Long before Dominik Hasek began sealing off the cage in Buffalo
and Arturs Irbe started performing film-at-11 magic with his
glove in Greensboro and Nikolai Khabibulin began committing
robbery in Phoenix, there was Hardy Astrom. Go ahead and smile.
Astrom was the NHL's greatest punch line, if not its greatest
punching bag, of the past 25 years, a Colorado Rockies goalie so
poor he gave an entire mountain range a bad name. Mention him to
a hockey guy today and you'll still get a grin.
But it wasn't just old Hardy Har Har, a Swede, who gave European
goalies a lousy reputation during his NHL stint in the late 1970s
and early '80s. The continent that provided the world with Sacher
torte and coq au vin also produced Kari Takko, a Finn whose
contribution to NHL goaltending was white pads, pads that
remained virginal because the black puck kept going between them.
There was also Sergei Mylnikov, a Russian who was dubbed Swiss
Cheese by miffed Quebec Nordiques teammates. He was a goalie so
uncertain of his craft that he would close his eyes on hard shots
just seconds before Nordiques fans shut theirs.
There were others in those early years of migration to the NHL,
Eurotrash goaltenders with save percentages that looked like the
start of a toll-free number. "Now look at them," Florida
Panthers coach Terry Murray said last week, after Khabibulin
had made 24 saves in a 2-2 tie against his Panthers. "European
goalies are a force."
They are, in other words, hardly Astrom. They have adapted to the
NHL even as the NHL has adapted to them, winning games, winning
trust and dashing the prejudice that limited their opportunities
at hockey's most important position--not so much a glass ceiling
as a Berlitz wall.
January 25, 1999
The Eurogoalies are a disparate lot. There is the Buffalo Sabres'
unorthodox Czech, Hasek, exhibiting a style that is part
butterfly and part man slipping on an icy sidewalk. He's on track
to win his third straight league MVP award--a feat accomplished
only by Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr. There's the Carolina
Hurricanes' cerebral Irbe, a Latvian who stops pucks with
acrobatics as often as he does by playing the correct angles. In
1993-94 he helped the San Jose Sharks make an NHL-record 58-point
turnaround from the previous season and upset the heavily favored
Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs. Irbe lost his edge, and his
game, after his dog severely bit his hand during the summer of
'94 and went into a four-year slump, but at $550,000 he is the
free-agent bargain of 1998-99. There's the Phoenix Coyotes'
Khabibulin, a Russian who blends the butterfly style with a fast
glove and could become the most prominent hybrid goalie if he
ever wins a playoff series. There's Tommy Salo of the New York
Islanders, a Swede with a classic European deep-in-the-crease
style, who was pilloried by Islanders general manager Mike
Milbury as the worst-conditioned athlete on the team during a '97
salary arbitration hearing but who this season had five shutouts
at week's end. (At press time Salo was being held out of the
lineup and expected to be traded because the Islanders had
acquired goalie Felix Potvin last week.) There's Mikhail
Shtalenkov, a 33-year-old standup netminder who helped Russia get
a silver medal at the '98 Winter Olympics and has been solid as a
starter for the Edmonton Oilers this season, after five years as
a backup for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Add Roman Turek, a lanky
Czech who's doing an outstanding job as Ed Belfour's backup for
the Dallas Stars.
The only thing those goaltenders really share, other than the
continent of their birth, are good numbers. Through Sunday, Hasek
was first (.937), Khabibulin third (.929) and Irbe sixth (.925)
in save percentage; Khabibulin and Hasek ranked fourth (1.89) and
fifth (1.90), respectively, in goals-against average; and Hasek
led the NHL with seven shutouts, two ahead of Irbe and Salo, who
were tied for second.
"Maybe the biggest factor in their doing well is that Europeans
simply are being given a chance," Coyotes general manager Bobby
Smith says. "If Hasek doesn't prove the need-a-chance theory, I
don't know who does. Here's a guy who was traded [from the
Chicago Blackhawks to Buffalo] for a fourth-round pick [and a
backup netminder]. Goalies don't get the same chance as forwards.
If your 12th-best forward plays well, maybe he's your 10th
forward the next night. If he does it again, maybe he's your
eighth forward, and if he does it the next night, he's on your
power play. But if you're the third-best goalie, you don't even
get in the dressing room, and in the 1980s you didn't bring
Europeans over to be third- or fourth-liners or backup goalies.
So NHL teams rarely bothered."
Hasek didn't look particularly trustworthy when he arrived in the
NHL at 25. He had a scarecrow's chest and a scarecrow's
technique, employing such heresies as groping for the puck with
his blocker hand and making saves while prone. The awkward style
overshadowed his quick feet, flexibility and superb anticipation.
While the property of Chicago, he wasn't going to beat out
Belfour, a Vezina Trophy winner for the Blackhawks in 1990-91 and
1992-93, and he spent parts of two seasons in the minors. Even
after Hasek went to Buffalo in '92, the Sabres exposed him to the
waiver draft. "Everybody had a look at him," Oilers president
Glen Sather says. "When he finally took Grant Fuhr's [No. 1] job
in Buffalo, only then did anybody take notice." Hasek not only
stopped pucks, but he also stopped what Sather called "the
arrogance of the NHL."
The league's snooty attitude toward European goalies reached back
at least two decades. On the eve of the Summit Series between
Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972, two NHL scouts reported that
20-year-old goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was a sieve after he had
allowed eight goals in an exhibition game. (Alas, those scouts
neglected to find out that Tretiak's wedding had been the night
before.) Tretiak was brilliant against Team Canada, but by
starring in the nets for 15 years he probably retarded the
development of later Russian goalies who, unlike him, were free
to leave the former Soviet Union. During Tretiak's playing days
(he retired in '84) and even into the '90s, there were no goalie
camps and few goalie coaches there. "Nobody paid any attention to
goaltending in Russia, because Tretiak was there," Khabibulin
says. "The Russians didn't care about anyone else. Even after he
retired, they had such good teams they could win a world
championship or an Olympic gold medal with just a decent goalie."
Pelle Lindbergh of Sweden won the Vezina Trophy with the
Philadelphia Flyers in 1984-85, five months before he died in a
car crash, but he was the exception to the run of Eurogoalies
that NHL shooters were eating up. There was a stream of fabulous
European forwards during hockey's halting globalization of the
'70s and '80s--Swedes such as Anders Hedberg, Mats Naslund and
Kent and Ulf Nilsson; a Finn, Jari Kurri; a Slovak, Peter
Stastny--but the crease was a wasteland. Coyotes director of
hockey information Igor Kuperman, who covered the Soviet Union
for the European arm of the NHL's central scouting bureau in the
late '80s and early '90s, says he was instructed to not waste
time on goalies. "Canadians and Americans didn't like the way we
played goal--so deep, always down on our knees," Khabibulin says.
"They didn't really trust us, not only Russians but all
Europeans. Goaltending was like a holy job. Only Canadians should
play in net, no aliens."
Hasek, who apparently hails from another planet, changed the
equation, although other Eurogoalies were already starting to
learn NHL math. The geometry of hockey is different on NHL rinks,
which have 3,000 square feet less of playing surface and offer
different angles for goalies than the arenas in Europe. Once they
reached the NHL, Eurogoalies were particularly obtuse, waiting
and waiting for the extra pass they were used to seeing at home
instead of moving to the top of the crease to blot the shooter's
openings. Baffled by the angles and blinded by the unaccustomed
congestion in front of the net, many Eurogoalies looked as out of
place in front of NHL nets as the New York Rangers' standup
goalie Mike Richter did on the larger ice surface while playing
for the U.S. in the 1998 Olympics. Older Eurogoalies had to
relearn their position. Sure, goaltending is goaltending and math
is math, but it was like trying to pick up the metric system at
Khabibulin was fortunate not only to come to North America at
22--he was the 204th pick in the draft of 1992, when Winnipeg Jets
general manager Mike Smith took a startling nine Soviet-trained
players among his 12 selections--but also to have a good teacher.
Former Jets goalie consultant Pete Peeters convinced Khabibulin
to come out and challenge shooters more. Eighteen months later
Khabibulin put on one of the best playoff goaltending
performances of the decade, making 51 saves in a 3-1 victory in
Game 5 of the first round in Detroit in 1996. His performance
left everyone open-mouthed except for Red Wings coach Scotty
Bowman, who put his foot in his by calling the goalie
But as Eurogoalies ventured out to meet shooters, the NHL began
meeting them halfway. Its game was evolving, too. Distinctions
between North American and European hockey blurred with the
passing years. The era of firing the puck from the wing, at its
zenith in the early 1980s on the Islanders' Stanley Cup teams
that had sharpshooting Mike Bossy, gave way in the mid-'80s to a
flowing style, exhibited by the Edmonton dynasty, with elements
from the Old World. If European goalies could play a little more
the way they did in Europe, it was partly because there was an
increasing abundance of skilled European forwards, players who
had been trained to make the extra pass every bit as thoroughly
as the Eurogoalie had been drilled to anticipate it. Through
Sunday, nine of this season's top 20 scorers were European, even
though Europeans comprise only 24% of the NHL population. When
Khabibulin stole a 2-0 win against the Ottawa Senators last
month, eight of the nine forwards on Ottawa's top three lines
were European. Maybe Eurogoalies would be unwise to position
themselves as deeply as Salo, who sometimes looks as if the
crossbar is going to give him a concussion, but Hasek and now
Khabibulin, who has become more of a butterfly goalie in the past
18 months, excel by positioning themselves closer to the goal
line than most North Americans.
Now that the stigma attached to European goalies is gone, they
are destined to become more numerous in the NHL. Teams are
importing Eurogoalies who are in their teens and early 20s, and
are grooming them in the minor and junior leagues so they will
see more and different kinds of shots and get used to the traffic
in front of the net. Alexei Volkov, the Los Angeles Kings'
third-round pick in 1998 who backstopped Russia to the gold in
the junior world championships earlier this month, plays junior
hockey in Canada. "You tell me what 18-year-old will become a
great goalie, and I'll say you're full of it," says Oilers coach
Ron Low, an NHL goalie from 1972-73 through '84-85. "But kids
like Alexandre Fomitchev [a 1997 Edmonton pick from Russia who's
playing junior hockey in Canada] will get a look. It doesn't
matter where you're from or even how you stop the bloody
puck--standup, butterfly or with whatever part of your anatomy
happens to be in the area at the time. The thinking has changed."
"Goaltending was like a holy job," Khabibulin says of the NHL's
old mind-set. "Only Canadians should play in net, no aliens."