No one knows more about trying to score on Carey Price this season than Beau McCue.
From regular-season games to the Stanley Cup final, Mr. Price has faced about 1,200 shots this year, according to the official stats. But Mr. McCue has that number beat. During a three-week span before the season began, Mr. McCue fired more than 7,000 pucks on Mr. Price, ripping between 500 and 600 a day at the Montreal Canadiens’ all-star goalie.
It happened when 26-year-old Mr. McCue, a former junior hockey player who lives in Kennewick, Wash., got a call in December that Mr. Price was visiting the area where his wife’s family is from, and needed someone to practise with. So, taking the ice by themselves for an hour or two each day, Mr. McCue and Mr. Price got to know each other, drill by drill, and shot by shot.
That makes Mr. McCue one of the few people outside the Habs organization to have witnessed first-hand the alchemy that makes the intensely private and poker-faced Mr. Price one of the most feared goalies in the National Hockey League.
He’s also had an inside look at just how hard Mr. Price has worked to get to his first Stanley Cup final, down 1-0 heading into Wednesday’s Game 2, and just four wins shy of one of the few titles left that he hasn’t won.
“He pushes himself extremely hard,” Mr. McCue said. “When we would shoot, if he wasn’t hitting the position he wanted, or getting where he wanted to in time, I could just see his determination. No one’s a bigger critic than him on himself.”
It’s a side of Mr. Price the world doesn’t necessarily see. Over his 14-year career, Mr. Price’s image has consistently been that of the league’s most chilled-out goalie, rarely showing emotion. For Mr. McCue, that much was evident – but Mr. Price’s drive for master-level perfection during their 14 or so one-on-one workouts was as obvious as it was unspoken.
“The thing that’s crazy is he makes what he does look easy and it’s not,” Mr. McCue said.
For Mr. Price, this Stanley Cup final represents his best shot at a championship, the only significant box left unchecked on his Hall of Fame-calibre résumé. After being taken fifth overall in the 2005 draft and winning an American Hockey League title with Montreal’s minor-league affiliate, Mr. Price’s career has been a mixture of stellar performances derailed by untimely injuries or early playoff exits. Until recently, the team often lacked enough depth so that Mr. Price didn’t have to shoulder most of the load himself.
But with a reconstituted roster, and a reinvigorated Mr. Price, that picture has changed. At 33, Mr. Price has been playing some of his best hockey in these playoffs. But what is it, exactly, that makes him so good?
Mr. McCue saw a lot of things as Mr. Price’s designated shooter. But even Mr. McCue, a winger who racked up 85 goals in 270 games as the captain of the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans and later dabbled in the minor-pro ranks, struggles to explain it. There were times, for example, that Mr. Price just knew exactly where he was going to shoot, even if Mr. McCue was hiding it.
“He’s very good at reading shots. He reads not only the way the stick is angled, and where the release point is, but also the body [of the shooter],” Mr. McCue said. “He was using his peripheral vision to kind of read my body, where I was putting more or less weight, to determine where and how hard the shot was going.”
All goalies read shooters, searching for their tells. But of the many that Mr. McCue faced during his career, including several that went on to the NHL, he’d never seen one with quite so much prescience.
“When I would whiff the puck or even if it was a hard shot but not where I wanted it to go, I would say to him, ‘I was going there.’ And he’d be like, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
By the end of the workouts, Mr. McCue was drilling Mr. Price for trade secrets, and the goalie was happy to oblige. “He said in the NHL there are players who will look like they’re going low right and it goes high left.”
Mr. Price’s intellectual side has been on display more these past few months than perhaps any other point in his career. A minimalist in interviews, he sometimes comes across blunt or uninterested. But it’s often a product of how direct the answers are.
After eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was asked about the graves of 215 children reported at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May. His answer was short and to the point: “I’d advise a lot of people to look into residential schools,” said Mr. Price, whose grandmother attended one such school. At a time when national anger had boiled over following the discovery, he wasn’t about to wax poetic. Nor was he about to dodge the question. His message to Canadians was clear and unapologetic: Do your research.
On his way to Game 2 in the second round of the playoffs, Mr. Price stopped outside St. Mary’s Cathedral in Winnipeg to talk to Gerry Shingoose, a residential school survivor and retired social worker who helped tie 215 orange ribbons outside the church and was waiting to meet with the archbishop. Ms. Shingoose gave Mr. Price a ribbon and a tobacco tie. Mr. Price later returned the favour with a puck from that night’s warmup.
Mr. Price’s pride in the Ulkatcho First Nation where he grew up in British Columbia is probably the most personal side of him the goalie has shown to the hockey world. He has the characters of the band’s logo tattooed down the arm of his glove hand, including a grizzly bear, an obsidian arrowhead, and Anahim Peak, a mountain that runs across the northern side of the territory. The tattoo also bears an image of a Piper Cherokee, an homage to the small plane his dad flew him to practice in when he played for Williams Lake, which was five hours away by car.
On the ice in Kennewick this off-season, Mr. McCue and Mr. Price bonded over their small-town upbringings. Mr. McCue, who grew up in Montana, had been on ice with Mr. Price before. During the 2012-13 NHL lockout, Mr. Price, also a former Tri-City American, practised with the team a few times when Mr. McCue was a rookie. But it wasn’t until this season that he got to appreciate how good Mr. Price is at the craft, particularly at moving across the net and cutting down angles.
But the mystery that seems to shroud Mr. Price may not be that much of a mystery at all. As Mr. McCue puts it: Yes, he is that good. Yes, he is that chilled-out in real life. The goalie on TV is the same one he trained with.
Of the more than 7,000 shots he estimates he took, Mr. McCue can’t say how many went in. Not that many. “I got a few,” he said, adding that he intends to tell his grandchildren about each of those goals.
He’s now fully behind the Habs for the Cup. “When you see someone work that hard, you want them to get the payout,” he said.
And if Montreal should win, perhaps Mr. Price will be back next offseason. Mr. McCue, who recently wrapped up his minor-pro career, said he’ll be ready. “I’ll make sure I’m available.”