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King of the Ice Colorado's Patrick Roy, at age 36, is having his finest year, bolstering the argument that he's the best goalie ever

April 08, 2002
April 08, 2002

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April 8, 2002

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King of the Ice Colorado's Patrick Roy, at age 36, is having his finest year, bolstering the argument that he's the best goalie ever

The hour was late, the tab was open, and, as he gazed across a
New York City saloon at Patrick Roy earlier this season, Greg de
Vries uttered the type of declarative statement often heard in
that kind of place and at that time of night. "We are playing,"
De Vries announced to fellow Colorado Avalanche defensemen Rob
Blake and Adam Foote, "with the greatest goalie who ever lived."

This is an article from the April 8, 2002 issue Original Layout

This is a wonderful bar-stool debate: Who is the best NHL
netminder of all time? There's no indisputable proof, not even
86 proof. The numbers in Roy's favor are staggering--the
36-year-old Avalanche goalie, who had 514 NHL regular-season
victories through Sunday, zoomed past Terry Sawchuk last season.
Roy's four Stanley Cups, three Conn Smythe Trophies as
postseason MVP and the Hart Trophy he deserves to win this year
as the top regular-season performer merely make his case robust,
not bulletproof. Washington Capitals general manager George
McPhee says Roy, who is also the career leader in playoff wins
(137), "could be the top money goalie ever," but to pronounce
Roy the no-doubt-about-it best is to invite a whiskey rebellion
from backers of a pair who starred 40 years ago: the pugnacious
Sawchuk, whose 103 shutouts led Roy by 43, and the eccentric
Jacques Plante, whose seven Vezina Trophies as the NHL's top
goalie is four more than Roy's. (Roy's contemporary, 37-year-old
Dominik Hasek of the Detroit Red Wings, has won six Vezinas, but
his 288 victories pale by comparison.) No, we're taking this
argument outside--outside the box of numbers and awards--by
saying that Roy is the most important goalie in history.

Roy didn't write the book on goaltending. Plante did--like most
netminders of his generation, Roy read Devant le Filet ("In
Front of the Net"), by the goalie who popularized the use of the
mask--but Roy redefined the position. He conquered the game with
his pioneering butterfly style, but he also helped change the
equipment by working with Koho, which manufactures his pads, to
make them lighter. "Roy revolutionized equipment," says Anaheim
Mighty Ducks G.M. Pierre Gauthier. "Goalies are so good now
because the equipment is better. Patrick did that."

Any goalie who drops to his knees to cover the bottom of the net
wearing six-pound leg pads rather than the old nine-pounders
should genuflect to Roy, even though he was not the original
butterfly goalie. Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito, both of whom are
in the Hall of Fame, used variations of the butterfly decades
before Roy made it the standard. The stand-up netminder and the
reflex goalie still dot the bloated 30-team NHL, but they are as
anachronistic as a slide rule. Roy stands square to the shooters,
playing the percentages by taking away shots along the ice and
forcing them to beat him top shelf. Roy has taken goaltending
from the realm of artistry to that of science. He is, in that
sense, the first modern goalie.

"There's no doubt with the style he plays and success he's had,
people mirror him," says Calgary Flames netminder Mike Vernon,
who broke into the NHL in 1985-86, the year Roy led the Montreal
Canadiens to the Stanley Cup as a rookie. "You can try to mirror
someone's style, but it's what's inside that makes the player.
With Patty, it's determination and will."

Roy's influence on Colorado this year is immeasurable--at least by
Avalanche captain Joe Sakic's reckoning. Before practice last
Friday, some 12 hours after Roy's 30 saves had led the Avalanche
to a 3-2 win against the Sharks in San Jose, Sakic estimated that
Roy had stolen close to 10 games this season for a sputtering
team that otherwise would be scrambling just to make the playoffs
instead of clinging to second place in the Western Conference.
After practice Sakic amended the total to "at least double
digits." Then the slump-shouldered Roy walked by. "Make it 30,"
Sakic boomed. "He's stolen 30 for us. That's what Patty will tell
you."

There was not even the trace of a grin in response to Sakic's
good-natured jibe--as usual, Roy gave away little--but there have
been confirmed sightings of full-blown smiles and even
dressing-room guffaws this season. "No one will mistake him for
Alan Alda," says Avalanche left wing Mike Keane, who has played
with Roy for nine-plus seasons in two cities, longer than any
other player, "but he's been cracking a smile this season, and
that's something you never saw before. This is a different
Patrick. He knows he's at the back end of his career, and he
doesn't want to be remembered just as the a------ who thought
winning was the only thing. Now it's about winning and having
fun."

The change washed over Roy midway through last season after a
talk with Raymond Bourque, the Avalanche defenseman who was
playing his final year. Bourque told Roy to unclench his fists
and unclutter his mind. For 16 years Roy had been swamped by
expectations--Montreal's, Colorado's, his own. He was being
consumed by his brilliance and the need to reaffirm it on every
shot he faced. The burden was almost too much to bear until
Bourque pointed out the futility of even trying. With Bourque's
counsel, Roy realized he had been going about his profession
backward. "I was playing with a hatred for losing," Roy says.
"Maybe I should have been playing with a love for winning."

The modification in his approach probably saved the 2001 Cup for
Colorado, allowing Roy to shrug off his puckhandling gaffe of
near-Bucknerian proportions in Game 4 in New Jersey. It was a
mistake that led to a Devils victory and might have unhinged him
at any other time in his career. The change also crystallized
Roy's thinking about participating in the 2002 Olympics. The
desire to see his 13-year-old son, Jonathan, play in a
rollicking peewee tournament in Roy's hometown of Quebec City
was the overriding factor in the decision to remove his name
from consideration, but in a telephone conversation with Team
Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky a few days before
withdrawing in November, Roy said he was contemplating
retirement after the season. If he was going to quit, he told
Gretzky, he wanted to marshal his energy for one final run at
the Cup. The possibility that this is Roy's last year seems
remote now. Colorado will pay him $8.5 million next season, and
his health, other than the occasional flare-up of arthritis in
his hips, is good. Like Bourque, he will know when to go. Roy is
on the back nine of his career. He just isn't sure which hole.

There is no urgency for him to hang around to put the record for
career victories out of the reach of 29-year-old Devils goalie
Martin Brodeur, who through Sunday trailed Roy by 195, but there
is no urgency to leave because of a decline in the level of his
play. This has been a career season for Roy, who went four months
without a road defeat. His goals-against average, which has
dropped in each of the past five years, was 1.97 after he was
excused for the night with 11:40 left last Saturday by referee
Dan Marouelli for going postal following Phoenix Coyotes rookie
Krystofer Kolanos's scoring on a penalty shot to give the Coyotes
a 4-3 lead. (Roy didn't agree with the call for a penalty shot.)
Roy's .924 save percentage was .005 behind that of Montreal's
Jose Theodore, the NHL leader. There are external factors
reflected in Roy's outstanding numbers--this is, after all, the
Dead Puck era--but any loss of quickness that has accompanied his
advancing age has been fought to a stalemate by enhanced
knowledge and a feral desire to compete.

Like his famous "no more rats" pledge after the first period of
Game 3 of the 1996 Stanley Cup finals, when he held the Florida
Panthers and their plastic-rat-throwing fans without a goal for
the last 153 minutes and 12 seconds of the series, Roy still
seizes a moment. When he heard last June about an offhand remark
Brodeur's wife, Melanie, had made about the Devils being close to
winning the Cup after Game 5, Roy told Colorado coach Bob
Hartley, "It's your job to figure out how to get us a goal [in
Game 6] because I'm not letting in any." The Avalanche won that
match 4-0 and the next 3-1 to close out the series. As the
dressing-room celebration swirled, Roy, with his wife, Michele,
in the trainer's room, moaned that he hadn't closed his pads
quickly enough after showing Petr Sykora the five-hole on New
Jersey's goal.

The goaltender who some thought wouldn't last a decade--"We
figured with all the up and down, his knees would be shot," says
Minnesota Wild G.M. Doug Risebrough--is better in his 17th season
than his seventh. Roy, Plante, Sawchuk. Rock, paper, scissors.
There is no correct answer to who among them is the alltime best,
but the last word goes to Blake, who greeted De Vries's
proclamation in November with a sagacious nod. "In a must-win
game," Blake said, "there'd be no goalie you'd take ahead of
Patrick."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHOCOLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO SUPER SAVER Roy (stopping the Capitals' Steve Konowalchuk) has improved his goals-against numbers in each of the past five seasons.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO HAT TRICK After winning the Stanley Cup as a Montreal rookie in 1986, Roy has won two more in Colorado.COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO [See caption above]
Roy nixed playing in the Olympics in part to gather strength for
what might be his last season.
Some said Roy wouldn't last a decade, but he's better in his
17th season than his seventh.