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European Vocation
Michael Farber
January 25, 1999
Goaltenders from the Continent not long ago faced insurmountable barriers in attempting to make the NHL. Now they're walling off nets all around the league
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January 25, 1999

European Vocation

Goaltenders from the Continent not long ago faced insurmountable barriers in attempting to make the NHL. Now they're walling off nets all around the league

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Hasek, who apparently hails from another planet, changed the equation, although other Euro-goalies were already starting to learn NHL math. The geometry of hockey is different on NHL rinks, which have 3,000 square feet less of playing surface and offer different angles for goalies than the arenas in Europe. Once they reached the NHL, Eurogoalies were particularly obtuse, waiting and waiting for the extra pass they were used to seeing at home instead of moving to the top of the crease to blot the shooter's openings. Baffled by the angles and blinded by the unaccustomed congestion in front of the net, many Eurogoalies looked as out of place in front of NHL nets as the New York Rangers' standup goalie Mike Richter did on the larger ice surface while playing for the U.S. in the 1998 Olympics. Older Eurogoalies had to relearn their position. Sure, goaltending is goaltending and math is math, but it was like trying to pick up the metric system at age 45.

Khabibulin was fortunate not only to come to North America at 22—he was the 204th pick in the draft of 1992, when Winnipeg Jets general manager Mike Smith took a startling nine Soviet-trained players among his 12 selections—but also to have a good teacher. Former Jets goalie consultant Pete Peeters convinced Khabibulin to come out and challenge shooters more. Eighteen months later Khabibulin put on one of the best playoff goaltending performances of the decade, making 51 saves in a 3-1 victory in Game 5 of the first round in Detroit in 1996. His performance left everyone open-mouthed except for Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, who put his foot in his by calling the goalie "Babbyhoolan."

But as Eurogoalies ventured out to meet shooters, the NHL began meeting them halfway. Its game was evolving, too. Distinctions between North American and European hockey blurred with the passing years. The era of firing the puck from the wing, at its zenith in the early 1980s on the Islanders' Stanley Cup teams that had sharpshooting Mike Bossy, gave way in the mid-'80s to a flowing style, exhibited by the Edmonton dynasty, with elements from the Old World. If European goalies could play a little more the way they did in Europe, it was partly because there was an increasing abundance of skilled European forwards, players who had been trained to make the extra pass every bit as thoroughly as the Eurogoalie had been drilled to anticipate it. Through Sunday, nine of this season's top 20 scorers were European, even though Europeans comprise only 24% of the NHL population. When Khabibulin stole a 2-0 win against the Ottawa Senators last month, eight of the nine forwards on Ottawa's top three lines were European. Maybe Eurogoalies would be unwise to position themselves as deeply as Salo, who sometimes looks as if the crossbar is going to give him a concussion, but Hasek and now Khabibulin, who has become more of a butterfly goalie in the past 18 months, excel by positioning themselves closer to the goal line than most North Americans.

Now that the stigma attached to European goalies is gone, they are destined to become more numerous in the NHL. Teams are importing Eurogoalies who are in their teens and early 20s, and are grooming them in the minor and junior leagues so they will see more and different kinds of shots and get used to the traffic in front of the net. Alexei Volkov, the Los Angeles Kings' third-round pick in 1998 who backstopped Russia to the gold in the junior world championships earlier this month, plays junior hockey in Canada. "You tell me what 18-year-old will become a great goalie, and I'll say you're full of it," says Oilers coach Ron Low, an NHL goalie from 1972-73 through '84-85. "But kids like Alexandre Fomitchev [a 1997 Edmonton pick from Russia who's playing junior hockey in Canada] will get a look. It doesn't matter where you're from or even how you stop the bloody puck—standup, butterfly or with whatever part of your anatomy happens to be in the area at the time. The thinking has changed."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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