Goalie Land Why is the province of Quebec cranking out all the best netminders? Because of two quirky brothers and a hero named Patrick Roy

Oct. 13, 2003
Oct. 13, 2003

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Oct. 13, 2003

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Goalie Land Why is the province of Quebec cranking out all the best netminders? Because of two quirky brothers and a hero named Patrick Roy

The province of Quebec produces hydroelectricity, maple syrup,
lunatic drivers, overwrought Celine Dion songs and elite
goaltenders, the last a resource seemingly as inexhaustible as
the others. About 10% of the 700 or so players in the NHL last
season were Quebecois, but almost 40% of the No. 1 goalies in
2002-03 were born or trained in Quebec (11 of 30). All told, 18
netminders with Quebec roots played in at least eight games last
season, including a Caron (Sebastien), a Garon (Mathieu), a
Biron (Martin) and an icon (recently retired Patrick Roy). You
can prattle on about Dominican shortstops or Penn State
linebackers, but if the Nittany Lions churned out NFL 'backers
the way Quebec does goalies, Happy Valley fans would be
delirious. ¶ In today's NHL, where the total goals per game is
5.3 and a save percentage of .900 is no longer praiseworthy but
grounds for benching, goaltending is the league's
fulcrum--everything else in the Dead Puck Era is window
dressing. The middling Mighty Ducks of Anaheim made that point
emphatically last spring, when they rode the superb goaltending
of Jean-Sebastien Giguere to their first Stanley Cup finals,
losing Game 7 to the New Jersey Devils and their French Canadian
goalie, Martin Brodeur. With a 1.62 goals-per-game average,
Giguere won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs, an
upset considering the award had gone to a player from the
Cup-winning team every year since 1987, but not surprising in
the context of the recent dominance by goalies out of Quebec.

This is an article from the Oct. 13, 2003 issue Original Layout

In the past two years French Canadians have won the Vezina Trophy
as the league's best goalie twice (Jose Theodore of the Montreal
Canadiens in 2001-02 and Brodeur in '02-03) and the Hart Trophy
as regular-season MVP once (Theodore). Last season Quebec
netminders ranked first through fourth in shutouts (Brodeur,
Giguere, Jocelyn Thibault of the Chicago Blackhawks and Patrick
Lalime of the Ottawa Senators) and placed four among the top six
in victories (Brodeur, Lalime, Roy and Giguere). The Stanley Cup
semifinalists all featured Quebec goalies (Giguere, Brodeur,
Lalime and the Minnesota Wild's Manny Fernandez, who split the
job with Dwayne Roloson).

Quebec has also produced the two most influential coaches of
hockey's most influential position, Francois and Benoit Allaire,
brothers who share a commitment if no longer a vision. The
goalies who stream out of the province will always be St.
Patrick's descendants--Roy won a Stanley Cup at 20 with the
1985-86 Montreal Canadiens using a creative butterfly style that
inspired a new generation--but these kids needed someone to raise
them. Francois, 48, who worked with Roy in Montreal and is now
the goalie consultant of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and Benoit,
41, the Phoenix Coyotes' goalie coach, turned boyhood dreams into
big-time saves, redefining what now is informally known as the
Quebec Position.

"Tune in any game almost any night of the season and you'll
probably see a French Canadian guy [in net]," says Francois, who
rebuilt the 26-year-old Giguere from a goalie who relied on
instincts into a paradigm of technique. "It's like holding up a
mirror to the people here. There's no other sport where we can
find heroes. We don't have any big golf or tennis guys. There's
Eric Gagne [the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer], but he's just one
player. You talk to the kids, you see how proud they are playing
goal. Thirty years ago you were a goalie because you were chubby
or couldn't skate. Now you're a goalie because everyone knows
it's the position for somebody special."

In a French-speaking province that prides itself on
distinctiveness, the position changed from thankless to cool as
children rushed to don the tools of influence (page 66). "It's
fashionable, all that equipment," Francois says, "and fashion is
important culturally in Quebec. Kids see the painted mask and the
colorful pad, which announce, 'We're somebody. We're different.'"

"We have a different mentality because we speak a unique language
here," says Benoit. "Not French. Hockey. We talk hockey all the
time. We've got a different way to see the game, and we want to
be the best."

In an 1881 speech in Montreal, Mark Twain joked that this was a
city in which a man could not throw a brick without breaking a
church window. Even then, it seems, Quebec was comfortable on its
knees. Francois Allaire no more invented the butterfly
technique--the name comes from the kneeling goalie's splayed
pads, which vaguely resemble a butterfly's wings--than Benjamin
Franklin discovered electricity by attaching a key to a kite
during a thunderstorm. Before the rules were changed in 1917, NHL
goalies were penalized for intentionally dropping to the ice to
make a save. Through the decades notable goalies such as Hall of
Famers Glenn Hall in the 1950s and '60s and Tony Esposito in the
'70s would drop to the butterfly position to make the occasional
save, but the move was reactive, rooted in the moment. The
butterfly was not a founding principle of their styles. But it
was Allaire who, in the 1980s, studied the butterfly move,
harnessed it, codified it and preached it, making it the rock on
which he built his goaltending church. Allaire started with a
handful of students in a rink in Ste. Therese, just north of
Montreal, in the summer of '78. Now he has goalie schools on
three continents.

Allaire had been an unexceptional goaltender at the Universite de
Sherbrooke in the mid-1970s. His education provided the
intellectual framework to move beyond the anecdotes of Jacques
Plante's Devant Le Filet, the goaltending bible of its day, and
turn his own fragmented thoughts and observations into a system.
Allaire got a degree in physical education and then toured Europe
like so many college graduates of that era, but instead of
visiting castles and museums, he went to hockey schools in
Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. He observed. He asked questions.

When Allaire returned home, he called the Bibliotheque Nationale
in Ottawa and the phys-ed department of the Universite Laval and
ordered every book in every language ever written about
goaltending. Over the next two years he read about 200. (Allaire
doesn't understand a word of Czech, but he says the diagrams were
outstanding.) At that point he literally had exhausted the body
of goaltending knowledge. "Now I was free," Allaire says, "to
follow my own way."

His teaching methods were still evolving through trial and error,
but the butterfly was a founding principle. In the early 1990s,
when hockey became more of a tight-checking, crease-crashing
game, more and more goalie prospects learned the butterfly.
According to Allaire, most shots are low along the ice, produced
either by harried shooters or down-low scrambles. The butterfly,
when played by a goalie such as Giguere, who is 6'1" and
outfitted with bulky armorlike equipment, enables the netminder
to cover more of the lower portion of the net than any other

"Francois has meant a lot to me," says 25-year-old goalie David
Aebischer, Roy's replacement with the Colorado Avalanche who has
attended Allaire's Swiss school for the past nine summers. "I
went from a guy playing on instinct to one with a game plan. I
had a style before, but I would use different moves at different
times. He got it down to three or four moves, made it much
simpler than before."

"The butterfly also can have its disadvantages because not every
goalie is 6'1", 6'2", and just that skill is not enough," says
Buffalo Sabres goalie coach Jim Corsi, who is a Montreal native.
"But the genius in what Francois was doing was teaching this to
kids at his schools. If you take a 14-year-old goalie and a
14-year-old shooter, generally the shooter's not going to be able
to raise the puck off the ice; the goalie who can drop to his
knees is going to have a higher chance to succeed. So with that
system young goalies are successful earlier. They're happier. And
it creates an enthusiasm for the position that, in my mind,
accounts for the explosion in goaltending. In Quebec the goalie
is the hero, and you're good at it at a young age."

Allaire, a consultant for equipment manufacturer Sherwood, now
has 320 students in his school in Ste. Therese, another 100
pupils in Verbier, Switzerland, and 50 more in Hachinohe, Japan,
where he holds a weeklong camp once a year. Almost everyone who
is anyone in North American goaltending has attended one of the
Allaire brothers' schools--Benoit has two in Quebec, in St.
Eustache and Joliette, and one in Scottsdale, Ariz.--and four
European NHL goalies (Aebischer, Martin Gerber of Anaheim,
Cristobal Huet of the Los Angeles Kings and Tomas Vokoun of the
Nashville Predators) attended Francois's Swiss sessions last

"He's certainly touched enough guys," Brodeur says of Francois.
"Of course, you go to a bar and talk to enough girls, you'll
probably pick one up."

Brodeur, preternaturally close to Devils goalie coach Jacques
Caron, with whom he has worked nearly his entire 11-year NHL
career, is not an Allaire acolyte. He attended Francois's school
as a teen but left after a few days. "We're doing drills, going
to stations, and I might pokecheck or stack the pads, and
suddenly Francois is blowing the whistle, saying, 'You can't do
that. Too low of a percentage,'" recalls the 31-year-old Brodeur.
"It's not that I didn't take anything from him--for instance, I
learned to get up from a rebound on the proper foot--but it just
wasn't for me."

Brodeur, who could one day eclipse many of Roy's major records,
including wins, ended up playing what Benoit likens to a hybrid
style, a mix of butterfly and a healthy dose of stand-up
goaltending. Of course, Benoit could teach it better than he
could play it. Like Francois, Benoit had a stillborn goaltending
career, never making it past Midget Triple A in Quebec. But with
his playing days effectively over before he was 17, Benoit was
lucky. Francois, one of five Allaire children, had started a
successful family business. Benoit went to work at his brother's
goalie school.

Benoit had a long piggyback ride on Francois's back. He worked at
the school, took three jobs in junior hockey and wound up
succeeding his brother with the Canadiens when Francois left for
Anaheim in 1996. By then Benoit already was envisioning a
postbutterfly universe, a world in which a goalie might save
shots at a 95% rate. He did not think a man could do it
principally from his knees. (The philosophical schism coincided
with four frosty years in the brothers' personal relationship,
but they smoothed things over in 2001.)

Working for the Coyotes since 1997, Benoit has created a sterling
reputation within the league. He sharpened Nikolai Khabibulin,
the former Coyote who plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning, by
having him rely more on technique than on reflexes. He rebuilt
veteran Sean Burke, whose career had plateaued after making a
splash as a rookie in 1987-88, by cleaning up his footwork.
(Burke's goals-against average dropped by almost a half a goal
after he joined Phoenix in '99.) He helped unheralded backup Zac
Bierk become a bona fide NHL goalie by changing his positioning
on rebounds. (Bierk had a .932 save percentage in 16 games last
year.) Says the 36-year-old Burke, who has 288 career wins, "I'd
played the game on athleticism and competitiveness and
feel--basically, by the seat of my pants. I might have played
well, but I felt I had to work too hard at playing well. Ben and
I started working on technical things and the game seemed a lot

Now Francois and Benoit meet happily if infrequently for dinner,
professional equals supremely respected in the hockey world.
Francois has Roy and Giguere and his successful schools. Benoit
has Burke and Bierk and his successful schools. Together, and
separately, they have fashioned a fabulous masked world,
advancing the craft while changing the ground rules of the game.
Now, if they could just get Celine to quit beating her chest,
that would really be impressive.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI BREED APART The Senators' Lalime (in the classic butterfly position) was one of 11 starting goalies last season who was born or trained in Quebec.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO SAVING GRACE Allaire brothers Francois (left) and Benoit have influenced the game more than any other position coaches.COLOR PHOTO: DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI (THEODORE) RARE HEIR Two seasons ago Theodore won the Vezina and Hart trophies to help Montreal fans get over the loss of Roy.COLOR PHOTO: GILLES LAFRANCE-JOURNAL DE MONTREAL/AP ST. PATRICK Roy (far right) inspired a generation of kids, including a young Giguere, to pick up the pads and mask.COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI HIS OWN MAN A young Brodeur balked at Francois's teachings, developed a hybrid style and rose to No. 1 at his position.

Talk to the kids. Thirty years ago you were a goalie because you
were chubby. Now you're a goalie because it's A POSITION FOR

Together, and separately, the Allaire brothers have FASHIONED A
FABULOUS MASKED WORLD, advancing the craft by changing the ground
rules of the game.