You fly to Stockholm, jump into a car, head west, and an hour and a half later you hit Bars and Stars, a multistory pleasure palace in Vasteras that offers a nightclub, a memorabilia-crammed sports bar, a restaurant and a sauna—basically the most fun a Swede can have without telling a Norwegian joke. Two of the bar's owners are Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings, who is widely recognized as the best defenseman in the world, and Tommy Salo of the Edmonton Oilers, the best goalie in the world who is virtually unrecognized.
Question: If Salo is an owner, can there be a Happy Hour? Grinchlike features on a pasty face and a manner as detached as an airline clerk's camouflage the happiest man in Edmonton. He is diffident, not dour. "Of course I'm happy," says Salo, who last year signed a three-year, $10.4 million extension. "What is there to complain about?"
This is the best of all possible worlds for Salo, barring a second Olympic gold medal and a few playoff series in the coming year. He is a new father. He loves his team, adores his coach and cares so much about his city that he cut a $160,000 check to Edmonton last week to fund an inner-city hockey program there. Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, like all men in his profession, sometimes asks his players to look in the mirror, but Salo is so laconic that MacTavish should ask him to hold a mirror under his nostrils to show that he's breathing.
When MacTavish approached Salo early last season to discuss something, Salo, without a hint of impudence, told him, "You don't have to talk to me. The only time you have to talk to me is to tell me when I'm not playing." Considering that Salo has started 109 of 123 games since MacTavish took over the Oilers at the beginning of the 2000-01 season, including a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday that left Edmonton with the second-best record (19-10-4-2) in the Western Conference, their conversations have been rare. In the twitchy world of goalies, there is high maintenance, low maintenance and Salo, who is no maintenance. "He's pretty quiet," says Lidstrom, who has known Salo since junior hockey. "Even by Swedish standards."
Salo is the latest in the long line of outstanding goaltenders who have played for the Oilers in their 23 NHL seasons. This legacy was born of necessity as much as the singular talents of past netminders such as Andy Moog, Grant Fuhr and Curtis Joseph. Edmonton's fire-wagon style, with defense-men pinching in the offensive zone and closing hard in the neutral zone, invariably leads to odd-man counterattacks that force Oilers goalies to make an inordinate number of what MacTavish calls five-bell saves. Salo, who faces as many good scoring chances as any goalie on a playoff-bound team, allows the Oilers to play like the Oilers. "You don't feel bad about taking an extra risk," defenseman Tom Poti says. "We know Tommy's going to clean up."
Salo, a sprite at 5'11" and 173 pounds, thrives because he reads the attack as quickly as Evelyn Wood grads skim Tolstoy. In Edmonton's 2-1 home loss to league-leading Detroit last Thursday, Lidstrom rifled a cross-ice pass from the point through the Oilers' penalty-killing box to Brendan Shanahan, who was positioned for a one-timer in the left face-off circle. Perhaps 25% of NHL goalies make that save, sliding across and foiling Shanahan with a flailing leg or stick. Salo made it by pushing off his left skate, moving laterally to the right and being square to the puck by the time Shanahan's blast reached the goal, making Salo's bravura stop look like merely a good one. "He's the best in the league at stopping the goalmouth one-timer, because of his hockey sense," MacTavish says. "A lot of goalies can't feel where the threats are, can't tell how the offense is developing. Tommy reads it better than anyone."
This is a small claim to fame for a goaltender—not even the award-happy NHL has a prize for "best at stopping goalmouth one-timers"—but it's better than being honored for "best at turning into a quivering hunk of Jell-o at an arbitration hearing." That dubious distinction, earned by Salo when New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury carved him a new five-hole in August 1997, got more media attention than the five stops Salo made in Sweden's shootout against Canada in the Olympic final three years earlier. Of course, the Olympics happen every four years, but what Salo's agent, Rich Winter, called "character assassination" by Milbury apparently was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Salo. Milbury assailed him for his poor physical condition and his penchant for giving up soft goals, and adding injury to insult, he was awarded only a one-year, $750,000 contract.
"It's still brought up all the time," Salo says of Milbury's remarks. "It really hurt my reputation." He denies having cried during the hearing but admits to having been shaken. "The arbitration case," says Kevin Prendergast, Edmonton's VP of hockey operations, "just about killed the guy."
If Milbury didn't have much use for Salo, the Oilers always had been intrigued by him. Through the web of connections that spider through any sport, Ron Low, then the Edmonton coach, was being fed a steady diet of effusive praise for Salo by Butch Goring, a close friend who had coached Salo to championships in the International League in 1995 and '96. After Joseph left Edmonton as a free agent in July '98 and the goal-tending fell to the sometimes hard hands of Mikhail Shtalenkov and Bob Essensa, the Oilers got Salo from the Islanders in March '99 for a song: spare forward Mats Lindgren and an eighth-round draft choice.
Joseph was a galvanizing figure whose departure intensified the lament of a small-market franchise that had been priced out of the NHL for years, but in Salo the Oilers found an inspired, relatively cheap replacement. The team was at the yawn of a new era in goaltending—Salo couldn't do the snow angel like the flashy Joseph, but his unassuming professional and personal style eventually insinuated him into the fabric of Edmonton. "He's very close to where Cujo was in terms of popularity," Prendergast says. "He doesn't have Cujo's flair, but we have knowledgeable fans, and they see, game in and game out, what Tommy does. You can't trick 'em."