They pointed a television camera at him and asked about the secrets of his butterfly technique, as if his name were Patrick Roy and not Patrick Lalime. They asked him if he had any hobbies. They even asked him to name his favorite movie, as if he were the skinny one, Siskel. He was amazed: cameras, questions. In his 22 years no one had much cared about his take on goaltending, his taste in cinema or, for that matter, anything else about him. Now this. Somebody wrote that Lalime, the Penguins' rookie netminder, was fast becoming a folk hero in Pittsburgh. When your world changes in three weeks, you try not to change with it. Stay humble, suppress the urge to say, "Geez, can you believe I'm playing with Mario?" Stick up for Lemieux after a stick-swinging New York Islander attempts to chop him into filet mignon, and answer the questions.
"I told them Slap Shot," Lalime says, shrugging. "I didn't know what else to say." For a goalie who has tasted the Slap Shot life, the choice was a no-brainer. Lalime's success, on the other hand, is not so easy to figure. When he played junior hockey in Quebec, his team once demoted him two levels. Last season he wasn't even a first-stringer in the International Hockey League. It looked as if the only way Lalime was going to get his name in the record books was with a felt-tip pen.
But after a 3-3 tie in Ottawa last Saturday, Lalime's 11-0-2 record with the Penguins trailed only Ken Dryden's 12-0-2 with the Montreal Canadiens in 1971 and Ross Brooks's 11-0-3 with the Boston Bruins in '72 for the best start by a rookie goaltender since the 1967 NHL expansion. Sure, Lalime has been whipping tomato cans—only three of his 13 games were against teams with winning records—but at week's end he also led the league in goals-against average (2.02) and save percentage (.933), and Pittsburgh was on top of the Northeast Division.
Lalime's game doesn't quite reflect his numbers—he gives up long rebounds and seems a whisker slow moving post to post—but he doesn't flop on shots from sharp angles, he has a knack for picking up screened shots, and he is lucky enough to play for Pittsburgh. Through Sunday the Penguins were 17-2-4 since Nov. 22, when coach Ed Johnston created the Bottom Line of Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, who combined for 54 goals and 68 assists in those 23 games. But Lalime, who was called up on Nov. 14, has done more than hop on for the ride. He has started to make a name for himself, even if no one can pronounce it.
Johnston, the Casey Stengel of his sport, calls his goalie La-lime (rhymes with sublime). Most everyone else in Pittsburgh calls him La-leem, which would be close if he were a beret-wearin', baguette-gnawin' kind of guy, which he isn't. Lalime hails from St. Bonaventure (pop. 1,140), a farming community about 71 miles northeast of Montreal where the summers are short and the vowels are shorter. He pronounces his name La-limb, which is what the Penguins were out on after starting goaltender Tom Barrasso was sidelined with a recurring shoulder problem on Nov. 2 and then his backup, Ken Wregget, pulled his left hamstring on Dec. 26. Wregget is still nursing his injury, and Barrasso, who underwent shoulder surgery on Jan. 3, is so far out of the picture that photos of him have vanished from the lobby of the Penguins' practice rink.
Pittsburgh had such a modest opinion of Lalime, who started the season with the team's IHL affiliate in Cleveland, that it splurged on another goalie, Craig Hillier, in the first round of the 1996 draft. "The way we saw it," Johnston says of Hillier, who is playing for the Ottawa 67s in the Ontario Hockey League, "he would have a couple of more years in juniors and then be ready to replace Tommy or Kenny." The Penguins had a line of succession as clear as the House of Windsor's until life got in the way.
Wregget might be the goalie for the playoffs—"Kenny's still the Man," Lalime says—but Lalime is the goalie of the present. Who knew? The only thing unique about him—Lalime was just another link in the daisy chain of butterfly-style goalies to come out of Quebec—was this: Of all the players eligible for the 1993 draft, he was the one who wrote his number next to his name on the NHL player information forms.
The number then was 33, in honor of Roy, a minor god in Montreal. Lalime's bedroom was Saint Patrick's cathedral. He had the poster, the red-white-and-blue goalie pads, everything. At hockey school when he was 16, Lalime even hooked up with the same instructor Roy had had, Fran�ois Allaire, the former Canadiens goaltending coach who still talks to Lalime at least once a week. "He's the type of kid," says Allaire, now a goaltending consultant, "who never got anything for free."
Except advice. Lalime heard it from coaches who told him to stack his pads when making a save and to abandon the butterfly, and from fans who told him to abandon hockey altogether. "This was tough on my parents, sitting in the stands and hearing people call me pourri [trash]," Lalime says. "No one ever told me I'd be great, except them."
The Penguins drafted him in the sixth round and a year later brought him to training camp, but they didn't offer him a contract. So, armed with a dream and a French-English dictionary, the then unilingual Lalime struck out for that hockey mecca, Norfolk, Va., home of the Hampton Roads Admirals of the East Coast Hockey League, and the tender ministering of coach John Brophy. Brophy, an old Slap Shot-like brawler in his playing days, would bring his dog to practice and caution Lalime to stay away from it because the animal might mistake him for a bone and chew on him. (Lalime is 6'2", weighs 165 pounds and has a chest that borders on the concave.) Of course, the goalie was having his own culinary dilemma. His plat du jour in Virginia was the popular "same thing." Whatever a teammate ordered, Lalime would say, "Same thing"—until he wound up with fiery Italian sausage in his pasta.