You generally get it in the hospital after you've been injured in a game or during practice. The nightmare, I mean. It's just like a movie it's so clear. You're standing on the ice and there's a sudden break for your goal. Someone's taken a slap shot but you're not ready because you don't see the puck until the last instant when it's only a dark shadow coming at your face. You know it's going to hit you and there will be the pain. Then you wake up, cold sweat all over, and you're in a hospital and there's a nurse mopping your forehead."
Thus does Montreal's Jacques Plante, the masked man lying prone above, describe an accepted (though seldom admitted) hazard of his job. That job happens to be tending goal for one of the top teams in the National Hockey League. It is not an easy one, and ducking a puck on a pillow is actually the very least of Goalkeeper Plante's problems. In game after game the same unsettling situations he and his fellow goalies dream about become repetitiously and discomfortingly real.
That hammer-hard blur of blackness that is a well-shot hockey puck can come toward a goalie at speeds upwards of 100 mph. Moreover, says the Boston Bruins' former goal tender Don Simmons, who quit briefly last month when he was sent down to Providence: "You never know when one of the head-hunters [a deliberately high shooter] is going to get you." At lesser speeds, the puck can prove a subtler menace. It may slither over the ice, hit a bump and hop like a flea into the net to register a score. It may fly off a forward's stick, or carom off the skate blade of a teammate. Worst of all, it may streak toward the goal on a screen shot when the goalkeeper's vision is purposely blocked by his tormentors. In the split second during which he must protect his 24 square feet of gaping goal mouth from the intrusion of the three-inch disk, the goalie may swat at the puck with his stick, bat at it with his arms, pounce on it with his body, kick it with his skates or, if he's handy, catch it in his glove. But when he misses, he is left alone to take the blame as the flashing light behind him signals the fact that once again his team's last line of defense has been pierced.
Few, if any, Canadian boys dreaming of a future in big-league hockey actually seek to shoulder the abundance of padding and abuse that a goalie must bear. Nearly every goalie in the NHL today either fell or was pushed into his career. When Montreal's Plante was a mere twig of 10, his father gave him a goalie's stick—the only one in the neighborhood—and thus was that tree inclined. The New York Rangers' rookie Jack McCartan, now completing his pro education in the Eastern League, made the mistake of filling in at goal to prevent postponement of a schoolboy game one day when he was only 11 and he has been in the net ever since. Gump Worsley, the Rangers' No. 1 man, took the advice of a coach who sized up his 4 feet 11 inches when he was 12 and predicted he'd never make the big time any other way. And though the Black Hawks' Glenn Hall was already coach, manager and captain of a Pee Wee team at the time, he had to take over as goalie because nobody else would touch the job. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs' old (36) and seasoned (16 years in pro hockey) Johnny Bower claims he wanted the job all along. "I just made up my mind I was going to lose teeth and have my face cut to pieces, and it was easy," he explains.
All of the top goalies in the NHL admit that there are no set ways to play the position, and very few rules to success. A coach who is an ex-forward or defenseman is not much help in telling you how to play goal, say most of them.
The goalie does have, of course, a few principles to guide him, the first of which is to keep his eyes firmly fixed on the puck every second it is in play, whether it is 60 yards down the ice or six inches off the tip of the nose. This unwavering concentration can generate an almost hypnotic trance when the goalie is a rink's length away from the game. Terry Sawchuk, the veteran who this year is sharing the Detroit Red Wings' net with red-hot newcomer Hank Bassen, compares watching the puck for 60 minutes to driving a car on a turnpike. "Pretty soon," he says, "you start to doze at the wheel. When you snap awake you realize all the awful things that might have happened." To keep alert at such times, Johnny Bower plays the opposing goalie's role by proxy, fending off each of his teammates' shots in imagination. Chicago's Hall becomes nervous if left out of the action for too long, but Montreal's Plante likes to relax and enjoy the game. "We don't score any goals when the puck's up in my end," he says blandly.
Like baseball's catchers, hockey's goalies keep a mental "book" on their opponents' foibles. From notes they've collected over the years, each attempts to guess a shooter's likeliest move and prepare for it. "I see the man coming in with the puck," Terry Sawchuk explains, "and if I know his game, I know whether he shoots right-or left-handed, high or low, and I get ready." But, warns the Rangers' Worsley, "don't forget, they're keeping book on you, too." A smart forward, knowing a goalie's habits, can sometimes lure him out of position with a deft feint and slip the puck past.
Only one goalie in the NHL tries to outsmart his opponents by watching their eyes. Squinting forbiddingly out of his mask (the only one now worn regularly in the NHL since Simmons gave up), Montreal's Plante watches the puck until his man is about 20 yards out. "Then," he says, "I look at his eyes. No matter how cleverly he fakes, a man will always look where he intends to shoot. It's sure." Sure? It's sure suicide, say the other NHL goalies. But Optometrist Plante five times won a trophy for giving up the fewest goals in the league.
No matter what tricks of the trade a goalie may develop, however, his job must always be a nervous one, as the casualties in the goalie business this year (SI, Nov. 28) plainly indicate. Most goalies are chronically fidgety (Plante knits to relax) and frequently superstitious ( Sawchuk always puts on his equipment left side first; Hall carefully avoids favoring either side). Nevertheless, all profess a distinct, if peculiar, pride in living the life of a clay pigeon. Boston's Simmons, whose pride refused to let him play in a minor league, once explained it this way: "Of all the thousands of boys in Canada and the U.S. who play hockey, only six of us can play goalie in the big league at any one time." Glenn Hall has a different explanation: "We're all a little bit sick."