In the 1980s, after the New York Islanders had won four consecutive Stanley Cups and then lost their last appearance in the final, to the Edmonton Oilers, a young Kelly Hrudey beat out Rollie Melanson for the job to back up Billy Smith. But the job was hardly one of backup. It was, for several years, a platoon, with the ascendant Hrudey in the crease a few more games each season than the veteran Smith, who was 10 years older and headed to the Hall of Fame. It took Hrudey two more years before he got the true starter’s nod in the playoffs.
Through it all, as the young man aimed to usurp one of the game’s greats, the two were friends. Most nights on the road, they went for dinner. Back at home on Long Island, they played tennis and hung out on off days. Their wives were cordial.
“It’s ultracompetitive, but it’s respectful,” remembered Hrudey, who later as a veteran in Los Angeles and San Jose saw the roles reversed. “I really cherished the friendships. We each wanted the ice time but we weren’t going to sacrifice our friendship over it.”
At the one-quarter mark of this shortened NHL season, the most common headline about the seemingly unusual goaltending situation in Vancouver – Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, “two No. 1s” in the words of their coach – remains that of “goalie controversy.” Yet that headline appears ever more incorrect, unless having two of the top goaltenders in the league is controversial. Everyone, including Luongo, expected the starter-turned-backup to have been traded before the puck dropped, but it didn’t happen, and now a platoon has emerged, one that has carried the Canucks to an 8-2-2 start, by far their best under Alain Vigneault.
Friday night, Schneider starts against visiting Dallas, his seventh start of the year. Luongo has six. Both are, among goaltenders with at least six starts, in the NHL’s top 10 in save percentage.
The situation appeared, to many people, untenable in January. But like Smith and Hrudey, there is a strong friendship between Luongo and Schneider, united by a tremendous work ethic, personalities that mesh well, and lifelong membership in the goalie fraternity. Luongo had girded himself for this situation, and by the time the lockout ended, he had told Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis that he was ready to remain a Canuck “as long as it took” – read: trade – all the way through the end of the season.
Humour, and winning hockey games, has helped assuage what might have been a harder situation, given that Luongo lost his job last spring in a brutal way, playing well but benched during the playoffs in favour of Schneider. Luongo has handled the loss of his position as the unquestioned starter with grace and hilarity, whether it’s on CBC’s After Hours last weekend, jestingly calling Scott Oake a milt, or online with his digital alter ego @strombone1. The jokes on Twitter range from pointing to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as “proving you could never go wrong in going with the youngster over the old vet,” to quipping this month, during a run of starts, “Being a backup is a lot funner than I anticipated.”
“You don’t want to be here moping around, bringing negative energy to the dressing room, that would be a huge distraction for the boys,” Luongo said this week. “And, you know, for myself, it doesn’t really do me any good. You just try to make the most of it, enjoy your time.”
Goaltenders have negotiated life as a pair from the first games as boys, when they strapped on the pads and donned the mask, even if the roles in the pros are generally, especially in recent years, clear-cut, with an obvious starter and a workable backup. Circumstances like Vancouver are few.
“Every goaltender has to deal with this from the time he’s an atom goaltender to the time he eventually gets to be an NHL goalie,” said Darren Pang, who played goal for the Chicago Blackhawks in the late 1980s. “You’re always dealing with a partner.”
In his rookie year, Pang was 23, two years younger than Bob Mason, with whom he split the job in net. The two roomed together on the road and remain friends to this day, Pang the talkative one, Mason quieter, cerebral, a dry wit. “We had a really good balance,” Pang said of making it work, the same things that are making it work for Schneider and Luongo.
“They can make fun of everything that’s going on,” Pang said. “We see so many selfish athletes that are only worried about themselves. Although this is not an ideal situation – because it’s not – it speaks volumes about these two guys.”
Schneider, who emerged as a starter and potential star under the tutelage of Luongo, reveals nothing but content and patience, even if he is at 26 still waiting to grasp the role he has worked his whole life to achieve – go-to starter in the NHL. And he’s leaned on a little humour himself, recently joking about resisting a fashion choice, “No Conan O’Brien shirts,” the redhead netminder said of the talk-show redhead who saw The Tonight Show taken back by veteran host Jay Leno.
“I guess we’re just trying to have a little fun with it, because otherwise it could eat you up,” Schneider said this week. “I’m very comfortable with where I am. I keep going back to it: it’s Roberto Luongo, it’s not just some other random goalie. As long as we’re both here, we’re both going to play, and they want us both to play.”
Hrudey thinks this crucible could forge a stronger goalie, especially since he is, as a starter, a rookie.
“This is ideal for Cory Schneider,” Hrudey said. “This is going to be a really good test to prove what he has mentally. It’s one thing to be a backup and win some tough games. Now you’re No. 1, keeping the job, dealing with the pressure, the press, all the different dynamics.”
In The Game, Ken Dryden’s biography of hockey and goaltending, Dryden’s reflections fit the Vancouver story. Dryden’s rise in Montreal came at the demise of Vézina Trophy winner Rogie Vachon, who moved on to Los Angeles. Even then, Dryden “felt under constant, almost angry pressure” to justify his job as No. 1.
Being goalie is not like being the first-line centre. In goal, it’s different. No one is talking about demoting Henrik Sedin because he has failed to score in the first dozen games. Still, an interesting passage from Dryden notes the advice from his coach, Scotty Bowman, who knew “that a championship team needs two goalies capable of winning a Stanley Cup.” Dryden remembered his constant rivalry with backup Michel Larocque, and their “friendly,” if not a bit guarded, relationship.
But always the crowd and coaches and management will turn to another faceless man behind the mask.
“Little by little,” Dryden wrote, “a newer face takes over at the Forum, once Vachon, once me, once Larocque, soon someone else.”