When it comes to the toughest positions to play in professional sports, goaltender in the NHL must rank near the top of the list. Imagine having to face down a 100-mph slap shot with the game on the line, or going post to post in order to deny a cross-crease pass and stuff attempt.
Or skating around the rink in full equipment in an attempt to win a skills competition against one of your goalie brethren.
That's exactly what happened Saturday during the Honda NHL SuperSkills competition at All-Star Weekend in Raleigh, N.C., as Cam Ward of the hometown Carolina Hurricanes and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins became the first masked men to participate in the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater competition.
Ward provided the cheering throngs at the RBC Center with exactly what they wanted to see by winning the heat in 18.895 seconds. Thomas provided a bit of comic relief as he wiped out while trying to make a cut behind the net, before recovering nicely to finish in 19 seconds.
"It's harder for the goalies and I've never seen it done before, but it was good," Thomas said. "Ward came right before the event and said to me, 'I just don't want to fall down,' and I was the one who fell."
Ward, who was picked first in the Fantasy Draft by All-Star captain and Hurricanes teammate Eric Staal, knew he had his work cut out and wanted to turn in a respectable performance in front of his home fans.
"I was trying to look up how Tim Thomas could skate," Ward said. "But knowing Tim and how competitive he is, you knew he was going to be going as hard as he could out there. But I didn't really put too much thought into it. I was just going to have a good time and try not to fall into the corner."
The wrinkle to the competition came at the last minute, as Ward and Thomas replaced a pair of traditional skaters, Patrick Sharp of Chicago and Keith Yandle of Phoenix.
"I think I was approached about a week ago to try something like this, but we didn't find out until [Saturday]," Thomas said. "I knew the corners would be an issue, but I didn't realize they would have the tires that make the corners round. I was just going to go around the net and do a tight turnaround and go on the straightaway. So I wasn't really prepared and never practiced that radius for a turn."
While Thomas falling down became an instant highlight for the blooper reels, it also underscored just how tough it is being an NHL goalie. The overall effort earned the respect of his teammates.
"[Thomas] was flying out there and he's a very competitive person," said Boston teammate Tyler Seguin, one of 12 rookies who made the trip to Raleigh for the SuperSkills. "When he fell, everyone chuckled, but he got up and almost finished with the win because he caught up. He finished with a smile on his face, so that's all that matters."
For our team, as a group, we've never been this far before, and so it's just more lessons learned, and sometimes you have to go to the school of hard knocks to find out what works and what doesn't. We've got a young group. They've played some unreal hockey here to get us this far, and we showed if we're not going to play the proper way, a really, really good hockey team is going to beat you, and that's what they did. It's a lesson learned.
— Lightning coach Jon Cooper after Rangers win in Game 6 forced a Game 7 that will be played at Madison Square Garden on Friday