An old goaltender once told a story about how important it was that he drive to the rink past a certain donut shop where, he said, the smell would waft through his car window and make him feel like he had just put on another 10 pounds.
The simple lesson? Feel bigger and you'll stop more pucks.
This story took on a new meaning recently when I was interviewing Colorado Avalanche
goaltender Jose Theodore
and he was talking about trying to rediscover the style that once led him to a 30-win season and made him the league's Most Valuable Player in 2001-02 with the Montreal Canadiens
The 31-year-old netminder from Laval, Quebec, who grew up watching and learning the butterfly style that helped Patrick Roy
win four Stanley Cups in Montreal and Colorado, said he was in need of a goaltending tutorial a little more than a year ago.
At that point, Theodore had been traded from the Canadiens to the Avalanche and was just a backup to youngster Peter Budaj
as Budaj closed last season with a 15-2-2 record that nearly put the Avalanche in the playoffs.
However, on this night in mid-February when I was talking to Theodore in Chicago, there was an intensity, a focus, a fire in his eyes. Eyes so active they seemed to almost be jumping out of their sockets. For an instant, I felt like Theodore took me into his world behind the mask. He clearly was in a different world – one reserved for those crazy enough to let others shoot pucks at them at up to 100 mph.
Theodore was careful in evaluating his game, knowing too well that all goaltenders, whether it's the regular season or the playoffs, live in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world that is all about focus, intensity and confidence. But it was clear he was beginning to feel the magic he once had nearly every time he stepped into the goal crease.
"Last year, I was truly lost," he said. "It was around Christmas and I wasn't playing much, so I said to myself, 'I'm going back to the basics.' I honestly started approaching my job like I was a young kid starting over again.”
"Hey, even Tiger Woods needs help with his swing," Theodore continued. "Didn't he completely redo his swing – even after he won all of the majors? That's kind of how I looked at this. I didn't want to just play the game. I wanted to be better."
The irony comes in the fact that Theodore began to look at tape of himself when he was at his best in Montreal with Avs goaltending coach Jeff Hackett
– who had been the Canadiens' starting goalie until an injury sidelined him and he lost his job to Theodore. Now the two were working together to try to recapture some of the magic Theodore had flashed so often.
"A couple of years back I had a great season, so I knew I could do it again," Theodore said. "Sometimes when it gets bad ... it really snowballs. It goes quick. You lose your edge, your confidence. I wanted to make every save again."
Hackett remembers Theodore coming to him last January.
"He had hit rock bottom,” Hackett said. “Peter Budaj
had taken over as the No. 1 goalie. Jose wanted to show his critics that he could come back. He didn't want his career to finish that way. He rededicated himself to his craft ... in a big, big way."
Theodore and Hackett spent countless hours on the ice after practice. There were more hours in the tape room. Theodore reshaped his career one save at a time ... after practice, last summer and every day this season.
Hackett noticed one basic difference in Theodore's game: The 5-foot-11, 182-pound goaltender looked small, not big in goal like he once did. It started with his stance and his positioning. He no longer was bent at the knees to use his cat-quick reflexes and he was not playing at the top of his goal crease, challenging shooters. He was standing too upright and too deep in the crease.
"He wasn't the MVP in the NHL for nothing. He showed us all how much he wanted to regain his form. We were all behind him." - Avalanche center Ian Laperriere
"When Jeff and I would look at tapes, I would see too many shots going through me," Theodore said. "When we worked on the ice, I found myself turned sideways ... instead of facing shooters square, playing the angles and challenging each and every shot."
Theodore began to show signs of the old momentum-turning shot-stopper during a stretch in which he started 11 consecutive games in January. His play, which included a 1.94 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, kept Colorado in the playoff race despite the absences of Joe Sakic
, Ryan Smyth
and Paul Stastny
Theodore will lead the Avalanche into their first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild
starting Wednesday. That confidence is important to him – especially when you consider Theodore beat the Wild, 4-3 in a shootout, on the last day of the season to provide this Northwest Division head-to-head rivalry.
You can be sure the Avalanche netminder got into the heads of some of the Minnesota players in that finale as he stopped several point-blank scoring chances on a power play late in overtime and then turned aside both shootout opportunities against him.
Theodore started 20 of the Avalanche’s last 21 games and 26 of 28. He was 12-4-1 with a 2.24 GAA in his last 18 starts, and his 2.22 GAA since Jan. 1 was third in the NHL in that stretch.
"Jose is a proud guy," added center Ian Laperriere
. "He wasn't the MVP in the NHL for nothing. He showed us all how much he wanted to regain his form. We were all behind him."
"No one in this locker room ever lost confidence in Jose," Sakic said. "There were a lot of nights this season when Ryan, Paul and I were out of the lineup and he kept us in there."
|"When we worked on the ice, I found myself turned sideways ... instead of facing shooters square, playing the angles and challenging each and every shot." - Jose Theodore
Sakic remembers being at a restaurant in Chicago with a handful of teammates the night the Avs learned Theodore had been acquired. All of their cell phones began going off.
"We all knew what kind of goalie Jose Theodore
was and is,” said Sakic. “He can get into the heads of the other team. I'll never forget the reaction at our table that night. We knew he would show up for us every night."
Still, the wins only recently have begun to outnumber the losses this season – until March 24.
That night, Theodore and Jarome Iginla
met up time after time. It was kind of like a flashback to 2002, when Iginla scored 52 goals and 96 points but was outdistanced by Theodore for MVP. Four of the five shots Iginla had in the first period were great scoring opportunities, but Theodore flashed his glove or a quick left pad to make saves from in close. That night, Theodore stopped all 23 shots in a 2-0 playoff-saving performance against Calgary.
After that, Theodore seemed to make a difference almost every game.
"On the ice, there's a different aura you see with certain goaltenders when they're confident," said Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville
. "When Jose is confident, he's out at the top of his goal crease challenging every shooter, every shot. And he's the type of goalie who makes momentum-turning saves that just pick up the rest of the team."
The new/old Theodore has arrived at just the right time for the Avalanche.
Playing big is the most important thought in the mind of any goaltender. Theodore admitted the most important lesson he learned in Montreal was that he has the ability to make a difference in every game, to be a big part of the result.
That magic seems to be returning, even if he never thought about driving by a donut shop on his way to work to feel bigger.