This is the story of Damian Rhodes, the Ottawa Senators goaltender who caught lightening in a bottle—of Wella Blondor. The color is "lightest ash blond," according to Rhodes's hairstylist, Dino Nocita, and his color technician, Sharon Gates. Considering that Rhodes had the courage to walk into Ottawa's Rideau Centre mall one day in mid-March with brown hair and walk out as a blond, Gates reasons, he had the nerve to beat the top-seeded New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs.
Well, as just about everyone in hockey and hairstyling now knows, Rhodes dyed and went to heaven. The Senators knocked off the heavily favored Devils in six games, winning the clincher 3-1 at home last Saturday, a result almost as shocking as the fact that Rhodes, a goalie of sometimes fragile confidence and modest pedigree, outplayed Ail-Star Martin Brodeur.
To suggest that Rhodes's success had the remotest Samsonlike connection to his hair would be shallow, and we would never pander to society's obsession with style over substance by mentioning Rhodes's new nicknames, such as Billy Idol, Dennis Rodman, Gunther (in reference to the coffee-shop guy from Friends), Goldie, Snowflake, the Peroxide Kid and Courtney Love. The hair salon might be the traditional domain of gossip, but we simply report the facts: Before bleaching his hair, Rhodes was 13-17-5 with a 2.23 goals-against average this season; thereafter he went 10-4-2 with a 1.81 goals-against average. "Everyone's saying it's the hair," Rhodes says. "Really, that's had no effect. I didn't dye it to change my luck."
No, he did it because the people who care for his hair at the Amalfi Spa, who already had been giving him highlights, thought it would look cool, and because his wife, Lara, enthusiastically endorsed the idea. But if we were to continue to focus on such frivolous details, we also would have to attach importance to Rhodes's decision to check into an Ottawa hotel the night before playoff home games because in the last month of the regular season he had played better on the road (5-1-1, 1.43) than at home (1-1-1, 2.66). Or his use of the "sleep machine," an air purifier he has lugged around on road trips for six years, not because he feels compelled to tidy up the air but because the hum helps him doze off.
Rhodes's idiosyncrasies extend to the rink, where nothing is more important to him than his goalie pads. When he was traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to Ottawa 2� years ago, he initially wouldn't switch from the blue pads he wore as a Maple Leaf to new black ones that would match the Senators uniform, saying the new ones—deer-hair-and-foam-stuffed Vaughn models made to his exact specifications—didn't feel right. Last fall Rhodes started to more loosely tie the laces that attach the pads around the toes of the skates; he said he wanted to prevent the pads from "catching" on the ice as he moved laterally, though some suspected that such a problem could be detected only by Rhodes and people in Roswell, N. Mex. Rhodes insists he's less finicky now, even if he did send Lara on a two-hour trip to Montreal on a game day earlier this season to take the pads for repair because they felt mushy. "This is my way to avert anxiety," Rhodes says. "This gives me more confidence." He used five pairs of pads this season and has settled on two, "which means that I've zeroed in on what I want, so next year I should be ready to go."
The same could be true of the Devils, who got sidetracked again on what should have been a waltz to the Stanley Cup finals. Startlingly, they showed no hunger during Game 6, in which Rhodes made 21 mostly perfunctory saves, and the only New Jersey player with an excuse was center Bobby Holik, who missed the game because of food poisoning. A few years ago, then Devils wing John MacLean and defenseman Ken Daneyko, who's still with New Jersey, nicknamed the team the Firm because of the total commitment demanded by general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Jacques Lemaire. Clearly, however, this firm's formulaic hockey no longer pays dividends in the spring. Since winning the 1995 Stanley Cup, the Devils have had the fourth-best regular-season record in the NHL but have won just one playoff series. The New York Rangers knocked them out last year when New Jersey scored only five goals in five games, and the Devils' attack sputtered again this spring, producing just 12 goals in six matches. Center Doug Gilmour had five, but the No. 1 line, centered by Holik, who scored 29 in the regular season, only had one.
Ottawa is New Jersey's stylistic clone. Senators coach Jacques Martin is such a fervent admirer of Lemaire's conservative system that during the summer he'll pop a tape of a Devils' match into his VCR for relaxation. The students whipped the masters at their own game because of superior speed and energy. "Maybe the difference was our enthusiasm," Martin said after the Game 6 victory.
The Senators pressured the slower New Jersey defensemen with feathery dump-ins, cleared the puck out of their own zone with surprising ease and rode a hot goalie whose previous playoff experience had been all of 10 seconds four years ago with Toronto, long enough for a face-off and an icing call. "He's not the reincarnation of Terry Sawchuk," Daneyko said of Rhodes after Game 3, a 2-1 Ottawa overtime win in which Rhodes made 30 saves. No one argued with that assessment, even before a 100-footer by Devils defenseman Scott Stevens slithered through Rhodes's pads in Game 4 as the Senators almost frittered away a late three-goal lead. Certainly Rhodes didn't.
Rhodes, 28, doesn't ooze conviction. Right before the series against New Jersey, he said, "My confidence is pretty good right now, but we'll see what happens when we start." His body language didn't bespeak swagger. During the national anthems Brodeur would fidget and rock on his skates, looking as if he were ready to climb through the ring ropes for a shot at the title. Rhodes would stand trancelike, shoulders stooped, head slumped, looking as though the next position he would assume might be fetal.
As compulsive as Rhodes is about his pads, he's more compulsive about telling the truth. He seems incapable of ducking a question or varnishing a fact. His lack of guile is his most endearing quality, though being a stand-up guy isn't as much appreciated in the hockey world as being a stand-up goalie. While with the Leafs, Rhodes once told reporters he was feeling a little gun shy after taking a shot off the knee, a statement that was relayed to an unimpressed Pat Burns, who hadn't reached that chapter of his I'm O.K., You're O.K. coaching manual yet. Toronto then dealt him to the Senators, who expected him to be their starter. An emotional Rhodes said to the press after the trade that he wasn't sure if he was ready to be a No. 1 goalie. "I was just being honest," he said last week.