TORONTO – The Triple Gold Club is perhaps the most exclusive club in hockey. In order to be a member, you must be a combination of incredibly skilled and very lucky. To date, only 19 players have won the three most important championships available to the sport — Olympic gold, the Stanley Cup, and World Championship gold. Of those 19, five are defencemen and 14 forwards. Not a single goalie on the list.
The Triple Gold Club is, first and foremost, a modern fraternity. Up until 1977, no North American NHLers had any chance to win the two international components of the club because the IIHF didn’t allow pros at the Olympics and World Championships. And until the early 1980s, most Europeans had no chance to win the Stanley Cup because, with a few exceptions, NHL teams didn’t use Europeans. Indeed, Russians never had the chance to play in the NHL until at least 1990 and on.
Of course, any team is made up of usually seven defencemen, 13 forwards, and two goalies, so numerically goalies have far fewer chances to win all three prizes. In order to win the Stanley Cup, a goalie needs to be an exceptional player on an exceptional team. A forward, for instance, can be a checker, a part-timer, a role player, and still win the Cup (but no such forward would ever be named to his national team). No goalie ever won the Cup with mediocre play. A goalie must also have good timing in that he has to be on a team that has, over a period of several years, been built to win the Cup. Indeed, many great goalies have never won the Stanley Cup.
To win the Olympic gold requires even greater skill and greater luck. Although the IIHF has 65 member nations, only about seven nations have a realistic chance to win the gold. Each of these nations have strong and deep pools of talent, and for a goalie to be named to his country’s Olympic team means he not only has to be a superstar, he has to play even better than the other two goalies named to the team, play better than the top goalies on the other seven top teams, and be surrounded by a group of players of exceptional talent who are well coached and gel quickly to win this short but important event.
The almost equal chances of winning among the top teams in the Olympics is reflected in the recent winners. In 1994, it was Russia. Four years later, the Czech Republic, followed by Canada in 2002 and Sweden in 2006. In short, for goalies, winning Olympic gold happens to your nation probably once in your career, and you have to be named to the team during that time. That is a rare group right there.
Then there is the World Championships, an event closed to NHLers until 1977 and held every year during the start of the NHL playoffs. The goalie who wins the gold at this event must be a spectacular goalie but one “blessed” to be not on a playoff team that particular year. Herein lies the contradiction between Stanley Cup champion and World Champion. To accomplish this rare double, a goalie must be on a team that grows over several years. The team must struggle to make the playoffs (during which time he can possibly win World Championship gold) and then flourish thereafter (giving him a Cup chance).
If all of this seems improbable, it is. After all, no goalie has yet won all three events. Who are the close calls? Two names stick out immediately: Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek. Brodeur has won three Cups with New Jersey as well as the Olympic gold in 2002 with Canada. He has also had two close calls at the World Championships, most recently in 2005 at the end of the lockout season when he and Canada lost 3-0 to the Czech Republic in the gold-medal game. Brodeur also played in 1996 when Canada won silver again to Czech gold.
Hasek, of course, led his nation to that historic gold at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and won his Cup with Detroit. His “problem” has been that he has been so good for much of his NHL career that he has always taken his team to the playoffs almost every year so (notably Buffalo and the Red Wings) that he has never been available for the World Championships. And, earlier in his career when he did play, the Soviets were at the height of their powers. Like Brodeur, the closest he came was a silver, in 1983, when the Soviets won gold during the era of the round-robin format. Hasek also won three bronze medals — in 1987, 1989, and 1990 — but the World Championship gold has eluded him.
What about for the immediate future? Hasek is almost too old to be considered a possibility, and Brodeur has reached the age when he might never want to play in the World Championship any more. Henrik Lundqvist is the goalie of the present and future for Sweden, but his New York Rangers aren’t likely to challenge for the Cup any time soon. Ditto for Canada’s Roberto Luongo, who plays for the Vancouver Canucks. Miikka Kiprusoff is a long-shot with both Finland and the Calgary Flames, even though he’s as good as any goalie in the world today. And the Russians? Well, ironically, they have plenty of talent to win any event they enter, but there is no goalie in their country that could possibly be compared to the elite goalies of other top nations. You can put Slovakia in that group, too. The Americans are prohibitive outsiders these days for Olympic gold, and since they have not won World Championship gold since 1933, it hardly seems likely that Ryan Miller or Rick DiPietro can perform that miracle for Team USA.
In short, a Triple Gold Club goalie is not only non existent today, it seems the chances of having one join the club, so to speak, is still many years away. When one does join the ranks of Naslund, Forsberg, Larionov and Pronger, he will be both a tremendous puck-stopper and a lucky one.