The stands at the U.S. Ice Sports Complex outside St. Louis were teeming, and spillover fans jostled for standing room four rows deep around the 750-seat rink. This was on Sept. 6, and the occasion was the Blues' first intrasquad scrimmage of the preseason. The faithful had gathered in large part to welcome their team's new goaltender, Roman Turek, and to honor him as the potential St. Louis Savior. Acquired from the Dallas Stars on June 20 for a third-round pick in that month's draft, Turek received a standing ovation when he skated onto the ice, and as the scrimmage played out, fans strained from every corner of the arena to see the big man parry pucks shot from far and near.
For the past two seasons the Blues have played defensively sound hockey, going a combined 82-61-21 despite getting spotty goaltending by several keepers. By obtaining Turek, 29, and then signing him to a three-year, $5.2 million contract, the club may have finally dipped its Achilles' heel into the Styx. "There were three goalies we were interested in, and Roman was at the top of the list," says St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau. "We've been looking for a Number 1 for a while. He has the ability. He just has to prove that he can do it."
Rarely does a goalie vault from obscurity into the limelight as swiftly as Turek has. A 6'3", 200-pound native of the Czech Republic, he spent the past two years gathering condensation on the Dallas bench while Ed Belfour manned the pipes. He didn't see a minute of playoff ice time in the Stars' run to the Stanley Cup last spring, and though he went 16-3-3 with a superior 2.02 goals-against average in 1998-99, fans outside Dallas might have thought a Roman Turek was an Italian watchtower. In hockey circles, however, he was well known.
"I've scouted him and read the reports on him from two organizations," says Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Rick Dudley, who was G.M. of the Ottawa Senators last season. "Everyone has agreed: He has excellent lateral movement and a good glove and is a strong presence in the net. He doesn't give shooters much to aim for. We felt strongly he could be a valuable starter in the NHL."
Dudley nearly gave Turek a chance to confirm that. The Stars were all but forced to trade Turek within 24 hours of winning the Cup, or they would have lost him to the Atlanta Thrashers in the expansion draft. Tampa Bay agreed to a deal that would have landed Turek for what Dudley calls "a good, established NHL player." Instead, Art Williams, the Lightning's owner at the time, scotched the trade at the last minute. With Dallas under the gun, the Blues got him for a bargain price.
Turek's move to St. Louis had a ripple effect. Still needing a goalie, Dudley acquired the New York Rangers' Dan Cloutier for the fourth pick in the draft, enabling the Rangers to select widely coveted forward Pavel Brendl. Then, last week, the Blues traded 36-year-old future Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr, who started 37 games for them in 1998-99, to the Calgary Flames to solidify Turek as their No. 1. "I'm ready for this," says Turek. "I was surprised when Grant was traded, but of course I am ready."
Turek may play more games this season than the 55 he has appeared in during his three-year NHL career. (His record is 30-14-4.) He's preparing for the added physical demands by intensifying his conditioning and lengthening his practice time, but the more essential question is whether Turek can mentally handle the pressure of being the Man. St. Louis is banking on his experience in leading the Czech Republic to the gold medal at the 1996 world championships and on the fact that scouts praise his poise. "His biggest change since coming here [ Turek played six games for Dallas in 1996-97] is his mental toughness," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said last season. "At first he was passive around the net; now he's aggressive. He challenges shooters consistently."
Turek speaks fondly of his time in Dallas and admits having suffered through a range of emotions since the Stars won the Stanley Cup. The off-season began with a bittersweet team celebration in downtown Dallas just hours after Turek was traded. In July he took the Cup to ?esk� Bud?jovice, in the Czech Republic, where the locals cheered and serenaded him outside City Hall. In late August he bought a house for himself and his family—wife Helena and seven-year-old son Eddie—in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield. That's where the U.S. Ice Sports Complex is located. If the reception Turek got when camp opened was any indication, it will feel like home in no time.