The hour was late, the tab was open, and, as he gazed across a New York City saloon at Patrick Roy earlier this season, Greg de Vries uttered the type of declarative statement often heard in that kind of place and at that time of night. "We are playing," De Vries announced to fellow Colorado Avalanche defensemen Rob Blake and Adam Foote, "with the greatest goalie who ever lived."
This is a wonderful bar-stool debate: Who is the best NHL netminder of all time? There's no indisputable proof, not even 86 proof. The numbers in Roy's favor are staggering—the 36-year-old Avalanche goalie, who had 514 NHL regular-season victories through Sunday, zoomed past Terry Sawchuk last season. Roy's four Stanley Cups, three Conn Smythe Trophies as postseason MVP and the Hart Trophy he deserves to win this year as the top regular-season performer merely make his case robust, not bulletproof. Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee says Roy, who is also the career leader in playoff wins (137), "could be the top money goalie ever," but to pronounce Roy the no-doubt-about-it best is to invite a whiskey rebellion from backers of a pair who starred 40 years ago: the pugnacious Sawchuk, whose 103 shutouts led Roy by 43, and the eccentric Jacques Plante, whose seven Vezina Trophies as the NHL's top goalie is four more than Roy's. ( Roy's contemporary, 37-year-old Dominik Hasek of the Detroit Red Wings, has won six Vezinas, but his 288 victories pale by comparison.) No, we're taking this argument outside—outside the box of numbers and awards—by saying that Roy is the most important goalie in history.
Roy didn't write the book on goaltending. Plante did—like most netminders of his generation, Roy read Devant le Filet ("In Front of the Net"), by the goalie who popularized the use of the mask—but Roy redefined the position. He conquered the game with his pioneering butterfly style, but he also helped change the equipment by working with Koho, which manufactures his pads, to make them lighter. " Roy revolutionized equipment," says Anaheim Mighty Ducks G.M. Pierre Gauthier. "Goalies are so good now because the equipment is better. Patrick did that."
Any goalie who drops to his knees to cover the bottom of the net wearing six-pound leg pads rather than the old nine-pounders should genuflect to Roy, even though he was not the original butterfly goalie. Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame, used variations of the butterfly decades before Roy made it the standard. The stand-up netminder and the reflex goalie still dot the bloated 30-team NHL, but they are as anachronistic as a slide rule. Roy stands square to the shooters, playing the percentages by taking away shots along the ice and forcing them to beat him top shelf. Roy has taken goaltending from die realm of artistry to that of science. He is, in that sense, the first modern goalie.
"There's no doubt with the style he plays and success he's had, people mirror him," says Calgary Flames netminder Mike Vernon, who broke into the NHL in 1985-86, the year Roy led the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup as a rookie. "You can try to mirror someone's style, but it's what's inside that makes the player. With Patty, it's determination and will."
Roy's influence on Colorado this year is immeasurable—at least by Avalanche captain Joe Sakic's reckoning. Before practice last Friday, some 12 hours after Roy's 30 saves had led the Avalanche to a 3-2 win against the Sharks in San Jose, Sakic estimated that Roy had stolen close to 10 games this season for a sputtering team that otherwise would be scrambling just to make the playoffs instead of clinging to second place in the Western Conference. After practice Sakic amended the total to "at least double digits." Then the slump-shouldered Roy walked by. "Make it 30," Sakic boomed. "He's stolen 30 for us. That's what Patty will tell you."
There was not even die trace of a grin in response to Sakic's good-natured jibe—as usual, Roy gave away little—but there have been confirmed sightings of full-blown smiles and even dressing-room guffaws this season. "No one will mistake him for Alan Alda," says Avalanche left wing Mike Keane, who has played with Roy for nine-plus seasons in two cities, longer than any other player, "but he's been cracking a smile this season, and that's something you never saw before. This is a different Patrick. He knows he's at the back end of his career, and he doesn't want to be remembered just as the a———who thought winning was the only thing. Now it's about winning and having fun."
The change washed over Roy midway through last season after a talk with Raymond Bourque, the Avalanche defenseman who was playing his final year. Bourque told Roy to unclench his fists and unclutter his mind. For 16 years Roy had been swamped by expectations—Montreal's, Colorado's, his own. He was being consumed by his brilliance and the need to reaffirm it on every shot he faced. The burden was almost too much to bear until Bourque pointed out the futility of even trying. With Bourque's counsel, Roy realized he had been going about his profession backward. "I was playing with a hatred for losing," Roy says. "Maybe I should have been playing with a love for winning."
The modification in his approach probably saved the 2001 Cup for Colorado, allowing Roy to shrug off his puckhandling gaffe of near-Bucknerian proportions in Game 4 in New Jersey. It was a mistake that led to a Devils victory and might have unhinged him at any other time in his career. The change also crystallized Roy's thinking about participating in the 2002 Olympics. The desire to see his 13-year-old son, Jonathan, play in a rollicking peewee tournament in Roy's hometown of Quebec City was the overriding factor in the decision to remove his name from consideration, but in a telephone conversation with Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky a few days before withdrawing in November, Roy said he was contemplating retirement after the season. If he was going to quit, he told Gretzky, he wanted to marshal his energy for one final run at the Cup. The possibility that this is Roy's last year seems remote now. Colorado will pay him $8.5 million next season, and his health, other than the occasional flare-up of arthritis in his hips, is good. Like Bourque, he will know when to go. Roy is on the back nine of his career. He just isn't sure which hole.
There is no urgency for him to hang around to put the record for career victories out of the reach of 29-year-old Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who through Sunday trailed Roy by 195, but there is no urgency to leave because of a decline in the level of his play. This has been a career season for Roy, who went four months without a road defeat. His goals-against average, which has dropped in each of the past five years, was 1.97 after he was excused for the night with 11:40 left last Saturday by referee Dan Marouelli for going postal following Phoenix Coyotes rookie krystofer Kolanos's scoring on a penalty shot to give the Coyotes a 4-3 lead. ( Roy didn't agree with die call for a penalty shot.) Roy's .924 save percentage was .005 behind that of Montreal's Jos� Th�odore, the NHL leader. There are external factors reflected in Roy's outstanding numbers—this is, after all, the Dead Puck era—but any loss of quickness that has accompanied his advancing age has been fought to a stalemate by enhanced knowledge and a feral desire to compete.