VANCOUVER – As the men came from all destinations across North America and Europe to Vancouver, much of the attention is directed at the goalies. The men behind the masks are perceived as critical to a team’s success at the Olympics. Who’s hot and who’s not dominate the discussions as team’s fortunes seem to rest on the shoulders of the men in big equipment stationed in the blue ice. And yet, maybe the attention is misdirected.
Consider the important international tournaments since the 1976 Canada Cup when international hockey became a professional enterprise and all top nations could use all of their top players regardless of amateur status. When you think of that Canada Cup, you think of Darryl Sittler’s overtime winner. Many people don’t even recall that goalie Rogie Vachon played every minute of the tournament for Canada.
When you think Miracle on Ice, you think Mike Eruzione or Mark Johnson. Jim Craig played a prominent role in the American victory, but it wasn’t his play alone that gave the U.S. that historic victory and the gold medal. When you think of the 1984, 1987, and 1991 Canada Cup wins by Canada, you think of Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux. The goaltenders were surely not the main reason why Canada won those events.
When you think about 2002, Martin Brodeur is not the first name to come to mind. There was the leadership of Lemieux, the press conference by Gretzky, the heroics of Steve Yzerman playing under pain, the emergence of young Jarome Iginla and the discipline of Theo Fleury.
The Soviets have dominated the IIHF international events, but perhaps the only time the great Vladislav Tretiak can be said to have been the difference between winning and losing was the 1981 Canada Cup. The final was played at the Forum in Montreal, and the first half of the game was totally dominated by the home side. Only the incredible play of Tretiak kept the score tied, 1-1, and then the Soviet attack – and poor Canadian goaltending – led to CCCP victory.
There are two other clear examples of goaltending winning an event almost single-handedly – the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 Olympics. It is irrefutable that Mike Richter and Dominik Hasek were the main reasons why the Americans and Czechs won those two events. But think about the 2006 Olympics. Did Sweden win because of Henrik Lundqvist? No, Tre Kronor won because of Mats Sundin’s great play and leadership and Nicklas Lidström’s goal ten seconds into the third period of the gold-medal game.
On the flip side, no team can win with poor goaltending. Think about the most recent World U20 Championship when Jake Allen played so poorly in the deciding game for Canada. If you are a Czech fan, Canada didn’t win the ’76 Canada Cup because of Sittler’s goal so much as the Czechs lost because of a bad habit of Vladimir Dzurilla to come far out of his goal to play the angles.
Of course, in all the other examples, there is one common element. The goalies may not have been the team’s best player, but they also weren’t a liability. In other words, at this high level, it is often good, solid goaltending that can take a team to victory. So long as the goalie doesn’t let in a demoralizing goal – on a wraparound, a long shot, a simple shot that sneaks between the pads – a team can win. Brodeur in 2002 wasn’t other-worldly spectacular, but he was rock solid and didn’t let in a weak or “bad” goal.
So hockey fans of the big nations, relax. If your goalie isn’t your favourite player, your team can still win. So long as he doesn’t let in a stinker.