Too short. Out of shape. Not talented enough. Not quick enough. Certainly not an athlete.
All of these words and phrases were once used to describe Blues goaltender Manny Legace. In fact, some of them still are.
“I still hear it,” Legace said recently with a laugh. “They’re going to talk about what they talk about.”
But one word people won’t use to describe the 34-year-old goaltender is shy. Win or lose, good times or bad, Legace is always open and honest when asked to share his thoughts. It’s a quality that has helped make him so endearing in five-plus seasons in Detroit and nearly another full one in St. Louis.
Legace’s aw-shucks personality may have been what helped guide him through four long seasons as a backup with the Red Wings. The 5-foot-9, 162-pound netminder, who always played well when called upon, could do nothing but watch from the bench as the Red Wings signed big-money, big-name goaltenders to patrol the crease in Motown. First, it was Dominik Hasek. Then Curtis Joseph.
For many players, waiting so long for an opportunity can be frustrating. And although it probably was for Legace, he maintained a positive attitude.
“I was just happy to be in the league, happy to be on a Cup contending team every single year,” Legace recalled. “I was just counting my lucky stars that I was in the NHL.”
But that’s just scratching the surface. Pry a little deeper and you’ll find a gold mine of truth.
“Sitting there, watching (Joseph) and (Hasek) for the last three years was getting kind of boring,” he says with a grin.
returning from injury: 113 kb
learning from Wamsley: 304 kb
playing in St. Louis: 117 kb
a goalies' impact: 132 kb
Legace's strong play: 161 kb
And maybe that’s why he was thrilled to finally get a chance to prove himself.
In 2005-06, Joseph left via free agency and Legace grabbed a firm hold on the starting job and never let go, posting career highs in games played (51), wins (37) and shutouts (7). Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff was the only goaltender besides Legace to finish in the top 10 in victories, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts.
Had Legace finally arrived?
“Yeah,” he says, but then pauses. “Until the summertime hit.”
Thanks to a first round elimination at the hands of the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in April 2006, Legace wasn’t offered a contract from Detroit and was left to explore the free agent market, where he sat for weeks before teams started calling. His 2.65 goals-against average in the postseason was hardly cause for alarm, but Legace shouldered the blame for Detroit’s early playoff exit and was forced to pack his bags.
“You have to live in Detroit (to understand),” Legace explained. “They (had) to do something for the fans, who (were) asking for a change. Goaltending is the obvious big change.”
He remained a free agent until Aug. 8, when he reached a one-year deal with the Blues. New ownership had recently settled in and former goalie and hockey analyst John Davidson had taken over as team president. For Legace, the dynamic in St. Louis was a perfect fit.
“[I] knew I was going to be walking into a good situation where they’re going to want to win, or at least try to win,” he said. “Seeing what they were doing with the team, who they were bringing in; they go and get (Bill) Guerin, get Doug [Weight] back, Dan Hinote and Jay McKee… you know they’re making the right strides.”
The Gateway City offered a unique opportunity for Legace to prove to critics that his 37-8 record was not a mirage. In St. Louis, Legace dove to the bottom of the standings to show that he deserved at least some credit for his stellar season in Detroit. Most naysayers give the credit to Detroit’s all-star defense corps.
|Legace celebrates a shutout victory over the Nashville Predators on Feb. 16. (AP Photo) |
But the Blues stumbled out of the gate, posting a disappointing 7-18-3 record in their first 28 games. Legace also struggled, going 5-10-1 before suffering a mild concussion in practice that sidelined him a week. His critics gave themselves a nice, big pat on the back.
“The whole team was in a slump,” Legace said. “It wasn’t a good feeling around here. You could see at the beginning of the year, it was tough for people to play. It showed on the ice.”
While injured, the Blues hired Andy Murray as their new head coach and once again, Legace had a fresh start.
“New coaches have come in and put in a great system that the guys are playing to a tee,” Legace said. “It was a whole new attitude when we came in. We realized everybody’s job was at risk. [There was] no security anymore. Guys just stepped up their level. It’s been unbelievable.”
Since returning from injury in mid-December, Legace is 18-5-4 with five shutouts, numbers he credits to Rick Wamsley, the Blues' goaltending coach.
“There was a time I was just so frustrated with my game and frustrated with everything that was going on around us. Just his hard work with me has made a world of difference,” Legace said.
“A world of difference,” he says again, this time for added emphasis. “I give him all the credit. He’s been a blessing.”
Legace also credits his teammates for the team’s recent success, but they are quick to deflect the credit right back.
“He’s been winning us a lot of hockey games,” defenseman Bryce Salvador said after a 2-0 win against Dallas in early February. “[He’s] keeping us in games and giving us a chance to win. Success starts right from the goal. He’s doing an outstanding job for us.”
“He’s been our best player, in my opinion, all year,” captain Dallas Drake said. “He’s a guy we rely on every single night. He gives us confidence, and when you play with confidence, you’re a different team.”
Since mid-December, Legace has proven he’s a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL, helping the Blues climb out of the NHL’s basement and back to respectability. It’s a feat that for now, has silenced his critics. No longer does Legace’s success solely belong to a perennial Cup contender like Detroit — he’s also helped improve a team that finished dead-last in the standings last season.
“It’s what I’ve been trying to do all my career,” Legace said. “Just trying to be consistent on a game-to-game basis and just keep the guys in the game, just give them an opportunity to win. That’s the whole goal of my whole career.”
Leading the Blues back to the playoffs and winning a Stanley Cup in St. Louis is another goal Legace is aiming to achieve. It's an enormous task, but it's a challenge this small goaltender has proven he's up for.