Sunday, December 12, 2010

Howard Not Fearless; He's Just Playing That Way

Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, for those old enough to recall, was a bruising winger for the Philadelphia Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” teams of the 1970s. Schultz could occasionally put the puck into the net, but his specialty was the right cross.

His nickname wasn’t “The Hammer” because of his beautiful hockey skills, let’s put it that way.

Schultz didn’t appear to play with any fear. The only scared players on the ice when he was playing were members of the opposing team.

Wrong, according to Schultz’s former teammate, Bill Clement.

“Dave Schultz taught me that courage isn’t the absence of fear,” Clement said on a recent NHL Network special chronicling the game’s tough guys. “Courage is defined by how you confront your fears.”

Schultz confronted his fears by beating the tar out of guys not wearing Flyer orange and black.

However you choose to define it, I believe there are no more courageous men in pro sports than hockey goalies.

You might say there are no crazier men than goalies.

Put arrogant and cocky in there as well for some of the very best goalies of all time.

Patrick Roy is less popular in Detroit than ketchup on a coney, but you can’t help but admire his bursting sense of confidence.

That’s thinly-veiled code for cockiness, but there you have it.

Roy, the Hall of Fame goalie and multiple Stanley Cup winner, played the game with disdain for the shooters who bore down on him. He sneered and smirked and believed that he was above reproach—or being scored on. He was more arrogant than a customer service rep in a booming economy.

In the 1996 Western Conference Finals, Roy’s Colorado Avalanche raced to a 3-1 series lead over the Red Wings, largely due to winning Games 1 and 2 in Detroit.

Finally, in Game Five the Red Wings beat Roy’s Avs at Joe Louis Arena.

Talking to the press after the game, Roy was asked about the Red Wings.

“Well, you’d think they’d win a home game sooner or later,” Roy said with a smirk and in his French-Canadian accent, drenched with smarminess.

Roy and the Avalanche dumped the Red Wings out of the playoffs in the next game played in Denver. Four games after that, Roy had won his third Stanley Cup.

Patrick Roy was the most arrogant, cocky, showboating goalie I’ve ever seen in my 41 years of watching hockey.

It wasn’t until after Roy retired that I fully appreciated his greatness and the edge that he had over his fellow net-minders and opposing scorers.

To play goalie in the NHL, and to play it in rarefied air, you can’t step onto the ice hoping the puck hits you and not the back of the net. You have to expect to stop pucks, and be genuinely surprised when you fail to do so.

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is in his second full season—the dreaded sophomore campaign following a brilliant rookie year.

Sports history says—or many would have you believe—that a kid’s second season is the one fraught with pitfalls, trap doors, and banana peels.

Howard was nearly the league’s Rookie of the Year last season. After several years of knocking on the door, being on the peripheral of the Red Wings’ goaltending depth chart, Howard kicked the door down and helped bail his team out of some sticky situations.

Over the summer, in my self-anointed wisdom, I wrote that of all the players on the Red Wings’ talent-laden roster, only one had a real chance of fouling things up for the team’s chances; that would be one James Howard, the sophomore goalie.

Not only is Howard not succumbing to any sophomore jinx—whether a real or imagined phenomenon—he’s acquiring, almost game-by-game, that swagger so vital to a goaltender’s success.

It’s in his body language. It’s in his post-game comments. It’s in his nastiness on the ice, mixing it up with opponents who dare to invade his crease.

The Red Wings have their goalie of the next several years, and by then who knows how supremely confident Jimmy Howard will be?

He couldn’t be learning from a better mentor.

Chris Osgood, the 38-year-old backup, is another, net-minder brimming with confidence. Osgood, for my money, is up there with Roy and the other greats of his era in terms of mental toughness.

You can bend Osgood, but you can’t break him.

Osgood has let in some of the worst goals in Stanley Cup playoff history, but he’s bounced back from every one of them to the tune of twice leading the Red Wings to Stanley Cups.

If it wasn’t for Osgood’s play during the 2008 Cup run when he replaced the sieve-like Dominik Hasek five games into the first round, the Red Wings don’t win the Stanley Cup. Simple as that.

Osgood, in his heyday, would look you in the eye and choose his words carefully, honestly, and with a belief that he’s very good—which he was.

He would tell us not to worry—he wasn’t nearly as bothered by his soft goals as the hockey denizens in Detroit were, certainly.

Then he’d go out the next game and post a shutout or damn close to it.

Jimmy Howard is growing up exponentially before our very eyes. He’s not bothered by too much. Slowly but surely Howard is becoming a cocky, nasty SOB guarding the Red Wings’ net.

Oh, he’s still a fine young man—respectful and patient and courteous with reporters, which is something Roy often lacked.

But watch Jimmy Howard closely the next time the Red Wings play. Watch how he is stopping shots a little more effortlessly this season. Watch how he gives the business to those who give him a snow shower or who get a little too physical in the crease.

Watch him—because he’s playing with a rougher edge than last season. His confidence is growing in leaps and bounds—mainly because all he’s been doing for a season and a third is winning hockey games for one of the best teams on the planet.

Howard has fears—you bet he has. There isn’t a man who’s played goalie who hasn’t.

But he’s confronting those fears just fine.

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