The stands at the U.S. Ice Sports Complex outside St. Louis were
teeming, and spillover fans jostled for standing room four rows
deep around the 750-seat rink. This was on Sept. 6, and the
occasion was the Blues' first intrasquad scrimmage of the
preseason. The faithful had gathered in large part to welcome
their team's new goaltender, Roman Turek, and to honor him as
the potential St. Louis Savior. Acquired from the Dallas Stars
on June 20 for a third-round pick in that month's draft, Turek
received a standing ovation when he skated onto the ice, and as
the scrimmage played out, fans strained from every corner of the
arena to see the big man parry pucks shot from far and near.
For the past two seasons the Blues have played defensively sound
hockey, going a combined 82-61-21 despite getting spotty
goaltending by several keepers. By obtaining Turek, 29, and then
signing him to a three-year, $5.2 million contract, the club may
have finally dipped its Achilles' heel into the Styx. "There
were three goalies we were interested in, and Roman was at the
top of the list," says St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau.
"We've been looking for a Number 1 for a while. He has the
ability. He just has to prove that he can do it."
Rarely does a goalie vault from obscurity into the limelight as
swiftly as Turek has. A 6'3", 200-pound native of the Czech
Republic, he spent the past two years gathering condensation on
the Dallas bench while Ed Belfour manned the pipes. He didn't
see a minute of playoff ice time in the Stars' run to the
Stanley Cup last spring, and though he went 16-3-3 with a
superior 2.02 goals-against average in 1998-99, fans outside
Dallas might have thought a Roman Turek was an Italian
watchtower. In hockey circles, however, he was well known.
"I've scouted him and read the reports on him from two
organizations," says Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Rick
Dudley, who was G.M. of the Ottawa Senators last season.
"Everyone has agreed: He has excellent lateral movement and a
good glove and is a strong presence in the net. He doesn't give
shooters much to aim for. We felt strongly he could be a
valuable starter in the NHL."
Dudley nearly gave Turek a chance to confirm that. The Stars
were all but forced to trade Turek within 24 hours of winning
the Cup, or they would have lost him to the Atlanta Thrashers in
the expansion draft. Tampa Bay agreed to a deal that would have
landed Turek for what Dudley calls "a good, established NHL
player." Instead, Art Williams, the Lightning's owner at the
time, scotched the trade at the last minute. With Dallas under
the gun, the Blues got him for a bargain price.
Turek's move to St. Louis had a ripple effect. Still needing a
goalie, Dudley acquired the New York Rangers' Dan Cloutier for
the fourth pick in the draft, enabling the Rangers to select
widely coveted forward Pavel Brendl. Then, last week, the Blues
traded 36-year-old future Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr, who
started 37 games for them in 1998-99, to the Calgary Flames to
solidify Turek as their No. 1. "I'm ready for this," says Turek.
"I was surprised when Grant was traded, but of course I am ready."
Turek may play more games this season than the 55 he has
appeared in during his three-year NHL career. (His record is
30-14-4.) He's preparing for the added physical demands by
intensifying his conditioning and lengthening his practice time,
but the more essential question is whether Turek can mentally
handle the pressure of being the Man. St. Louis is banking on
his experience in leading the Czech Republic to the gold medal
at the 1996 world championships and on the fact that scouts
praise his poise. "His biggest change since coming here [Turek
played six games for Dallas in 1996-97] is his mental
toughness," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said last season. "At
first he was passive around the net; now he's aggressive. He
challenges shooters consistently."
Turek speaks fondly of his time in Dallas and admits having
suffered through a range of emotions since the Stars won the
Stanley Cup. The off-season began with a bittersweet team
celebration in downtown Dallas just hours after Turek was
traded. In July he took the Cup to Ceske Budejovice, in the
Czech Republic, where the locals cheered and serenaded him
outside City Hall. In late August he bought a house for himself
and his family--wife Helena and seven-year-old son Eddie--in the
St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield. That's where the U.S. Ice
Sports Complex is located. If the reception Turek got when camp
opened was any indication, it will feel like home in no time.