie with a key in his back.
Richter does only the most perfunctory puckhandling around the goal. Vanbiesbrouck, though, likes to roam. "I'm more likely to beat myself trying to poke-check somebody on a breakaway than Mike would be," Vanbiesbrouck says.
The attribute most critical to a goalie's success, however, is his ability to concentrate. The puck bounces often and, many times, unfairly. Vanbiesbrouck, 27 years old and now in his seventh full season, has learned how to maintain his focus even when he's going badly. Richter has yet to experience the first slump of his young NHL career, but he understands that it will inevitably come and appears to have already developed the strong concentration he'll need when it does.
"You're really playing against yourself," Richter says. "You have to learn what you can control and what you can't, and not let what you can't control affect your confidence."
That philosophy allows a goalie to retain a sense of self-worth—and to sleep at least somewhat restfully—when times are tough. However, it does not necessarily provide comfort for his coach, who is aware that continued employment may depend on the delicate matter of keeping his goaltenders confident and happy.
Goaltenders are not conditioned to think like starting pitchers, who understand that signs of fatigue or weakness will bring a manager to the mound and a call to the bullpen. For a goalie, it is humiliating to be pulled in the middle of the game. The coincidence of having two U.S.-born goalies on the same team, while rare, is not particularly meaningful to Ranger coach Roger Neilson. But when the subject comes up, Neilson is well-advised not to refer to Vanbiesbrouck and Richter as Yanks. It is never a good idea to use the term "yank" around a goalie.
It is similarly distressing to a goaltender to have his next start canceled. No matter how often a goalie says it makes sense for his team to stay with the other netminder as long as the club is winning, it is contrary to his competitive nature to sincerely accept inactivity. Confidences are lost and resentments build, which is why many two-goalie systems fail.
The one in New York, however, seems comfortable, largely because Vanbiesbrouck, the veteran, has matured and doesn't resent Richter's intrusion. The Rangers' success, of course, also helps. So does the fact that even when one of the goalies outplays the other, Neilson has not deviated from the pattern of alternate starts since the season opener.
Richter certainly has no complaints. About anything. He is the friendly kid next door, an ail-American in every way except that all his life the Philadelphia-born Richter has wanted to be a goalie. Boxers, basketball players and hoagies come from Philly. Not goaltenders.
Interest in hockey boomed in the Philadelphia area when the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and '75, but, at the same time, high energy costs closed rinks and diminished opportunities for kids to play the game. When Richter, who grew up in the suburb of Flourtown, felt he wasn't getting enough ice time against good competition, he bought a sliding board that simulated ice so he could improve his lateral movement. His passion for goaltending got a big boost when, at 13, he was given the chance to attend a summer hockey school at which his idol, the Flyers' Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent, was an instructor.
When Richter was 15, he was selected for a national training program for the best midget (ages 14 to 16) players, and there he discovered that he could compete with the best players from Minnesota, Wisconsin and New England.
At 17, Richter enrolled at Northwood Prep in Lake Placid, N.Y., where his older brother, Joe, also a goalie, had spent his senior year. North-wood plays a schedule laced with college junior varsity teams, which provides not only tough competition but also exposure to recruiters. Richter chose Wisconsin over Harvard a month before the 1985 NHL draft. The Flyers hoped to take him in the third round. The Rangers grabbed him in the second.
Richter played two seasons with the Badgers and then one with the 1988 U.S. Olympic team before spending the end of that season and all of the next with the Colorado Rangers of the International League. His first NHL appearance, during the 1989 playoffs, was not under the best of circumstances. With the Rangers trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to none in the Patrick Division semifinals, Richter was dumped into the net for Game 4. He gave up three goals in his first 11 minutes, and the Rangers were eliminated. Still, Richter has never resented being thrust into that impossible situation. "I got an NHL playoff game behind me," he says. "I thought it was great."
Midway through last season, Smith recalled Richter to play in an exhibition game against a touring Soviet team. He played well enough, and the Rangers, who had not won in their last 11 games, were going badly enough that he earned another start. And another. "We were beginning to get some injured players back," says Neilson, "but no doubt about it, Mike pulled us out of it." Richter went 11-5-5 with a 3.00 goals-against average the rest of the season, outplaying Vanbiesbrouck and Bob Froese, the Rangers' second-string goalie at the time. That got him the start in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders. Richter played three of the five games in that series, winning them all, before losing his two starts in the Rangers' five-game second-round loss to the Washington Capitals.
It's not surprising that Richter, the rookie, is happy just to be in the NHL. It is surprising that Vanbiesbrouck, a fiercely competitive man, appears to be satisfied with sharing time. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of being on the Ranger team that finally ends the 1940 stuff," he says. But since establishing himself as a top-notch goaltender in '84-85, Vanbiesbrouck has been frustrated by two general manager changes and resulting turnovers in personnel. In the past, he has criticized teammates privately, questioned the organization publicly and seethed during the '86-87 season when Phil Esposito, the general manager then, traded defenseman Kjell Samuelsson and a second-round draft choice to Philadelphia for Froese. Vanbiesbrouck was coming off a season in which he had gone 31-21-5 with a 3.32 goals-against average, had backstopped a pedestrian New York team to consecutive playoff upsets of powerful Philadelphia and Washington clubs and had won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie.
Even if Vanbiesbrouck could have accepted the notion that continuing the 61-game workload of the previous season would eventually be counterproductive to the Rangers' and his own good, he could not buy the idea that New York needed a former member of the hated Flyers to share starts and locker-room chitchat. "We have a big rivalry with Philly," he says. "It didn't sit well with me.
"Now I can see the benefit of having a fresh guy out there every night. Always having at least a few days between starts gives you a chance to refocus and build up some determination for your next game. I now have the experience to know it's not bad to share the limelight."
Vanbiesbrouck seems a natural for the limelight of New York. His aggressive style—the way he comes charging out of the goal to play the puck—always sends a ripple through the raucous Madison Square Garden faithful. And while he has learned, for the benefit of locker-room harmony, to mute some of the observations and opinions that regularly pop into his mind, Vanbiesbrouck is essentially as diplomatic as a New York City cabbie making a right turn from the left lane on Seventh Avenue.
"I've taken on the qualities of a New Yorker," he says. "I love the energy of the people here. They don't back down from anybody. But they're like the chihuahua—once you get past their bark, they are as warm as anybody in the world."
Vanbiesbrouck's affinity for New York is probably rooted in the neighborhood where he grew up, a working-class area on the East Side of Detroit that wasn't exactly Sunnybrook Farm. But John's father, Robert, a Belgian immigrant who worked as a bricklayer, and Italian mother, Sara, made sure John and his older brothers, Frank and Julian, had what they needed to compete in Detroit's youth hockey programs.
Vanbiesbrouck was signed at 17 by the Sault Sainte Marie, Ont., junior team as a free agent and beat out three other goalies for the starting job. The Rangers drafted him in the fourth round in 1981, and he played one game for New York in '81-82.
Nine seasons later, Vanbiesbrouck is now the senior Ranger in point of service. Which also makes him the longest-suffering. But his new partnership with Richter, who has suffered little, gives New York two goalies who can erase most wrongs. This time around, the Rangers may finally get things right.