Sports

Behind the Mask

The oddly familiar psychology of goalies

From the June 2014 magazine
Illustration by Marc Larivière

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS goaltender Doug Favell is feeling clumsy. He skates a slow lap at the visitors’ end of the rink, then watches from the bench as the Detroit Red Wings hit the ice for the pre-game warm-up. The red and white uniforms make a blurred circle, each player like one tooth in a saw blade, and the home crowd cheers the show of grace. Favell’s skates seem leaden, the leather pads cumbersome, the chest protector bulky. Minutes from now, when the Detroit forwards are wheeling at him single-mindedly, he’ll try not to think too much, try to follow the puck, try to be perfect. He turns for the crease.

It’s a frigid orgy of nostalgia on New Year’s Eve 2013, with the Wings and Leafs alumni playing a pair of outdoor afternoon games at Comerica Park (where the Detroit Tigers play baseball). Bundled-up fans sip spiked hot chocolate as grainy footage of Gordie Howe fills the scoreboard screen over left field. In the press box, a few Detroit reporters pay Favell no attention until after the national anthems, when he dons his vintage fibreglass mask with a blue leaf across the face.

“Who’s 33 for Toronto? ” one says.

Another consults the official roster: “Who’s Doug Favell? ”

“I remember Favell,” says the most white-haired of the three writers. He trains his binoculars on the sixty-eight-year-old goalie. “He’s a real character. He’ll give you quote.”

IN THE CANADIAN IMAGINATION, it has never been enough for goalies to just stop the puck. They must also be “characters.” They must vomit because of nerves, or (in the old days) smoke anxiously between periods. They must be philosophers, brooders, or driven in a way that makes them volatile. Goalies are supposed to be crazy, because who else would want the job?

Gilles Gratton, a.k.a. Gratoony the Loony, played goal briefly in the ’70s for the New York Rangers and the St. Louis Blues. According to one dog-eared anecdote, he believed in reincarnation and felt his fate as a goaltender was punishment for stoning people in biblical times. He wore a brightly painted tiger mask, replete with bared fangs, from behind which he hissed at opponents (so the story goes). He has said that his reputation is the product of “misinformation.” Having appeared in all of forty-seven NHL games, he is remembered only because he typifies an exaggeration.

The image of the enigmatic goalie is no lazier than most stereotypes, but since it’s a cliché we ought to open the lens a little. In Step by Step Hockey Goaltending, Jacques Plante’s handbook for young hopefuls, the Montreal Canadiens legend suggested that the goalie was worth 50 to 65 percent of the team. He was sticking some science onto a plain truth: the goalie is important; and while there are goalies in sports other than hockey, and hockey is vital in countries other than Canada, there is something singular about our identification with the position.

It is no accident that the entrance to Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame is a panoply of goalie masks. As the key figure in one of our central narratives, the goalie exhibits many of the household Canadian traits: eagerness to please, resilience, neuroticism. At the cocktail party of nations, Canada is the quiet guy on the periphery who looks worried about something. Is it possible that we identify with goalies because Canada is the goalie of the world?

If the metaphor feels precarious, it’s nevertheless true that the goalie, like Canada, is defined by a grab bag of seemingly correct ideas—but the goalie is more than a concept. He’s an individual leaning forward to lace up a pair of skates. He’s someone about to do a job, and it will go well—or not so well. Given all of the extra scrutiny he receives, it’s curious how little we credit the basic humanness of the person behind the mask. To put it another way, if the goalie is so Canadian why don’t we think of him (or her) as ordinary?

DOUG FAVELL was not a superstar in the NHL, but he had staying power, playing in nearly 400 games over twelve seasons. By phone from his home in St. Catharines, Ontario, he tries to calculate how long ago he retired. “It’s been forty years, or thirty-five…thirty-three? I’m not sure. Maybe that’s why I was a goalie.” He retired in 1979, but being a nincompoop is part of the fabrication he embraces—as in, you’d have to be stupid to get in the way of slapshots—and he goes further in describing the role as a kind of loser’s destiny: “I became a goalie because I couldn’t skate.”

He first played with the Philadelphia Flyers, and one night early in his stint bystanders were surprised to see him at the arena concessions getting some pizza; he had slept through the afternoon and needed a quick bite. Why is he stuffing his face so soon before the game ? While hardly outlandish, the incident gave him instant notoriety, and a nickname, the Philly Flake.

Thanks in part to his “cast iron stomach,” he won the game, and “the Philly Flake” became a term of endearment. “Had I lost, they would’ve said, ‘This guy’s crazy—get him outta here.’”

Veteran hockey writer and Flyers historian Jay Greenberg is puzzled that we have chosen Favell to represent normality. “Doug was a little eccentric,” he says. “He was very much a personality.” Then Greenberg shifts without pause from Favell’s essence to the way he operated on the ice: “He was more interesting than most goalies. He was a flopper.”

It’s a natural reflex: we don’t bother to separate individuals from what they do. In a classic social psychology study, subjects took part in a simulated game show, each randomly assigned to the role of contestant or questioner. Even though the questioners (or “hosts”) could make up their own questions, they were judged by observers as smarter than the contestants. We assume people have the traits that accompany their roles, a bias known as the fundamental attribution error. Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is not the genius his fans think he is. And goalies aren’t unusual; they’re just the only ones not trying to score, and they’re duty bound to remain at a distance. They stand out because they stand out.

Floppers are particularly noticeable. They slide and dive; they appear to be guessing; they end up flat on the ice, with swimming limbs. “He could make an ordinary save look fantastic,” says Joe “Thundermouth” Watson, one of Favell’s Philadelphia teammates. “And some saves were spectacular—but boy, he was all over hell’s half acre.”

While every goalie needs to be an acrobat now and again, floppers stray more than most from the fundamentals, and even the word “flop” leaves a derogatory aftertaste. It suggests failure: That Schwarzenegger comedy was a flop. Or, worse: The trout flopped ever more listlessly on the dock. Floppers are a dying breed in the over-managed modern game, because “unorthodox” means “unpredictable.” It makes for an ironic message to would-be goaltenders: Don’t be an original. Don’t stop the puck any differently than the last guy did (but do stop more of them, if you could).

The netminder can be anyone—what matters is that you have one—and this anonymity is what Canadian painter Ken Danby hoped to convey in his iconic 1972 portrait At the Crease. The goalie waits in a deep crouch, dark hair unkempt behind a white mask, Northland stick on the ice. Danby never identified his model, but when he died in 2007 reporters pursued the mystery anew. It was determined that a junior goalie named Dennis Kemp had posed for the artist at an arena in Guelph, Ontario. While this satisfies our desire to know, it doesn’t alter Danby’s achievement. The “who” in the famous image is irrelevant, just as the name of your house league goalie is irrelevant (at least while the game is under way). The task is the identity.

BEING WITHDRAWN is another illusory aspect of the goalie’s appearance. We see him on his own so often that we suppose he is possessed of solitude’s hang-ups: depression, inwardness, instability. Yet the evidence is mostly anecdotal, including Ken Dryden’s suggestion, in his 1983 memoir, The Game, that “a goalie is more introverted than his teammates, more serious…more sensitive and moody (‘ghoulies’), more insecure.”

In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior, researchers surveyed 578 active hockey players and found no significant differences between goalies, defencemen, and forwards on any of the “Big-Five” personality dimensions: extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience. However, players’ roles shape their perceptions of one another, the stereotypes corresponding not to real differences in personality but to the “division of labor”: forwards are seen as quarrelsome and careless, defenders as conscientious.

The study showed that while self-esteem does not differ by position, goalies have significantly lower levels of team identification. They never leave the ice. Every other player rotates through quick shifts, regularly returning to the bench to rest up and participate (the goalie assumes) in peppy or salient conversation. Smart sticks out there! Move your feet! They’re killing us in the neutral zone. The goalie waits by himself, his influence disproportionate to his minority status. Who would blame him for being a little prickly, mumbling to himself, looking crazy eyed sometimes?

Through a filter of illogic, his positional aloneness becomes something disturbed: loner-ness.

MAYBE WE CAN’T see past the goalie’s singular equipment. In his hulking getup, he could safely be mauled by a bear. The aura falls away when we spy him in plain clothes. Two summers ago, Favell met us at Don Cherry’s Sports Grill, outside St. Catharines, wearing loafers, shorts, and a tan Hawaiian shirt. He nursed a sea breeze while dismissing the lore. “I never thought of myself as different,” he said. “You can’t be a goalie if you’re anxiety ridden. Whatever the negative thoughts are, you gotta keep them way back.”

Most of us conceal our disquiet, or try to, the better to get on with our lives. In the goalie fraternity, Hall of Famer Glenn Hall is the famous barfer. As he has said, it was a coping mechanism. He wasn’t succumbing to fear, just managing it, and quite well: more notable than his three Vezina Trophies (then awarded for allowing the fewest goals in a season) is his streak of 502 consecutive regular-season games. However, the vomiting has entertainment value (even his teammates would snicker at the sound of him heaving between periods), and so it gets the same attention as his remarkable durability.

Favell considers Hall “an aberration,” in that the nervousness was not unusual, only how it was evident. “Most of the goalies I knew were strong guys, but it was like society—a mishmash,” he said. “The mental stuff can do you in.”

Favell was a journeyman, and he recognizes that his career distinctions are incidental. He was the only player selected in both expansion drafts, in 1967 and 1979, and he was the first goalie to wear a painted mask. Done up in solid orange for a game on Halloween night in 1971, the jack-o’-lantern visage heralded an era of mask art that cemented the goaltender mystique. Although he was central to a quickly improving team, a couple of years later he was traded to the Leafs for Bernie Parent, who would lead the Flyers to two consecutive Stanley Cup championships. In other words, Favell is the guy who wasn’t reliably phenomenal.

He was in net for the inaugural game at the Philadelphia Spectrum, and he attended the building’s twenty-fifth anniversary as a special guest. One autograph seeker was particularly candid: “He says to me, ‘Bernie was a lot better, but you were more fun to watch.’ He was trying to be complimentary!” Favell laughed, then shrugged. “He was right. I looked good, but when I was off, I was off.”

When a team is struggling, the goalie is the most likely point of change. To try and correct a game being badly lost, the coach will pull, or yank, the goalie (as though by meat hook). The idea is that the players will be motivated to turn things around. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the pulled goalie watches from the bench as his replacement gets scored on repeatedly in short succession. As required, then, the goalie can play scapegoat or sacrificial lamb. He is both easily replaceable, a random body; and the embodiment of his team’s current fate.

In his first year with the Leafs, Favell posted the lowest goals-against average among East Division goalies, earning him the faith of his new club and a spot on an O-Pee-Chee hockey card, next to the West leader, Bernie Parent. Favell doesn’t care one way or another that his place in hockey history involves a nearness to legend (although many Canadians would ask, Who’s Bernie Parent ?). He is pleased enough to be a former pro. “It’s about luck and circumstance,” he said. “Everybody lives their life—hippies, college profs. Hopefully, you were given a gift.” He makes occasional appearances on the sports memorabilia circuit; autograph fees allow him to stretch his winters in Florida, and meeting genuine fans doesn’t hurt the ego. “I’m always surprised to be remembered,” he said.

FAST-FOWARD TO Comerica Park, where a light snow has started to fall, as if by producer decree. Favell looks ungainly in the vintage equipment (most of it on loan from old-timers who still play recreationally), but if we zoom in on the form-fitting mask, and the pale blue eyes sunken there, we can see the poise and the survivalist caution. We see a prairie dog standing at its hollow, wary of predators in the winter field ahead—so breezily is the goalie romanticized. Zoom out again, and we see a man three years removed from open-heart surgery who is worried about getting bowled over in his borrowed gear.

Favell’s return to the thankless undertaking lasts all of eighty seconds. The first shot goes high and wide, and the play circles the rink. Detroit alumnus Jiri Fischer (who was born after Favell retired) gets the puck close in on the goalie’s blocker side. Favell stacks the pads earnestly and helplessly, then falls hard on his back as the goal is scored. He works himself to his feet and skates for the bench, asking to be replaced. “I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” he will say after the game.

NHL Network Online Gerry Meehan shoots, Gerry Meehan scores.

A GOALIE’S FALLIBILITY is obvious—he rarely stops them all—and his failures cruelly public. Perversely, he lives for the moment that might leave him victimized. He wants to stop every shot, and especially the difficult shot (he wants to be needed in times of crisis). It is not the sort of drama most of us crave, but all of us are defined by how we manage hardship. A goal is never a neutral event; it is a wash of negative emotions: dejection, anger, loathing. Getting scored on is akin to getting dumped, getting fired, getting rear ended.

Available for repeat viewing on the Internet is what Favell has called “the worst moment of my career.” To qualify for the 1972 playoffs, the Flyers needed to beat or tie the Buffalo Sabres on the last day of the regular season. With the game tied 2–2 and time waning, Buffalo’s Gerry Meehan comes down the left wing and from about thirty feet away fires a low slapshot just inside the post. Four seconds remain on the clock. As the other Sabres rush to swarm Meehan, Favell freezes in his kick-save pose, stuck fast to the moment when hope is lost.

One report said Favell “flubbed” the shot (and who more likely to make a flub than a flopper?), while a potted history on a Flyers fan blog describes Meehan’s volley as “a prayer.” The goaltender often stands in the crosshairs of such hyperbole. Meehan’s goal was dramatic because of timing and consequence, not because Favell let it in.

Goals are like airplane crashes, in that they typically have multiple causes. According to the “Swiss cheese model” of risk analysis, multiple defences must fail—and many holes must line up—for a catastrophe to happen. We can think of the puck as a problem trying to pass through consecutive holes. The goalie represents the last chance to prevent disaster, but how did the problem travel so far along in the first place? In the case of the Meehan goal, from whom did he steal the puck? Where was the shot-blocking defenceman? Or we can go back further: if the Flyers had, as a collective, won or tied any other game earlier in the season, Favell would not have been put in a position where he might blow it, alone.

In the end (a goal scored), it is always the goalie’s moment, regardless of the chain of events that led to it. How does one accept responsibility for some ambiguous group failure? Why should he have to own the moment? The goalie is a significant slice of cheese, but he is only one slice.

FORMER LEAFS’ DEFENCEMAN Brian Glennie describes the Toronto locker room of the mid-’70s as “a three-ring circus.” (The Leafs coach at the time, Red Kelly, once wielded a bullwhip behind the bench, in a theatrical attempt to motivate his mediocre club.) Favell was a rogue among rogues, and in the inner sanctum he was referred to as Foo-Foo—a nickname based on his spindly legs, which the guys considered as delicate as a ballerina’s. “He was not exactly a stud when you saw him in the shower,” Glennie says. “I don’t know how he moved the pads.”

Glennie, or “Blunt” (“The dictionary says ‘dull object,’” he says) was what is known as a “stay-at-home” defenceman. Such a player’s specialty is plowing enemy bodies out of the goalie’s sightline, or, when necessary, and with a goalie’s instinct, putting his own body in the way of shots. After Glennie’s jaw was shattered when he slid to block a low slapshot, Favell told him, “Just take the high ones. I’ll take the low ones.” As though countering that long-ago sarcasm, Glennie says, “He could do the flamingo.” It’s an insult—usually directed at a forward who raises a leg—that means preferring not to get hit by the puck.

The jokes fall away when Glennie is asked whether defencemen feel as culpable as goalies. “When you screw up, everyone knows that you know you screwed up. What are you gonna do? You’re harder on yourself than on anyone else.” As the phone call winds down, he turns eulogistic. “God bless Favvy,” he says. “He was a great guy. He gave it everything he had.”

NO DISRESPECT to Doug Favell, but we might have similarly plumbed the career of any ex-goalie. Each could recall miscues, improbable saves, and the tender mockery of teammates, and none would take umbrage at the worn assumptions. Surrendering to a mystique is the easiest part of the job. If goaltending is a remarkable occupation, it carries familiar demands. The goalie persists in the face of failure, and in the grip of a world where things are always a little bit out of control. “Hockey is a game of mistakes,” writes Jacques Plante, and while the analogy to life is obvious it could be narrowed further. No other player faces the same scattershot pressure. The goalie is essentially alone and hoping for the best when things get dicey. He falls down and gets back up, prepared to fall again. Aren’t we all goalies? Isn’t everyone an exception trying in some way to be exceptional?

The symbolism becomes bloated, but it’s excusable because this is Canada and we’re talking hockey. (Our national mania is more curious than any goalie.) Canadians may be particularly fascinated by goaltenders because we are historically more accustomed to the role of defender. Unconsciously, we favour the goalie because we don’t have the big guns, and maybe we don’t endorse the big guns. We like goalies because they are the eternal underdogs. Perhaps because we feel the game is ours, we need to maintain more intense archetypes. If goaltending is about being one of a kind, aiding your peers, knowing your territory—if it’s about standing on guard—then the goalie is Canadian, and maybe the goalie is you.

THE OUTDOOR GAME at Comerica Park ends with a volley of fireworks largely swallowed by daylight. Smoke trails dissipate above the brown vines of the dormant Chevrolet fountain at centre field. A hard breeze follows the Leafs alumni to the visitors’ dugout and the locker room beyond. After changing out of his gear, Favell steps into the corridor to offer a quote. Despite his dentures and some scarring around the mouth, he has the easy grin of a kid at the playground. “I know this is it for me,” he says. “The last hurrah.” He pauses, then disarms the sentiment. “I was saying to the guys, I need a tetanus shot, there was so much rust on the stuff.”

On a Detroit Tigers chair down the hall sits Jim McKenny, one of Favell’s defencemen with the Leafs. McKenny looks cold and pulled in. He wears a blue and white scarf cinched at the neck, and a blue and white toque pulled low to his eyeglasses. When asked about the stereotype, he says, “If you’re looking to have a good time, bring a goalie.” It’s not necessarily a tired line, but he seems tired saying it. As Favell joins the erratic flow of bodies headed for the stadium’s cigar lounge, McKenny remains on his chair, studying the rubber mats that line the floor. “They were no weirder than the rest of us,” he says.

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  • Challenge_the_Media

    After reading this fluff I have decided not to subscribe.

  • TorontoisRoy

    Excellent article. You are better off without the likes of people describing this as fluff.