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Mentors of Masked Men
by Chris Foreman, Correspondent

Hockey becomes more specialized each year. Oxymorons such as "defensive forward" and "offensive defensemen" are stalwarts in our puck jargon. Teams plug players into roles as checkers who play with the lead and power-play virtuosos. There seem to be players who only play Thursday nights when there is a full moon against teams from cities that begin with the letter "A." By the turn of the century, we could have a separate Zamboni driver for each period.

Perhaps it's not that preposterous, yet, but positions now exist for trained professionals that weren't previously available in the sport. One such post is the goaltending consultant.

What was once a fallacy is now a religion, as no fewer than 19 teams employ an erstwhile puckstopper of some variety to advise today's netminders, particularly the younger specimen. These instructors are indispensable, as with such a technical position, each movement requires justification. Any action which disrupts the routine can destroy the flow of motion and could eventually frustrate a goalie. An even level of confidence is vital, as the player should never become too comfortable or too disenchanted. Since these masked men are such an integral component of a franchise's foundation, clubs are assuring that they properly teach them their craft.

A diluted talent pool from league-expansion, or more defensive systems may help explain why goals-against averages are rapidly decreasing and save percentages are swiftly increasing. Notwithstanding, a notion quickly receiving responsibility for the glut of glorious goalies are the consultants who counsel them.

One of the more notorious culprits is Francois Allaire. Previously Patrick Roy's mentor in Montreal, Anaheim credits Allaire with accelerating the revival of the Mighty Ducks defender of the crease, Guy Hebert.

Following a winless October (0-6-2; 4.24 GAA) in which he looked out of sync, Hebert rattled off exceptional numbers in the succeeding three months. He welcomed November and injured teammate Paul Kariya's return by posting a 4-3-2 mark and 2.20 GAA. December delivered cooler temperatures to most of the hockey world, but Hebert was an inextinguishable fire, surrendering just 18 goals in nine games. Hebert attained a season-high win total in January (7-5-1), as well as an All-Star appearance for the ailing Chris Osgood. Through Feb. 2, Hebert (16-18-6; 2.75 GAA) ranks eighth in the National Hockey League in save percentage (.916), and is tied for fourth in shutouts (4).

Allaire simply worked on getting Hebert to challenge and square- up against shooters, a principle which seems automatic. However, when a goalie is beaten consistently over the course of a week and begins to slump, he begins to question his approach. The game then becomes more cerebral than physical, and a lapse soon evolves into a complete collapse. In the past, netminders had very few people to enlist should they need to discuss their predicament. In fact, only two former goaltenders are NHL head coaches today (Edmonton's Ron Low and Pittsburgh's Eddie Johnston). Often they were left to detect the cure themselves.

Another of Allaire's pupils, Pittsburgh Penguin newcomer Patrick Lalime, also is auspiciously displaying his methods. Lalime is performing to perfection the butterfly style that his idol, Roy, popularized. The St. Bonaventure, Que. native speaks to Allaire at least once a week, a conversation which is perhaps better medicine for the mind than the body.

It's implausible to think that Lalime has such a rock-solid psyche. His past would seem to foreshadow anything other than what he has accomplished this season, which is an acclaim to his train of thought. His attitude is that of a speeding subway, stopping only at the intended destination, rather than a derailed, battered locomotive.

Lalime's midget team cut the NHL's Rookie of the Month for both December and January, and his Canadian Tier II team skipped him in favor of female puckstopper Manon Rheaume. When the 1993 Entry Draft rolled around, 15 goalies preceded him. Last spring he and current backup Philippe DeRouville sat and watched as flash in the pan Blaine Lacher started for the Cleveland Lumberjacks in the International Hockey League playoffs. A further setback for Lalime figured to be Pittsburgh's drafting of Craig Hillier in the first round of this past summer's draft. This year he divided time in the Jacks crease with Mike Tamburro and Derek Wilkinson.

Who would have believed that Lalime would emerge as the Calder Trophy favorite, Pittsburgh's number one goaltender, and an NHL record holder? Perhaps nobody, excluding Allaire and Lalime.

Lalime has effectively translated Allaire's teachings into victories, going 16-2-2, including a record-breaking 16-game unbeaten streak (14-0-2) to initiate his career. It surpassed the previous mark shared by Ken Dryden (13-0-2) and Ross Brooks (12-0-3). The headstrong Lalime has demanded little consultation since making his debut Nov. 16 against the Rangers, only twice yielding more than three goals in a game. Wise in the sense that he recognizes his limitations, Lalime has promptly grasped how to position himself toward the shooter and is a valiant vacuum. He rarely allows a quality rebound opportunity, permitting the puck to hit him, then cover it up. Most deflections which do occur result in either the disc being tossed to the corners or out of play. The attribute is one which is nonexistent in the repertoires of most butterfly disciples, such as Montreal's Jocelyn Thibault.

The aforementioned rationale support the contention that Lalime is a true netminding star. This season's credentials, through Feb. 2, include top billing in save percentage (.935), goals-against (2.11) and winning percentage (.850). In addition, Lalime has blanked the opposition three times in 18 starts.

Not limited to North America, the concept of counselling has a global appeal. Russian goaltending icon Vladislav Tretiak has overseen the maturation process of Eddie Belfour since his appointment as a part-time Blackhawks coach in 1990. The first Russian-born hockey player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Tretiak, 44, has worked with Belfour since the two met while the newly-acquired San Jose Shark was a member of the Canadian Olympic team in 1988. He had spent time with "The Eagle" and backup Jeff Hackett during the preseason, three regular season homestands and the playoffs, although it is unknown whether Belfour's departure signals the conclusion of Tretiak in that capacity. For Chicago, anyway.

Under the first year of Tretiak's guidance, Belfour (43-19-8; 2.47 GAA) won the Calder Trophy (Most Outstanding Rookie), Vezina Trophy (Most Outstanding Goaltender), William M. Jennings Trophy (Lowest team GAA), and the NHL named him a first-team All-Star. Upon his arrival in San Jose, Belfour paid homage to his teacher by changing his number from his customary 30 to Tretiak's number 20.

The rest of the mentors: You'll notice a lot of unnoticeable names on the list below. As in baseball with hitting coaches, goaltending consultants aren't necessarily the superstars, but those who can accurately and distinctly describe the position to others. Dominik Hasek, for example, will never have a career such as this awaiting him after his retirement simply because he owns such an unorthodox style. He cannot possibly relay to others how he makes saves because he doesn't play a lucid style. On the other hand, veterans in the mold of Andy Moog, John Vanbiesbrouck or Mike Vernon could be exquisite experts in their field.

Boston: Cap Raeder

Calgary: Bill Hughes

Colorado: Jacques Cloutier

Detroit: Ken Holland

Florida: Billy Smith

Hartford: Steve Weekes

Los Angeles: Don Edwards

New Jersey: Jacques Caron

New York Rangers: Sam St. Laurent

Philadelphia: Reggie Lemelin

Phoenix: Pete Peeters

Pittsburgh: Gilles Meloche

San Jose: Wayne Thomas

Tampa Bay: Tony Esposito

Toronto: Rick Wamsley

Vancouver: Glen Hanlon

Washington: Shawn Simpson

LCS: Guide to Hockey

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