There may be no more bizarre position in sports than hockey goaltender, the equivalent of a human bull's-eye.
The great Jacques Plante summed it up this way:
"Imagine sitting at your desk. You make a mistake. A red light goes on behind you, a siren starts sounding and 18,000 people are yelling at you. That's what it's like to be a goaltender."
It is a thankless task and in fact there are fewer goaltenders (33) in the Hockey Hall of Fame than any other position and none have been inducted since 1993 when Billy Smith went in.
Johnny Bower, one of the honored 33, noted the inequity but pointed out a mathematical reason for it. "The odds are against us," he said. "There are 18 skaters and two goalies on a team. Figure it out."
Netminders are a breed apart. Montreal's Bill Durnan, another Hall of Famer who won the Vezina Trophy six times in seven seasons, was convinced that he should stop every shot. He once had four consecutive shutouts and a streak of 309 minutes, 21 seconds without giving up a goal. Eventually, the pressure of trying to be perfect every night caught up with him and he asked out.
The Canadiens replaced Durnan in the midst of the 1950 playoffs with Gerry McNeil. Before a pivotal game, the two goalies went off for a private meeting. When coach Dick Irvin found them, Durnan and McNeil were sitting together, weeping. Durnan never played another game.
That story and many others are in a new book "Without Fear," which ranks the 50 greatest goalies, with commentary on each from Bower. The top five are Patrick Roy, Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall, Plante and Dominik Hasek. Bower is No. 18.
Missing from the list is Gilles Gratton, who might not have qualified for his goaltending skills but should have made it for his imagination.
Gratton, an accomplished classical pianist, believed he had been reincarnated, a returnee from an earlier time in history. When he had stomach pains that doctors could not diagnose, he explained it was in the same spot where he had been wounded by a lance in the Spanish Inquisition.
Plante, of course, was the king of eccentricity. When he traveled to Toronto, he refused to stay in the team hotel, the Royal York, convinced that the cleanser used there brought on attacks of asthma.
Traded to New York, he loved to explore the city, particularly its college campuses. He often walked around them to kill time, explaining, "I absorb the knowledge."
When he enjoyed a goaltending renaissance with the Rangers, he glowed. "I am old and slow," he said. "I cannot get out of the way of the puck."
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