"Where you fellas from?" the taxi driver asked his passengers with typical Denver howdy-neighbor friendliness.
"Say, we got a new goalie from there. Know anything about him?"
"Well," said the new goalie himself, "I hope he's a good guy."
Patrick Roy is a good guy. He's high maintenance—exacting, combative, sensitive—but a good guy. Of course, he is an even better goalie. In his 10 years with the Montreal Canadiens, he was a three-time first-team All-Star, a two-time playoff MVP and a one-man franchise. That's why it makes almost zero sense that Roy, even after an ugly public showdown with rookie Canadien coach Mario Tremblay during a game on Dec. 2 against the Detroit Red Wings, is now stopping pucks in a city where cabbies don't know his face and no one can pronounce his name.
Roy—that's Rwah, as in King Louis XIV, not Roy as in Rogers—was traded to the Colorado Avalanche on Dec. 6 with Montreal captain Mike Keane for promising 20-year-old goalie Jocelyn Thibault and wingers Andrei Kovalenko and Martin Rucinsky. It was the most stunning hockey deal since the Edmonton Oilers shipped Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Roy's trade was no more a '50s-style talent swap than Gretzky's, which makes the question of who won this trade—answer: Colorado—practically irrelevant.
The Roy trade raised a more profound, '90s question about whether special players deserve special treatment, whether a star system that puts athletes' names up in neon-Deion lights should prevail over the hoary high school notion that there's no I in team. They can argue the following point in NHL front offices and at the Harvard Business School: Did Roy's team-high $2.8 million salary and his immense marketability in Montreal make him almost as much a partner of the Canadiens' owners as an employee? Hasn't Gretzky, who put millions in the Kings' coffers, earned a say in Los Angeles's personnel matters? When New York Ranger captain Mark Messier had a falling-out with coach Roger Neilson in 1993, who was deemed to be more vital to the team?
Canadien president Ronald Corey and new Montreal general manager Réjean Houle made sure Roy was not a coach killer by backing Tremblay, a former Canadien wing who was Roy's roommate when Roy was a rookie. Earlier in his career Roy also occasionally had bumped hard heads with coach Pat Burns. Burns, who now guides the Toronto Maple Leafs, recalls one "Screw you...No, screw you" shouting match with Roy, although they usually got along. But Roy seemed happiest as coach-without-port-folio under Tremblay's predecessor, Jacques Demers, who let Roy set his own schedule and all but kissed his most important asset.
"There are certain athletes, like Patrick, who are pure-breds," says Demers, who was fired four games into this season and now scouts for the Canadiens. "They're intense. Winners. Guys I've coached like Steve Yzerman in Detroit and Mike Liut, Bernie Federko and Doug Gilmour in St. Louis. They're not always easy to deal with. I was around [Piston coach] Chuck Daly, and I saw him praise Isiah Thomas, and, well, maybe there's a little different attitude in the States about how you treat stars. Patrick was the best player in Montreal since Guy Lafleur, and your best athletes—not your fourth-liners—win Stanley Cups for you. Roy is a guy who won 10 straight overtime games to get us the Cup in 1993. Maybe Patrick would say something in the dressing room that guys didn't like"—Roy fought teammate Mathieu Schneider in the dressing room between periods of a game last season—"but I'd tell them to let it go. Patrick was also the guy who was going to come back and win the game for us."
Tremblay, 39, is not a warm and fuzzy coach; he's a product of the late '70s, when he was a Canadien third-liner for the hard-driving Scott Bowman. Less than a week before his blowup with Roy, Tremblay told reporters how much he had chafed under Bowman. The irony is, when challenged by Roy in a game against Bowman's Red Wings, Tremblay responded exactly as Bowman might have.