What’s the hardest position to play in sports? Many people say it’s quarterback in the NFL: On every play he has to process an incredible amount of information in a matter of seconds—instantly analyze the defense, understand what every player on the field is doing, trying to do, supposed to do, or might do, and almost instantly act on this information while gigantic men attempt to crush him. Even if he does everything right, he still might get squashed by a 300-pound tackle. And the NFL quarterback is also the face of his organization, with the success or failure of his team resting upon his shoulders. It’s why they’re paid so well, and why they’re so mercilessly mauled by the media and the fan base when they fail.
Sounds like a tough job. So why do so many kids want to become an NFL QB? It’s because quarterbacks are stars, smiling in front of the camera, leading their teams and, when things are going well, beloved by all. It’s normal to want to be a quarterback, which means that, on some level, it can’t be the hardest position to play because so many people want a shot at it.
The hardest position in sports is the one that seemingly no sane person wants to take on. And no position in sports has gathered more odd ducks—and outright lunatics—than that of NHL goalie. Goalies are asked to stand—hunch, really—between pipes made of 2.375-inch-thick galvanized steel while vulcanized rubber pucks are rocketed at them at upwards of 100 m.p.h. The reflexes needed to avoid taking a puck to the face (yes, they wear masks, but no amount of carbon fiber, fiberglass or Kevlar can keep you fully lucid after having a frozen rubber rock bounced off your head) are beyond cat-like. They’re more cat-on-speed-like. And in overtime, an NHL goalie is It. A puck gets by him and the game’s over. Oh, and you have to deal with all that while wearing 30 pounds of pads, holding a five-foot-long stick and standing on ice skates.
All of that may explain why the position has been a siren song for eccentric people. Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ron Hextall was said to lock himself in a room before games and scream. Former St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers goalie Gilles Gratton claimed to be the reincarnation of a Spanish conquistador, and, with a lion emblazoned on his mask (he was a Leo), once pulled himself from a game because he said the stars were improperly aligned. Former Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues goalie Glenn Hall reputedly threw up before every game. As Canada’s The Globe and Mail recalled, former Chicago Blackhawk Tony Esposito used to cordon off his equipment from the rest of the team and cover his entire body in deep-heating rub before games. Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup winner and Hall of Famer Patrick Roy was infamous for talking to the goalposts, refusing to skate on the blue or red lines, and keeping a locker filled with pucks from every shutout he had recorded during that season.
Into this madness skates goaltender Carey Price (Ulkatcho First Nation), a preternaturally calm and wholly sane goaltender. He has amassed a stellar career with the Montreal Canadiens already, and he’s only 23. This is surprising to those who follow hockey, simply because goalie is a position that is so stressful, physically and mentally, that those who mind an NHL net have notoriously been, well, a little off. It’s true that goalies have gotten a bit more normal in recent years, not quite occupying the mental-health quarantine of the league, as The New York Times once put it. Thanks to goaltending coaches, high-tech video equipment that helps them break down every movement, and well-adjusted role models like the legendary Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils; the position has seen something of a makeover. Yet Price still stands out as extraordinarily Zen-like, strange enough for a goalie and even more so for one so young.
“Carey’s always been calm like that, even when we were little,” the Florida Panthers Keaton Ellerby, Price’s cousin, told The Globe and Mail. When the paper asked Price what made him so calm, he told them it might have to do with growing up in the middle of nowhere. “There’s not a lot to get excited about. And I think a lot of it comes from my parents and the way they raised me.” He was raised in Anahim Lake, British Columbia. His mom, Lynda, was the chief of the Ulkatcho nation, his non-Native dad, Jerry, played goalie in the minors and helped coach Carey when he was young. Carey’s got more family in the league in the form of Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who is his second cousin. “My dad’s constantly telling Carey he’s the spitting image of Jerry on the ice,” Ellerby said, “he looks like he’s half asleep out there, but he still stops pucks.”
Price’s physical presence, he stands six-foot-three, coupled with having been steeped in goaltending theory and practice since he was in diapers, give him a gracefulness on the ice that has Montreal fans believing they’ve got the future of goaltending in their net. His work ethic has drawn the praise of his teammates and coaches, who see a young man who is both easygoing in the locker room yet incredibly dedicated to becoming truly great. The Canadiens former goaltender coach, Roland Melanson, has called Price a special package. Teammates have noted that it has gotten to the point with his work ethic and concentration where letting in a soft goal during the morning skate around bothers him.
This is made all the more impressive considering that he plays in one of the madhouses of hockey fandom, a city that demands its hockey team, and most of all, its goalie, to be the best in the league. Price’s mettle was tested during the 2010 playoffs, when he had his first bitter taste of failure on the professional level following a mind-blowing introduction to the league. After being the fifth overall draft pick in 2005, being named NHL rookie of the month in March of 2008, named to the 2007–2008 NHL All-Rookie team, and picked as a starter for the 2009 All-Star game, Price looked like he could do no wrong. Then, last year in the postseason, he came apart against the Washington Capitals in game four of the best of seven series, giving up three goals in six minutes in the third period. He was benched for Game 5, and his replacement, Jaroslav Halák, went on a tear. The Canadiens ended up beating both the Caps and then the Penguins but lost to the Flyers in the conference finals. Price regained his starting position at the outset of this season, but Canadiens fans wondered if he would regain his all-star form after such a public flop.
The answer is “No”—he would be better. Price made 27 saves in the Canadiens 3-2 overtime victory over the Boston Bruins on Jan. 8, and he has been sensational for the Habs all season. He was first in the NHL to reach 21 wins, making him just the seventh goalie in NHL history to post three 20-win seasons before his 24th birthday. At press time, he was ninth in the league with a 2.35 goals-against average and has his highest all-time save percentage: .920. He has notched three overtime wins, and a shootout win, and a career high four shutouts, at only the halfway point of the season. He was named to the 2011 NHL All-Star team. Price told The Globe and Mail that he learned what it is to lose in the NHL, and he didn’t like it one bit.
So yes, playing goalie in the NHL is very hard. Playing goalie for the Montreal Canadiens is crazy hard. Montreal fans are as rabid and demanding as soccer fans are in England—the intensity at which the entire province of Quebec follows every breath of a player is akin to a pack of rabid tweenage girls following the career of Justin Bieber. These fans are also accustomed to excellence; the aforementioned Patrick Roy plied his trade in the “city of Saints” for more than 10 seasons, where he won the Stanley Cup twice (and managed to win the Conn Smythe trophy for the best player in the playoffs after leading Montreal to the Cup at the age of 20.) In 2004, The Hockey News asked a panel of 41 sportswriters and, simultaneously, polled NHL fans to name the greatest goaltender of all time. Roy was the overwhelming choice. Yet Price seems unfazed at the daunting prospect of filling those skates. As The Globe and Mail reported, you’ll often find the young goalie sitting serenely at his stall in a corner of the Canadiens lavish locker room, beneath a framed photograph of the immortal Saint Roy.
If Price keeps improving, there’s a decent chance that one day, some young goalie will be gearing up beneath az framed photo of him. Chances are, that young goalie won’t be nearly as calm.