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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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Rising Imports

After years of being abused like a fleet of rented Yugos (Hardy Astrom, left, was a prime example), European-born goalies such as Dominik Hasek (above) have taken their places among the NHL's best. Here are the stats of some pioneers and their stellar successors.

PLAYER, NHL TEAMS

COUNTRY

NHL CAREER

W

L

T

GOALS-AGAINST AVE.

The First Wave

Hardy Astrom, Rangers, Rockies

Sweden

1977-78 to 1980-81

17

44

12

3.74

Jiri Crha, Maple Leafs

Czechoslovakia

1979-80 to 1980-81

28

27

11

3.97

Markus Mattsson, Jets, North Stars, Kings

Finland

1979-80 to 1983-84

21

46

14

4.11

Kari Takko, North Stars, Oilers

Finland

1985-86 to 1990-91

37

71

14

3.90

Sergei Mylnikov, Nordiques

U.S.S.R.

1989-90

1

7

2

4.96

The Latest Wave

Dominik Hasek, Blackhawks, Sabres

Czechoslovakia

1990-91 to present

186

130

55

2.29

Arturs Irbe, Sharks, Stars, Canucks, Hurricanes

Latvia

1991-92 to present

101

124

40

3.14

Mikhail Shtalenkov, Mighty Ducks, Oilers

Russia

1993-94 to present

44

66

14

3.03

Nikolai Khabibulin, Jets, Coyotes

Russia

1994-95 to present

110

98

26

2.81

Tommy Salo, Islanders

Sweden

1994-95 to present

57

85

16

2.79

Stats through Sunday

David Sabion

Long before Dominik Hasek began sealing off the cage in Buffalo and Arturs Irbe started performing film-at-11 magic with his glove in Greensboro and Nikolai Khabibulin began committing robbery in Phoenix, there was Hardy Astrom. Go ahead and smile. Astrom was the NHL's greatest punch line, if not its greatest punching bag, of the past 25 years, a Colorado Rockies goalie so poor he gave an entire mountain range a bad name. Mention him to a hockey guy today and you'll still get a grin.

But it wasn't just old Hardy Har Har, a Swede, who gave European goalies a lousy reputation during his NHL stint in the late 1970s and early '80s. The continent that provided the world with Sacher torte and coq au vin also produced Kari Takko, a Finn whose contribution to NHL goaltending was white pads, pads that remained virginal because the black puck kept going between them. There was also Sergei Mylnikov, a Russian who was dubbed Swiss Cheese by miffed Quebec Nordiques teammates. He was a goalie so uncertain of his craft that he would close his eyes on hard shots just seconds before Nordiques fans shut theirs.

There were others in those early years of migration to the NHL, Eurotrash goal-tenders with save percentages that looked like the start of a toll-free number. "Now look at them," Florida Panthers coach Terry Murray said last week, after Khabibulin had made 24 saves in a 2-2 tie against his Panthers. "European goalies are a force."

They are, in other words, hardly Astrom. They have adapted to the NHL even as the NHL has adapted to them, winning games, winning trust and dashing the prejudice that limited their opportunities at hockey's most important position—not so much a glass ceiling as a Berlitz wall.

The Eurogoalies are a disparate lot. There is the Buffalo Sabres' unorthodox Czech, Hasek, exhibiting a style that is part butterfly and part man slipping on an icy sidewalk. He's on track to win his third straight league MVP award—a feat accomplished only by Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr. There's the Carolina Hurricanes' cerebral Irbe, a Latvian who stops pucks with acrobatics as often as he does by playing the correct angles. In 1993-94 he helped the San Jose Sharks make an NHL-record 58-point turnaround from the previous season and upset the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs. Irbe lost his edge, and his game, after his dog severely bit his hand during the summer of '94 and went into a four-year slump, but at $550,000 he is the free-agent bargain of 1998-99. There's the Phoenix Coyotes' Khabibulin, a Russian who blends the butterfly style with a fast glove and could become the most prominent hybrid goalie if he ever wins a playoff series. There's Tommy Salo of the New York Islanders, a Swede with a classic European deep-in-the-crease style, who was pilloried by Islanders general manager Mike Milbury as the worst-conditioned athlete on the team during a '97 salary arbitration hearing but who this season had five shutouts at week's end. (At press time Salo was being held out of the lineup and expected to be traded because the Islanders had acquired goalie Felix Potvin last week.) There's Mikhail Shtalenkov, a 33-year-old standup netminder who helped Russia get a silver medal at the '98 Winter Olympics and has been solid as a starter for the Edmonton Oilers this season, after five years as a backup for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Add Roman Turek, a lanky Czech who's doing an outstanding job as Ed Belfour's backup for the Dallas Stars.

The only thing those goaltenders really share, other than the continent of their birth, are good numbers. Through Sunday, Hasek was first (.937), Khabibulin third (.929) and Irbe sixth (.925) in save percentage; Khabibulin and Hasek ranked fourth (1.89) and fifth (1.90), respectively, in goals-against average; and Hasek led the NHL with seven shutouts, two ahead of Irbe and Salo, who were tied for second.

"Maybe the biggest factor in their doing well is that Europeans simply are being given a chance," Coyotes general manager Bobby Smith says. "If Hasek doesn't prove the need-a-chance theory, I don't know who does. Here's a guy who was traded [from the Chicago Blackhawks to Buffalo] for a fourth-round pick [and a backup netminder]. Goalies don't get the same chance as forwards. If your 12th-best forward plays well, maybe he's your 10th forward the next night. If he does it again, maybe he's your eighth forward, and if he does it the next night, he's on your power play. But if you're the third-best goalie, you don't even get in the dressing room, and in the 1980s you didn't bring Europeans over to be third-or fourth-liners or backup goalies. So NHL teams rarely bothered."

Hasek didn't look particularly trustworthy when he arrived in the NHL at 25. He had a scarecrow's chest and a scarecrow's technique, employing such heresies as groping for the puck with his blocker hand and making saves while prone. The awkward style overshadowed his quick feet, flexibility and superb anticipation. While the property of Chicago, he wasn't going to beat out Belfour, a Vezina Trophy winner for the Blackhawks in 1990-91 and 1992-93, and he spent parts of two seasons in the minors. Even after Hasek went to Buffalo in '92, the Sabres exposed him to the waiver draft. "Everybody had a look at him," Oilers president Glen Sather says. "When he finally took Grant Fuhr's [No. 1] job in Buffalo, only then did anybody take notice." Hasek not only stopped pucks, but he also stopped what Sather called "the arrogance of the NHL."

The league's snooty attitude toward European goalies reached back at least two decades. On the eve of the Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972, two NHL scouts reported that 20-year-old goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was a sieve after he had allowed eight goals in an exhibition game. (Alas, those scouts neglected to find out that Tretiak's wedding had been the night before.) Tretiak was brilliant against Team Canada, but by starring in the nets for 15 years he probably retarded the development of later Russian goalies who, unlike him, were free to leave the former Soviet Union. During Tretiak's playing days (he retired in '84) and even into the '90s, there were no goalie camps and few goalie coaches there. "Nobody paid any attention to goaltending in Russia, because Tretiak was there," Khabibulin says. "The Russians didn't care about anyone else. Even after he retired, they had such good teams they could win a world championship or an Olympic gold medal with just a decent goalie."

Pelle Lindbergh of Sweden won the Vezina Trophy with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1984-85, five months before he died in a car crash, but he was the exception to the run of Eurogoalies that NHL shooters were eating up. There was a stream of fabulous European forwards during hockey's halting globalization of the '70s and '80s—Swedes such as Anders Hedberg, Mats Naslund and Kent and Ulf Nilsson; a Finn, Jari Kurri; a Slovak, Peter Stastny—but the crease was a wasteland. Coyotes director of hockey information Igor Kuperman, who covered the Soviet Union for the European arm of the NHL's central scouting bureau in the late '80s and early '90s, says he was instructed to not waste time on goalies. "Canadians and Americans didn't like the way we played goal—so deep, always down on our knees," Khabibulin says. "They didn't really trust us, not only Russians but all Europeans. Goaltending was like a holy job. Only Canadians should play in net, no aliens."

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