This is the story of Damian Rhodes, the Ottawa Senators
goaltender who caught lightening in a bottle--of Wella Blondor.
The color is "lightest ash blond," according to Rhodes's
hairstylist, Dino Nocita, and his color technician, Sharon
Gates. Considering that Rhodes had the courage to walk into
Ottawa's Rideau Centre mall one day in mid-March with brown hair
and walk out as a blond, Gates reasons, he had the nerve to beat
the top-seeded New Jersey Devils in the first round of the
Well, as just about everyone in hockey and hairstyling now
knows, Rhodes dyed and went to heaven. The Senators knocked off
the heavily favored Devils in six games, winning the clincher
3-1 at home last Saturday, a result almost as shocking as the
fact that Rhodes, a goalie of sometimes fragile confidence and
modest pedigree, outplayed All-Star Martin Brodeur.
To suggest that Rhodes's success had the remotest Samsonlike
connection to his hair would be shallow, and we would never
pander to society's obsession with style over substance by
mentioning Rhodes's new nicknames, such as Billy Idol, Dennis
Rodman, Gunther (in reference to the coffee-shop guy from
Friends), Goldie, Snowflake, the Peroxide Kid and Courtney Love.
The hair salon might be the traditional domain of gossip, but we
simply report the facts: Before bleaching his hair, Rhodes was
13-17-5 with a 2.23 goals-against average this season;
thereafter he went 10-4-2 with a 1.81 goals-against average.
"Everyone's saying it's the hair," Rhodes says. "Really, that's
had no effect. I didn't dye it to change my luck."
No, he did it because the people who care for his hair at the
Amalfi Spa, who already had been giving him highlights, thought
it would look cool, and because his wife, Lara, enthusiastically
endorsed the idea. But if we were to continue to focus on such
frivolous details, we also would have to attach importance to
Rhodes's decision to check into an Ottawa hotel the night before
playoff home games because in the last month of the regular
season he had played better on the road (5-1-1, 1.43) than at
home (1-1-1, 2.66). Or his use of the "sleep machine," an air
purifier he has lugged around on road trips for six years, not
because he feels compelled to tidy up the air but because the
hum helps him doze off.
Rhodes's idiosyncrasies extend to the rink, where nothing is
more important to him than his goalie pads. When he was traded
from the Toronto Maple Leafs to Ottawa 2 1/2 years ago, he
initially wouldn't switch from the blue pads he wore as a Maple
Leaf to new black ones that would match the Senators uniform,
saying the new ones--deer-hair-and-foam-stuffed Vaughn models
made to his exact specifications--didn't feel right. Last fall
Rhodes started to more loosely tie the laces that attach the
pads around the toes of the skates; he said he wanted to prevent
the pads from "catching" on the ice as he moved laterally,
though some suspected that such a problem could be detected only
by Rhodes and people in Roswell, N.Mex. Rhodes insists he's less
finicky now, even if he did send Lara on a two-hour trip to
Montreal on a game day earlier this season to take the pads for
repair because they felt mushy. "This is my way to avert
anxiety," Rhodes says. "This gives me more confidence." He used
five pairs of pads this season and has settled on two, "which
means that I've zeroed in on what I want, so next year I should
be ready to go."
The same could be true of the Devils, who got sidetracked again
on what should have been a waltz to the Stanley Cup finals.
Startlingly, they showed no hunger during Game 6, in which
Rhodes made 21 mostly perfunctory saves, and the only New Jersey
player with an excuse was center Bobby Holik, who missed the
game because of food poisoning. A few years ago, then Devils
wing John MacLean and defenseman Ken Daneyko, who's still with
New Jersey, nicknamed the team the Firm because of the total
commitment demanded by general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach
Jacques Lemaire. Clearly, however, this firm's formulaic hockey
no longer pays dividends in the spring. Since winning the 1995
Stanley Cup, the Devils have had the fourth-best regular-season
record in the NHL but have won just one playoff series. The New
York Rangers knocked them out last year when New Jersey scored
only five goals in five games, and the Devils' attack sputtered
again this spring, producing just 12 goals in six matches.
Center Doug Gilmour had five, but the No. 1 line, centered by
Holik, who scored 29 in the regular season, only had one.
Ottawa is New Jersey's stylistic clone. Senators coach Jacques
Martin is such a fervent admirer of Lemaire's conservative
system that during the summer he'll pop a tape of a Devils'
match into his VCR for relaxation. The students whipped the
masters at their own game because of superior speed and energy.
"Maybe the difference was our enthusiasm," Martin said after the
Game 6 victory.
The Senators pressured the slower New Jersey defensemen with
feathery dump-ins, cleared the puck out of their own zone with
surprising ease and rode a hot goalie whose previous playoff
experience had been all of 10 seconds four years ago with
Toronto, long enough for a face-off and an icing call. "He's not
the reincarnation of Terry Sawchuk," Daneyko said of Rhodes
after Game 3, a 2-1 Ottawa overtime win in which Rhodes made 30
saves. No one argued with that assessment, even before a
100-footer by Devils defenseman Scott Stevens slithered through
Rhodes's pads in Game 4 as the Senators almost frittered away a
late three-goal lead. Certainly Rhodes didn't.
Rhodes, 28, doesn't ooze conviction. Right before the series
against New Jersey, he said, "My confidence is pretty good right
now, but we'll see what happens when we start." His body
language didn't bespeak swagger. During the national anthems
Brodeur would fidget and rock on his skates, looking as if he
were ready to climb through the ring ropes for a shot at the
title. Rhodes would stand trancelike, shoulders stooped, head
slumped, looking as though the next position he would assume
might be fetal.
As compulsive as Rhodes is about his pads, he's more compulsive
about telling the truth. He seems incapable of ducking a
question or varnishing a fact. His lack of guile is his most
endearing quality, though being a stand-up guy isn't as much
appreciated in the hockey world as being a stand-up goalie.
While with the Leafs, Rhodes once told reporters he was feeling
a little gun shy after taking a shot off the knee, a statement
that was relayed to an unimpressed Pat Burns, who hadn't reached
that chapter of his I'm O.K., You're O.K. coaching manual yet.
Toronto then dealt him to the Senators, who expected him to be
their starter. An emotional Rhodes said to the press after the
trade that he wasn't sure if he was ready to be a No. 1 goalie.
"I was just being honest," he said last week.
If Rhodes is so painfully forthright, how could so many people
have doubted him last spring? He hurt his left ankle against the
Colorado Avalanche in February 1997, a seemingly minor injury
that wouldn't heal. When asked last Friday about Rhodes's
unavailability for last spring's playoffs, in which Ottawa lost
to the Buffalo Sabres in the opening round amid whispers that
Rhodes was more fragile psychologically than physically,
Senators players responded with an inordinate amount of throat
clearing, a slew of dangling phrases and reworded answers. But
Rhodes didn't imagine the pain in his ankle. An operation last
summer revealed a bone spur and scar tissue. "You can't say it's
vindication that I had surgery," says Rhodes, a Minnesotan, in
his slow Fargo voice. The truth is its own reward--though a
second-round series against the Washington Capitals isn't bad,
The NHL's most nondescript team finally has a splash of color,
even if it's hidden beneath a goalie's mask most of the time.
Business at the Amalfi Spa already was brisk--Ottawa's star
right wing Daniel Alfredsson temporarily went from blond to
brown because of a dye job there earlier this season--and
Rhodes's new and improved look, and play, could spark a run on
Wella Blondor and the Stanley Cup, respectively. Certainly
Rhodes got New Jersey's attention. During warmups before Game 3,
the 34-year-old Gilmour engaged Rhodes, a former Toronto
teammate, in a brief tonsorial chat, vowing that he, too, would
have his hair dyed this summer. Rhodes responded, "You're going
to do that to your hairpiece?"
"After we clinched a spot in the playoffs, I was looking through
my wife's E-mail," Rhodes said in the dressing room after Game
6. "She E-mailed a friend that we were playing New Jersey, so
we'd probably be home soon because we weren't expected to win.
The next day I confronted her, told her I was pretty relaxed
right now, playing well, so you never know what might happen."
Rhodes never looks at the game clock--another of his quirks--and
he didn't know the series was over until the green light flashed
behind the Devils' net. The Senators took it as a green light to
party. They and their supporters celebrated long and hard on
Saturday night in their usually staid government town, fans
honking their car horns probably as much in disbelief as in
celebration. Ottawa was going to wake up with a terrific
hangover, for which the remedy was right at hand, the hair of