|Called "the smartest goalie in hockey" by Don Cherry, one of Marty Turco's best skills is his ability to play the puck.
In baseball, Marty Turco would be a rarity: a pitcher who can hit. He thus might skew the sequence of any contest, for players occupying that position are assumed to be automatic outs. Yet in a sport where the defense has the ball, pitchers frequently shape competitive balance without taking part in the offense.
Turco, of course, is the new goalkeeper of the Blackhawks, but his ability to provide another dimension to the world’s fastest game was never more apparent than Saturday night when he made his United Center debut before 20,553—a franchise record crowd for a home exhibition encounter. Turco logged 60 minutes in net for the defending Stanley Cup champions, recorded 23 saves in a 4-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings and generally looked as comfortable as he says he feels regarding his change of address after signing on as a free agent via Dallas.
Suffice it to say, Turco’s performance also should have imparted a certain peace of mind among fans who might be apprehensive about the Blackhawks’ chances to repeat, given the team’s significant summer roster overhaul induced by the National Hockey League’s unforgiving salary cap. After all, Antti Niemi is gone to San Jose. Besides, that’s what fans do: they worry and wonder.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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But what they witnessed early in the second period doubtless will become a point of interest during the winter. The Blackhawks were on a power play when Turco strayed well beyond his cage, toward the outer edge of the circle on his left. He fetched a loose puck and -- almost effortlessly -- lofted it in a diagonal dart toward Patrick Kane
, who was ready and waiting by the Red Wings’ blue line. Kane fed Fernando Pisani, who promptly dished it to Duncan Keith
, who drilled it past Chris Osgood for a 2-0 Blackhawks lead.
Long is the list of goalies, like pitchers unaware of which end of the bat to grip, who treat the puck as if it were a grenade once they have stopped it. Goalies occupy what is arguably the most important place in sports, but they are seldom asked to handle the puck because mishandling it invariably begets problems. Goalies have enough to do. They might love making a great save, but better they should then leave it for teammates who are paid to skate.
However, since arriving in the NHL, Turco has established a well-earned reputation for aiding and abetting the transition from defense to offense unlike any other goalie. That was no small component in General Manager Stan Bowman’s pursuit of the athletic veteran, because the Blackhawks are at their best when in an up-tempo mode. Similarly, if Turco had any concerns about whether his style would be welcome here, they were allayed by coach Joel Quenneville. He trusts Turco because Turco trusts himself.
“It’s something I like to do when the opportunity is there,” said Turco. “The Red Wings were changing on that play, but they had one guy out there to protect against a long pass. So there was a risk, like there usually is. I had to get the puck over him. I could have missed. I could have whiffed. There’s always that chance. But I have confidence in that part of my game. And as for Patrick, he’s a hockey player and he wants the puck. If I can get it to him quickly, why not? Guys like him are so good with it, and we have so many of those guys here.”
Turco was not credited with an assist on the arrangement, which is fine by him. Nor will statistics record the instances when his legerdemain not only ignites a fast-forward counter attack but spares one of his mobile defense partners the thrill of being pounded against the boards by an oncoming train. Turco forecasts that it would take some time for teammates to comprehend his ways, but judging by Kane’s immaculate reception Saturday night, early returns on the learning curve are encouraging. Turco’s long-distance missile had some steam on it.
“Playing against Dallas we were always concerned about how we dumped the puck in because of him,” said Brent Seabrook
. “Now having Marty on our side, it’s like having a third defenseman. It will help us get the puck up to our forwards so they can do their magic.”
Turco is delighted with the Blackhawks and Chicago. His wife, Kelly, is happy and so are the children. He’s sampled a few world-class golf courses in the area and will take in Monday night’s game at Soldier Field between the Bears and Green Bay Packers. Every once in a while, Turco’s idol, Tony Esposito, will be in the building. The Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame ambassador was a surprise guest at Turco’s introductory press conference August 31, and the next beer the two natives of Sault St. Marie, Ont., share while discussing their craft will not be the first.
“Everything I thought about this organization before I came here, it’s even better now that I am here,” Turco said. “I know I made the right decision and I hope they wind up feeling the same about me. I had other options when I left Dallas, but the way people talked about the Blackhawks, it’s all true. They’re first-class. I signed for only one year, but I hope I’m here for longer than that. I don’t intend to piggyback on the Cup victory because I had nothing to do with it.”
Behind closed doors, within the sanctity of the locker room, Turco observes and listens, too. He detects no complacency or satisfaction whatsoever among the defending champions and offers one reason why.
“No. 19 is really special,” said Turco. “The captain, Jonathan Toews
, commands respect around here. The way he plays, the way he carries himself. What is he, 22 years old? It’s uncanny. That’s how I would describe him: uncanny.