The attribute most critical to a goalie's success, however, is his ability to concentrate. The puck bounces often and, many times, unfairly. Vanbiesbrouck, 27 years old and now in his seventh full season, has learned how to maintain his focus even when he's going badly. Richter has yet to experience the first slump of his young NHL career, but he understands that it will inevitably come and appears to have already developed the strong concentration he'll need when it does.
"You're really playing against yourself," Richter says. "You have to learn what you can control and what you can't, and not let what you can't control affect your confidence."
That philosophy allows a goalie to retain a sense of self-worth—and to sleep at least somewhat restfully—when times are tough. However, it does not necessarily provide comfort for his coach, who is aware that continued employment may depend on the delicate matter of keeping his goaltenders confident and happy.
Goaltenders are not conditioned to think like starting pitchers, who understand that signs of fatigue or weakness will bring a manager to the mound and a call to the bullpen. For a goalie, it is humiliating to be pulled in the middle of the game. The coincidence of having two U.S.-born goalies on the same team, while rare, is not particularly meaningful to Ranger coach Roger Neilson. But when the subject comes up, Neilson is well-advised not to refer to Vanbiesbrouck and Richter as Yanks. It is never a good idea to use the term "yank" around a goalie.
It is similarly distressing to a goaltender to have his next start canceled. No matter how often a goalie says it makes sense for his team to stay with the other netminder as long as the club is winning, it is contrary to his competitive nature to sincerely accept inactivity. Confidences are lost and resentments build, which is why many two-goalie systems fail.
The one in New York, however, seems comfortable, largely because Vanbiesbrouck, the veteran, has matured and doesn't resent Richter's intrusion. The Rangers' success, of course, also helps. So does the fact that even when one of the goalies outplays the other, Neilson has not deviated from the pattern of alternate starts since the season opener.
Richter certainly has no complaints. About anything. He is the friendly kid next door, an ail-American in every way except that all his life the Philadelphia-born Richter has wanted to be a goalie. Boxers, basketball players and hoagies come from Philly. Not goaltenders.
Interest in hockey boomed in the Philadelphia area when the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and '75, but, at the same time, high energy costs closed rinks and diminished opportunities for kids to play the game. When Richter, who grew up in the suburb of Flourtown, felt he wasn't getting enough ice time against good competition, he bought a sliding board that simulated ice so he could improve his lateral movement. His passion for goaltending got a big boost when, at 13, he was given the chance to attend a summer hockey school at which his idol, the Flyers' Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent, was an instructor.
When Richter was 15, he was selected for a national training program for the best midget (ages 14 to 16) players, and there he discovered that he could compete with the best players from Minnesota, Wisconsin and New England.
At 17, Richter enrolled at Northwood Prep in Lake Placid, N.Y., where his older brother, Joe, also a goalie, had spent his senior year. North-wood plays a schedule laced with college junior varsity teams, which provides not only tough competition but also exposure to recruiters. Richter chose Wisconsin over Harvard a month before the 1985 NHL draft. The Flyers hoped to take him in the third round. The Rangers grabbed him in the second.