Imagine this is November 2009. Imagine, with the Olympics just around the corner, Canada’s executive director, Steve Yzerman, looking at the sky as his two best goalies – Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo – are out of action with reasonably long-term injuries. True, Canada has the depth to find replacements, but these injuries point to the great difficulty of winning Olympic gold. A great goalie can take his team to the top of the podium; an injury can have the opposite effect.
Indeed, any reasonable fan would agree that in any given tournament one of six countries can win the men’s event – Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and United States (Slovakia’s great stars from the 2002 World Championship gold have mostly retired or have passed their prime).
Each of these teams has a stud goalie, a goalie with experience, with NHL reputation, with plenty of ability. But take away that stud goalie, and what chances does the team have of winning in Vancouver just 15 months from now? Henrik Lundqvist is one of the top goalies in the NHL, with the New York Rangers, but if he were unable to play in the Olympics, would Tre Kronor be a realistic gold-medal contender?
Russia has plenty of offensive talent, but it wasn’t until Evgeni Nabokov showed up in Quebec City this past May that the team won World Championship gold, its first in 15 years. Finland is proud to have Miikka Kiprusoff in goal, but if “Kipper” goes down with the common groin injury, can Finland advance deep into the playoff round of competition? The Americans have a great duo in Ryan Miller and Rick DiPietro, but DiPietro right now is gone with a long-term injury, a potential heavy blow for the United States. Imagine the Czechs without Tomas Vokoun. Little chance for gold.
The truth is, a general manager’s careful player selections for the Olympics can come undone with one post-to-post lunge by his goalie, one extra deep stretch, one dive to the far side of the net. The irony is that selecting the goalies is probably the easiest choice a GM will have to make in compiling his roster, after which he has to cross his fingers, clutch his rosary, and pray for the goalies’ good health until the closing ceremonies.
The importance of goaltending is magnified by the parity among the top nations, a parity that is made more obvious by NHL participation. Take the great Tretiak, for instance. Of course, he was a Hall of Fame goalie, but many Soviet victories could have been accomplished with a lesser netminder simply because the defence was so good and the scoring ability so overpowering.
Go back further to the days Canada ruled international hockey, starting in 1920 and carrying on through to 1953. How many great goalies did Canada have? It’s hard to say. When a team wins 33-0 and the goalie stands by the boards and talks to fans because he knows he won’t get a single shot on goal the whole game, his importance to the team is greatly diminished.
Now think to the NHL era of the Olympics. No one in his right mind would suggest the Czechs would have won Olympic gold in 1998 without Dominik Hasek. Four years later, a sub-par opening game from Curtis Joseph gave Brodeur the chance to take Canada to gold. And, four years later, Lundqvist played the tournament of his life for the Swedes while at the other end of the goal-medal game, Antero Niittymäki had three shutouts in six games to take Finland to a silver medal.
It might well be that a forward scores a dramatic overtime goal for Olympic gold in Vancouver, or a defenceman makes a great play to help his team to victory, but no team will win gold without a great goaltender. And the goalie’s greatest responsibility between now and February 2010 will not only be consistency or great play – it will be to stay healthy. Just ask Luongo, Brodeur, and DiPietro.